Louisiana ranks high in educational standards, low in student performance

Earlier this month, a national report gave Louisiana an F for student achievement, better marks in other areas and an overall rating of 15th in the nation.

Contradictory?

Not so, current and former school leaders said.

Generally speaking, public school students in Louisiana rank near the bottom in reports on classroom performance and have held that spot for years.

The F rating, which came from Education Week magazine, was the third such grade in a row.

Other national studies have given the state similar ratings in the past.

But the state often wins high marks for accountability and other tools used to measure what students know and teacher quality.

The same report that gave the state failing marks for student achievement — arguably the most important — also gave Louisiana an A for education standards, assessments and accountability.

The review also gave Louisiana an A for aligning early childhood education with training for college and careers.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White seized on the good marks and ignored the F for student achievement in a prepared news release at the time.

It all appears confusing to parents and other taxpayers wondering about the state of public schools amid the current push to improve public schools, which began in 1999.

Yet current and former education leaders say the Education Week report and others point to the fact that Louisiana generally gets low marks for classroom performance and often receives high marks for policies designed to improve public education.

“We are still a very low-performing state,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former member of Louisiana’s top school board and one of the architects of the state’s accountability system.

The percentage of children in poverty — roughly two-thirds of the state’s 712,000 public school students qualify for free and reduced lunches — is a key factor in achievement rankings, Jacobs and others noted.

“It shouldn’t be that way but it means we have a steeper hill to climb,” she said.

That said, Jacobs added, gains in the public high school graduation rate and other areas show some of the state’s relatively new public school policies are showing dividends.

The rate was 71.4 percent in 2011, up from 67.2 percent the year before in a category that often measures gains and losses in tenths of a point.

“That is an example of the policy that is actually having an impact,” Jacobs said.

The Education Week report issued Jan. 10 is hardly the first such study that led to confusion over the quality of public schools.

Two years ago results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — dubbed the nation’s report card — said public school students here scored lower in science than students in most other states.

In August 2011, the same group said math and reading standards in Louisiana are below those set by NAEP and that gains on state tests were not reflected with similar improvements on the national test.

But in January, a group called StudentsFirst, in a report trumpeted by state officials, said the state has the best “policy environments” in the nation for improving public schools, including an A in efforts to improve the teaching profession.

The study did not rate student achievement or school quality.

In an interview, White said that when Louisiana students are compared in aggregate with those nationwide “our kids’ performance is relatively low.

“However, the reports indicate that we are putting policies in place that are going to change that and we are already seeing indications of good, positive change.”

White said the state’s improved high school graduation rate, fewer dropouts and better ACT results — a test of college readiness — are all positive signs.

Laura Lindsay, dean of the LSU College of Human Sciences and Education, said school watchers need to pay close attention to details of any report on public schools.

“You have to look carefully at what is the organization doing it, who is funding it, what is their intent and what process have they followed to get their results,” Lindsay said.

She said the group that ranked Louisiana tops in the nation for its rules to improve public education is headed by former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a critic of the education establishment.

Earlier this month, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave the state a C for how teachers are prepared, and criticized what it called lax admission rules to enter teacher training programs.

Lindsay said the review failed to note that students have to clear a relatively high academic hurdle before they can be admitted to LSU and other requirements before they can enter the education college.

“We are pretty selective compared to other universities,” she said.

Kate Walsh, president of the NCTQ, said she understands the frustration of public servants, and how baffling it can be for taxpayers who hear about so many education reports.

“The more people that do it the more confusing it becomes,” Walsh said.