Federal education overhaul may have big impact in Louisiana

Predictions that the GOP-controlled Congress will overhaul a landmark federal education law this year could foreshadow either problems or relief for public schools in Louisiana.

One of the key issues is whether Congress will drop the requirement that students in grades three to eight undergo annual testing in math and reading, state Superintendent of Education John White said.

“If they don’t keep the obligation to annually measure how well the schools and kids are doing, they will send a message of chaos and confusion,” White said.

That is one of the top questions, national reports say, as federal officials prepare for what could be a watershed debate on a 2001 law called No Child Left Behind.

The law, which passed with bipartisan support under former President George W. Bush, paved the way for sweeping education changes in Louisiana and elsewhere.

It helped spawn an annual test called iLEAP for about 250,000 public school students, required sanctions for schools where minority or other students failed to meet state standards and forced thousands of teachers back to school to gain federal “highly effective” status.

But according to the Thomas Fordham Institute, Politico and other publications, much of the law is potentially on the chopping block, including annual reports on school progress, required sanctions for troubled schools and how top-flight teachers are assigned to classrooms.

Whether students in grades three to eight will still be required to take annual exams in math and reading is up in the air, the Fordham review said.

Louisiana Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and other state lawmakers met in December with the staff of U.S. Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and came away convinced that major changes are on the way in 2015, if an accord is reached with the Obama administration.

“It is going to be very positive,” Appel said of the potential overhaul.

Among other pluses, he said, is that a reduced role for the federal government in education issues would strip away fears of some sort of federal takeover of local schools.

However, Appel said doing away with federally required annual tests would be a mistake.

“It would mess up our accountability system,” he said. “Plus, I believe that the assessments are a tool for teachers and principals and systems to use to guide them, to know what kids are learning and not learning.”

Louisiana has about 718,000 public school students.

Depending on their grade levels, they face yearly exams on math and reading skills, end-of-course exams and, starting this year, tests to measure the new academic standards called Common Core.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, disagrees with White and Appel.

Richard said the high number of tests given now is a good argument for Congress to scale back mandates for annual exams.

The current rules mean science, social studies and other areas are often slighted, he said.

In some cases, students suffer from test fatigue before they even take the national math and reading tests called NAEP, Richard said.

“The school boards in general would be very interested in seeing a shift away from the annual test, the mandated test,” he said.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she favors giving students key tests once each in elementary, middle and high school, rather than annually.

“The yearly testing eats into time teachers need to teach,” Meaux said.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said in an email response to questions that ending or curbing “test obsession” and making exams more focused would be a positive step in any overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

The law has triggered controversy for years.

Backers cite gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores and a narrowing of the “achievement gap” between white and black students since the measure took effect.

Critics contend the law was never properly funded and that parts were unrealistic, including the goal of making all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.

However, annual political gridlock in Congress has blocked efforts to revamp the law.

White said that if what he calls meddlesome aspects of the law are nullified, public schools in Louisiana would gain.

For instance, states that qualify for school improvement grants now have to follow one of four federal turnaround plans. “That kind of prescription needs to go,” he said.

How districts assign top-flight teachers also includes a federal voice.

“That needs to go,” White said.

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

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