BESE backs changes to ease Common Core transition

Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent John White Show caption
Advocate file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent John White

Common Core plan revised

Trying to defuse criticism, the state’s top school board Tuesday approved an array of changes that soften the impact of Louisiana’s move to the national academic standards called Common Core.

The new policies on letter grades for schools, promotion policies and teacher evaluations were endorsed on lopsided votes by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is dominated by allies of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

State Superintendent of Education John White, who is Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, said his proposed changes embody higher expectations for students and more time for parents, teachers and others to get used to them. “Everything here comes down to those two ideas,” White said.

The superintendent noted that officials of his department said last summer that “transition” policies would be rolled out at BESE’s December meeting.

However, the revisions are also a response to months of criticism of Common Core, including threats to make it a major issue during the 2014 legislative session, which begins on March 10.

Walter Lee, the longest-serving member of BESE, said the panel approved the national guidelines in 2010 with the public having little understanding of what they represent.

Linda Johnson, a former BESE member from Plaquemine, made the same point during public testimony. “There has been a total lack of communication with the general public on what the standards are,” she said.

The new expectations apply to reading, writing and math. They are being gradually added to classrooms and will take full effect for the 2014-15 school year.

The new changes approved by BESE will:

  • Require that public schools be graded on a curve in 2014 and 2015 to guard against major drops in letter grades.
  • Give fourth- and eighth-graders more leeway for moving on to the fifth and ninth grades even if they fail to meet required marks on key tests.
  • Impose a two-year moratorium on the use of controversial data during teacher evaluations.

Stephanie Desselle, who follows public schools issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, called the changes a “common sense pause” during the state’s move to tougher classroom standards. “This in no way represents a delay or pullback in Common Core,” she said.

Critics said White’s allowances for public schools fail to go far enough.

Carolyn Hill, a BESE member from Baton Rouge, proposed that the state quit issuing letter grades to public schools for two years and instead label schools T for transition, and issue school performance scores only.

Hill said doing that would allow time to establish baselines as schools and students adjust to the new standards.

Lottie Beebe, who lives in Breaux Bridge, agreed. “Why do we need a letter grade?” she asked.

Officials of several education groups backed the grade freeze, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana School Boards Association and the Louisiana Association of Educators.

Others disagreed.

Connie Bradford, a BESE member from Ruston, said a two-year freeze on grades would “cause us to stand still, to go backwards.”

BESE Vice President Jim Garvey, a Metairie lawyer, said schools in his district have worked hard to earn A’s and B’s and should not have to settle for a T.

The idea of a grade freeze failed 2-9, with only Hill and Beebe voting for it.

Beebe also failed in her bid to delay national assessments for students in grades 3-8, which are set to start in 2015.

What exams high school students will take is unclear.

The package approved on Tuesday also allows tested students in grades 3 and 4 to use pencils and paper, not computers, on the Common Core test.

Students in grades 5-8 can get one-year computer waivers if schools can demonstrate a shortage.