BESE takes up student transfers to improve school scores

A committee of Louisiana’s top school board Tuesday voted to study changes in how public schools are graded amid complaints that East Baton Rouge Parish school officials are transferring students to boost school scores.

The issue already has sparked heated exchanges between state Superintendent of Education John White, who has criticized the transfers, and East Baton Rouge Parish school district Bernard Taylor, who defends them.

On Tuesday the spat triggered equally pointed disputes among members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Chas Roemer, president of the board, said it would be worthwhile for the state to consider changing the way schools are graded so that local officials are not tempted to “game” the system.

“There is a lot of work to be done here,” said Roemer, of Baton Rouge.

But BESE member Carolyn Hill, who also lives in Baton Rouge, sided with Taylor and said the district is within its rights to act in a bid to improve school performance. “I would encourage all districts to look at the model,” Hill said, a reference to transfers launched in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

A panel of BESE — the Academic Goals and Instructional Improvement Committee — voted to direct the state Department of Education to weigh the pros and cons of changing how schools are graded.

Under current rules, schools are given scores based on the aggregate academic achievement of students.

Under a possible change, grades would be based in part on improvements shown by students from the previous year and partly on how they fared on key tests and other issues.

Assigning grades on yearly progress, backers said, would discourage the transfer of students from average schools to failing schools in danger of state takeovers.

White said that, in Arizona, schools receive a single letter grade, with half based on student growth and half on composite scores.

He said in Colorado schools get performance labels based on academic performance, academic growth and other issues.

White said something similar in Louisiana would “take away the incentive to move kids.”

Earlier this year the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board approved the movement of about 100 gifted and talented students this fall from Glen Oaks Park Elementary, which is rated C, to Merrydale Elementary, which is rated F.

White said published comments by some local school board members led him to believe the array of transfers were aimed at avoiding state takeovers of failing schools.

Roemer said the issue merits scrutiny.

“Are we going to reward actual growth or are we going to reward how we group kids?” Roemer asked.

But Lottie Beebe, who lives in Breaux Bridge, said the transfers make sense as a way to keep schools going. “Survival. Think outside the box,” Beebe said.

She said the transfers are also beneficial by trying to avoid schools being placed in the state-run Recovery School District.

“Is it about the RSD? Come on, put it on the table,” Beebe said in comments directed at White.

While the issue sparked comments from a few citizens, others left before the committee, which was supposed to begin at 1:30 p.m., took up the transfer debate after 5 p.m.

Barbara Freiberg, a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said she was president of the board when a wide range of schools were undergoing changes, and that White was kept informed.

Freiberg said she thought state and local officials were in agreement. “Obviously we were not,” Freiberg said.

White said Tuesday’s discussion stemmed from a directive by the Legislature after the transfers in East Baton Rouge Parish sparked discussions in the Senate Education Committee, and a bill that was later withdrawn.