Louisiana educators, students face reckoning with new standardized tests

Louisiana students and educators face a reckoning this coming school year.

The state’s standardized exams are getting harder, to fall in line with new federal standards known as the Common Core — much harder, by all accounts.

But the elaborate mechanisms by which the state holds teachers, schools and students accountable will remain the same unless state officials shift course.

Without policy changes, more students could be held back a grade and more schools could be labeled as “failing,” with the attendant possibility of a state takeover. Teachers could find that their methods fall flat once tests shift away from rote memorization to zero in on whether students understand underlying concepts.

Even advocates for the new standards argue that at least temporary policy changes may be necessary to provide a less-jarring glide path, especially after scores in Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core, dropped by a third last year.

“Transitions are painful,” said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “When the American Heart Association decided that healthy cholesterol standards would go from 200 to 150, that doesn’t mean that people will overnight reduce their cholesterol from 200 to 150. It means there’s a new standard to work toward and over time, you hope most people can meet that more rigorous standard.”

Policy makers in Louisiana still have time to make changes in the state’s accountability system that would ease the transition, but the issue has gained urgency with the latest round of testing. Louisiana shifted just a few essay-writing prompts on this year’s English test toward the new Common Core standards and saw scores in that area drop 10 percent.

Next year, every question will get tougher, and in 2015, the new tests will be up to the full Common Core standards rolling out in 46 states.

Louisiana’s top schools official, Superintendent John White, braced the state board of education this week for potential policy changes that the board would have to approve over the next year, signaling what could be a milestone in the evolution of Louisiana’s accountability standards for schools.

“These are very large, sweeping policies that impact tens of thousands of kids on a yearly basis,” White said, and with tests getting harder, “it merits taking a look at them.”

Most significantly, the state may have to drop some consequences attached to high-stakes testing. Louisiana students have to earn a certain score on the state’s LEAP exams to move on from the fourth and eighth grades. They also must pass the graduation exit exam — end-of-course exams, more recently — to earn a high school diploma.

Back in the 1990s, the idea of high-stakes testing sparked fierce debate in Louisiana, occupying the same contentious ground that charter schools and teacher evaluations do today. Detractors argued that it would stigmatize children; supporters argued that too many Louisiana schools were simply passing students along without educating them. Since then, the issue has faded into the background, a source of perennial anxiety for parents and students, but little debate among policy makers.

Now, White has signaled that he is prepared to raise the issue again and perhaps reverse course after more than a decade of high-stakes tests. “I think it’s a good thing that we have an opportunity to go back and ask if this policy is serving us well,” he said.

The formula by which Louisiana grades its schools may also get another look. Under White, for instance, the state has decided to stop giving schools credit for students who score “approaching basic” on annual exams, with basic meaning more or less at grade level. That may have to change unless the state is willing to label many more schools “failing.”

In Louisiana, student test results form the bulk of a school’s performance score, and by extension its letter grade. Schools earning below a certain score are labeled F and any school that remains in failing territory for long enough can be stripped from its local district and taken over by the state’s Recovery School District, a controversial turnaround agency that already governs most schools in New Orleans.

Last year, 157 schools in Louisiana earned an F and more than 300 earned a D. Many schools have been just barely keeping their heads above water, with the state lifting the failing bar several times now in the past few years.

In New Orleans, most schools operate as independent charters, which need to keep their scores above the failing mark to continue operating at all. When schools have missed that mark in the past, the results have been wrenching; teachers have to find new jobs and students need to find new schools.

“I think it’s a good thing, the Common Core, it raises the rigor of what we’re expecting of ourselves and our students,” said Jay Altman, the head of a local charter network called FirstLine Schools, which has been putting extra time and money into training for its teachers and principals over the past year.

“That said, it’s going to be a transition,” Altman said, adding, “We’re going to take a hit like everyone else.”

The implications for individual teachers are more complex, and may warrant less direct intervention by state policy makers. Already, most decisions regarding a teacher’s ranking on new teacher evaluations are in the hands of local principals, who will be able to make adjustments based on the new exams as needed.

As is, a small portion of the state’s teachers do get what’s known as value-added data incorporated into their evaluations. That means instructors who teach in subjects that have standardized exams are judged in part on how quickly they move students along from one year to the next, with the bottom-raking 10 percent of teachers earning an automatic “ineffective rating” and potentially losing their jobs. Since the exams will be changing markedly next year, that comparison may be apples-to-oranges.

But White has already signaled that he wants to do away with the requirement that teachers in the bottom 10 percent be rated ineffective, a change that would ultimately leave the decision with principals in every case.