“These school letter grades won’t and will never tell us what we need to know about our schools. “He who controls the formula controls the fate of our public schools.” Steve Monaghan, head of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers
The number of schools statewide that Louisiana education officials consider “failing” continued to drop this year, according to figures released Thursday, with a major shift in how the state tabulates school performance scores helping to boost the standing of many schools in the New Orleans metro area.
State officials said 28 percent of public schools in Louisiana were rated D or F, down from 36 percent last year.
In Orleans and Jefferson parishes, where school officials have led far-reaching and controversial efforts to lift test scores in recent years, the drop in the number of F-rated schools was dramatic.
In the Recovery School District, the state agency that took over most New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, just nine schools remain in the failing column, compared with more than 30 that the state reported last year. And four of the failing schools are alternative high schools, meaning they focus on students who have been expelled from other schools or have other major challenges.
In Jefferson, the number of failing schools dropped from 11 to just four.
Both districts would have seen big improvements whether or not the formula for grading schools changed.
BBut both did clearly benefit from a new rating system drawn up by Louisiana’s top education official, Superintendent John White, that gives more credit for schools that can make significant gains with students who arrive behind in a particular grade.
For instance, of the 14 schools in the RSD whose performance score puts them in the D range, six would have earned an F under the old scoring system, so the district would have had 15 failing schools instead of nine — though still down by more than half.
Of the nine schools that earned a B this year, five would have gotten a C in the old system.
Only in rare cases did the new formula actually hurt schools in the RSD. One D-rated school would have earned a C under the old rubric, and only one B-rated school would have earned an A.
Officials in Jefferson noted that the parish now has 32 schools rated A or B, while under the old grading formula it would have had 27.
White argued, nevertheless, that schools deserve their new scores, and that the new system is a fairer way of measuring progress.
When letter grades debuted in Louisiana in 2011, many school leaders in New Orleans and elsewhere complained they were being penalized for taking on the challenge of high-poverty classrooms, since the formula gave no credit for how quickly students were improving on exams, only for absolute scores.
The new regime offers bonus points for schools that can take students who start the year far behind and make more-than-expected progress.
“I do think it is fair to say that schools with high levels of impoverished students that do well in making significant gains with those students are rewarded more than previously for making those gains,” White said.
On the other hand, the new formula took a bit of shine off some high school scores, probably because ACT results counted for the first time.
In St. Tammany, for instance, Slidell High School earned a B, but it would have earned an A under the old formula. Covington High School got a C instead of a B.
For critics of the state’s school improvement efforts, the moving target that schools have been made to hit only validates claims they’ve been making for years that the way Louisiana hands out performance scores and letter grades is broken.
“These school letter grades won’t and will never tell us what we need to know about our schools,” said Steve Monaghan, head of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, in a written statement that suggested White had essentially moved the goalposts to make his own reform efforts look better.
“He who controls the formula controls the fate of our public schools,” Monaghan said.
Still, broadly speaking, the latest figures show most local school districts continuing to make the same steady progress in lifting scores that they have for the past few years, despite the change in formula.
The overall district performance score for the RSD hit 71.9 on the new 150-point scale, lifting the district’s letter grade to a C from a D.
The Orleans Parish School Board, which kept the city’s higher-performing schools after Katrina, earned an A, just as it did last year.
St. Tammany kept an A as well, while St. Charles and St. Bernard both earned an A after getting B’s the year before. Jefferson Parish improved to a B from a C, while St. John the Baptist Parish earned a C, as it did last year.
Plaquemines was the only area school system to see a decline, sliding to a B from an A, though it would have seen the drop whether the grading formula changed or not.
“Certainly we are very pleased,” said Cheryl Arabie, an assistant superintendent in St. Tammany, “We see our trend line moving up.”
In St. John, officials noted that the district’s performance score improved despite Hurricane Isaac, which forced the parish to close two campuses. Going by last year’s grading formula, the district’s score rose to 97.2 from 94.4 on a 200-point scale.
“The schools that make up the St. John the Baptist Parish Public School System demonstrated great effort, progress and resilience,” Superintendent Kevin George said in a statement.
Officials in Jefferson said the district’s new B rating was proof of real improvement, even if the parish would still have had a C under the old rating system.
“I do feel our gains are definitely real, whether we’re looking at the old scale or the new scale,” said Chief Academic Officer Michelle Blouin-Williams.
Staff writers Faimon Roberts and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.