Drop in grades for La. high schools sparks dispute

Local and state school leaders disagree on whether changes in Louisiana’s rating system caused a dip in some high school letter grades.

Superintendents of the highly rated Central and West Feliciana Parish schools, among others, say making ACT results a key part of the formula helped cause annual school performance grades to drop.

The state should have allowed districts more time to prepare students for the ACT in light of the test’s bigger role in the ratings, said Hollis Milton, superintendent of the sixth-rated West Feliciana Parish school system.

State Superintendent of Education John White and Leslie Jacobs, who helped create the state’s school accountability system, disagreed.

“To complain about a rigorous system and to point to the ACT ignores the facts of the situation,” White said. “The ACT had very little to do with scores this year.”

The dispute stems from an overhaul of the way Louisiana’s roughly 400 public high schools are assigned letter grades.

Under the system used last year, test results accounted for 70 percent of the grade and the school’s graduation rate the other 30 percent. Under the new system, ACT results, a test of college readiness, account for 25 percent of the grade.

End-of-course tests, graduation rates and the quality of the diplomas each account for 25 percent of the score.

Last year 53 percent of high schools were rated A and B.

This time 42 percent earned the top two marks.

The West Feliciana Parish school system is rated A, one of nine with that grade in Louisiana.

Central also is an A district and ranked eighth.

The ACT component, and the new rule that students have to take the test, played a key role in Central High School dropping from an A to a B, according to Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central Community Schools system.

ACT results range from 0 to 36. Students have to achieve at least an 18 to earn points for the school.

A score of 18 is in the 34th percentile, which means students who get that mark did better than 34 percent of others taking the test.

“You had seniors who had not taken the ACT,” Faulk said. “If they didn’t score an 18, they got a zero.”

Milton said that, although he was proud of his district’s efforts, the state should have allowed more time before ACT results became a big part of the high school ratings.

West Feliciana High School dropped from an A to a B. The composite ACT score was 20.5.

Milton said that, despite the drop, he was pleased with the results since the new rules required even noncollege-bound students to take the test.

“I am all smiles about our scores,” he said.

But White and Jacobs, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the criticism is off the mark.

They said last year’s high school scores, which rose so sharpl they sparked suspicions, did so because the previous rating formula needed more rigor.

Jacobs said last year’s results, which covered the 2011-12 school year, awarded high schools too many points for modest graduation rates and end-of-course results.

High school scores, which has long been the weak link in Louisiana’s bid to improve public education, suddenly fueled the state’s biggest gain ever. “All of a sudden, high schools are outperforming K-8,” Jacobs said.

Rather than complaining, she said, superintendents should be thankful their results did not drop more, especially since some high schools are rated B with composite ACT scores of 17 or 18. “I am disappointed they did not go down more because they are still inflated,” Jacobs said.

West Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent David Corona said ACT results helped drive down scores at Brusly High School, which fell from an A to a C, and Port Allen High School, which went from a C to a D.

Corona’s district is rated B.

Until taking the ACT becomes the norm for all students, Corona said, “We will have a setback.”

White said the state’s high school rating system needed more rigor, in part because only 23 percent of students score well enough on the ACT to suggest they will be successful in college.

“To say otherwise is really unfair and self serving,” White said.