Evaluation of students gets muddy after Jindal’s order

Advocate staff file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Former official says dropping Common Core could cost La.

With public schools opening in less than two months, what tests students will take and whether they will be linked to Common Core is anyone’s guess.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s announcement that he is ordering the state to drop the Common Core exam plans four years in the making has cast a huge shadow over the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the state’s top school board, said Jindal’s action has raised the possibility of the state losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid if the state is unable to come up with new, nationally linked exams that meet federal standards.

Other possibilities, she said, are court fights over test issues or a bid by top state educators to get around the governor’s orders.

Jacobs said the key issue is this: “Are we going to have a test this spring and what is it going to look like?”

Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol said her district, one of the top-rated in the state, plans to push ahead with tougher standards planned long before Common Core.

However, Pujol said she has no answers for parents who ask what kind of standardized exams their children can expect. “I tell them I don’t know at this point,” she said.

Pujol, whose district starts classes on Aug. 6, noted that state Superintendent of Education John White insists that students will be taking tests developed by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, as has been planned since 2010.

Jindal says that will not happen.

“I can’t even begin to guess how the political battle will end,” Pujol said.

Jindal on Wednesday announced a variety of steps aimed at getting the state out of Common Core, which represents national academic standards in reading, writing and math.

However, the governor’s move to derail Common Core test plans is considered the most significant, especially because classes will soon resume for about 700,000 public school students statewide.

Jindal, a former Common Core backer, issued an executive order directing the state Department of Education to open a competitive bidding process that allows the state to buy new assessments.

The order also bans the agency from spending funds on interstate agreements, such as PARCC.

Jindal says the bids can be sought and selected, and tests developed in time for exams scheduled for March, which critics dispute.

“I think this is an important enough decision to slow down and get it right,” Jindal said.

White contends his agency followed state bid laws, a contract is in place to ensure the needed tests and state law requires students to take exams linked to nationally recognized standards, which PARCC offers.

“This is a state statute,” White said. “That is an extremely important part of this.”

In addition, the Jindal administration has suspended approval of the contract White planned to use, which has sparked still more controversy.

In the meantime, students, teachers and parents are asking what, if any, exams they can expect and whether Common Core will be part of the state’s education landscape.

Lisa Smith, whose daughter, Avia, 9, and son, Alijah, 6, attend public schools in Baton Rouge, said she wants to know what kind of tests are in store for the upcoming school year.

Smith said her daughter, who is entering fourth grade, already stresses out about doing well on school assessments. “If they have different tests coming up and they don’t understand it, how are they going to make the grade to go to the next level?” she asked.

Jindal says the PARCC tests are part of the one-size-fits-all problem.

White says the exams pose just the kind of critical-thinking skills questions that students need to prepare for college and careers.

Jacobs and others said that, despite Jindal’s announcement that he wants the state out of Common Core, the new academic goals are here to stay, either officially or unofficially.

“The standards are really apple pie and motherhood,” said Jacobs, one of the architects of Louisiana’s public school accountability system.

She noted that, despite Jindal’s request, he cannot force the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or the Legislature to adopt new academic goals.

State lawmakers killed a wide range of bills during the 2014 session to scrap the standards, let state officials write new ones and shelve the test plans.

Jacobs said that, under one scenario, a standoff between the Jindal administration, the state Department of Education and the state’s top school board would block the administration of any standardized tests.

That would put the state at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for failing to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, she said.

Rayne Martin, a former top official of the state Department of Education, noted that the tests are linked to teacher evaluations and a wide range of other issues, and that suspending the exams raises huge questions.

“Essentially you have undercut the entire accountability system,” Martin said.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs and a longtime critic of Common Core, downplayed the concerns.

Pope, who is former superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system, said the state can use the LEAP and iLEAP tests for another year.

“I think there is always a way to measure those kids,” Pope said. “We have always done it.”

The Council for a Better Louisiana, which backs Common Core and the state’s test plans, said Jindal’s order to drop the PARCC tests undoes massive planning.

“That’s the same test Louisiana teachers have been preparing for, for four years,” the group said in a two-page report. “The same test that 50,000 students in Louisiana practiced taking this spring. And the same test that costs less than our old LEAP test.”

Jindal said the state can find other test firms that allow for more Louisiana input than PARCC.

“We have taken these actions because we need Louisiana standards and Louisiana tests for Louisiana students, not federal standards where we lose local control over what our kids are learning,” he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.