LEAP scores upbeat for N.O. metro area

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s top education officials released relatively upbeat standardized test results for public elementary and middle schools across the New Orleans metro area on Wednesday, but added a strong note of warning about test questions aligned with new federal standards and took the first steps toward dropping underperforming private schools from the state’s voucher program.

As in recent years, the number of students reaching what the state considers “grade level” achievement or better continued to edge higher at public schools in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The state’s Recovery School District, a turnaround agency that took over the worst performing public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, saw the biggest jump, climbing six percentage points and giving state officials more ammunition to argue that the district’s move toward independent charter schools is working.

Overall, the number of students hitting basic in Louisiana rose one point to 69 percent.

But State Superintendent John White said students appeared to struggle with new English questions aligned with so-called “common core” standards, a new testing regime that 25 different states have begun to adopt across the U.S.

Only the essay writing prompts on the English portion of this year’s exams were common-core aligned, and White said the number of students achieving a grade level score on them dropped by 10 percent. That’s an especially worrying trend considering that all of the English and math questions on next year’s tests will be common core questions. High-stakes teacher evaluations ride in part on test scores, and Louisiana students in the fourth and the eighth grades must pass the tests in order to pass on to the next grade, although the state could always choose to readjust what bar students must clear.

White said he is confident that the state’s efforts to prepare educators for the jump will pay off, but cautioned, “The challenges ahead are significant and we had evidence of that on this year’s test. On questions that were placed to align with new standards that the state will face in the next few years, our students struggled.”

The state’s voucher program, which provides tuition for low-income families to send their children to approved private schools, saw no tangible progress in lifting test scores, although White pointed out that the number of new students in the program quadrupled from last year to 61 percent, meaning that a majority of students were making the transition to a new school.

Still, the number of students reaching basic or above in the program dipped to just above 40 percent from 41 percent, and White said that seven of the participating private schools will not be allowed to accept new students next year. They are Life of Christ Academy, Holy Rosary Academy, Bishop McManus School, The Upperroom Bible Church Academy and Conquering Word Christian Academy Eastbank in New Orleans; and Conquering Word Christian Academy and Faith Christian Academy in Jefferson.

White said the state and the New Orleans Archdiocese will work to find other slots for the roughly 140 students who had been promised a spot at those schools, but students who had already been enrolled this year will have the option to remain.

The news on vouchers, championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal during last year’s legislative session, may give both sides of the debate on the program room to argue. On the one hand, test scores in the program remain well below the state average, but White’s decision not to send new students to the worst performing schools may build confidence in his pledge to hold participating schools accountable.

In New Orleans, ground zero for the state’s controversial reform efforts, test scores in public schools continued to rise. The Recovery District saw its proportion of students reaching basic or above climb six percentage points to 57 percent. The relatively high performing schools left under the Orleans Parish School Board, amounting to about a quarter of the public school population in the city, inched up a percentage point to 84 percent.

Both districts largely comprise independent charter schools, which get public funding but operate with considerably more autonomy than traditional public schools, and Recovery District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said Wednesday’s results showed further proof that a decentralized strategy is working.

The school’s themselves “know much better than bureaucrats how to move the lever and continue to do those things that are going to drive performance to levels we couldn’t imagine,” he said.

In Jefferson, which has just begun to experiment with a handful of charters and other efforts to improve results, the number of students hitting basic climbed two points to 66 percent. In St. Tammany, which is still mostly a traditional school system, students reaching basic climbed a point to 81 percent.

School systems will get a more comprehensive take on where student performance stands later in the year when the state releases end-of-course exams and ACT scores for high school students. Wednesday’s results came only from the LEAP exams, taken by students in the third through eighth grades. In the fall, the state will release school performance scores and letter grades, which wrap together test scores, graduation rates and other factors.