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Raising The Bar For Louisiana's Education Standards

The Every Student Succeeds Act will require states - not the federal government - to determine how to evaluate and improve schools.

A new law goes into effect this month to replace No Child Left Behind. The Every Student Succeeds Act will require states - not the federal government - to determine how to evaluate and improve schools. But stakeholders are still divided over what Louisiana's plan should look like.

Sara Broome helps kids who have fallen behind in school. She’s the executive director of Thrive Academy, in Baton Rouge. Last year, half of her 30 sixth graders had trouble reading. Seven had to start by sounding out letters of the alphabet.

Broome was among hundreds of educators who attended a seven-hour long public meeting in March. The meeting was held so state officials could come up with a plan to revamp public education. Broome wanted students like hers to be rewarded for progress when they start behind grade level.

"In the past, the growth that was made was not acknowledged," Broome says. "So, if you had a kid that you were taking from a kindergarten level to a fifth grade level when they were supposed to be in a sixth grade level, we ignored the five years growth that we made, because we didn’t quite make it to sixth grade."

Broome may get her wish. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, approved the changes. Board members were eager to comply with a federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into effect this fall.

Some say the plan is harmful. In New Orleans, just 15-percent of public schools got "A" grades last year. Experts say the changes, which raise the standards, will make it harder to get those scores, and easier to get an "F."

Scott Richard, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, says those rankings have serious consequences. Schools can lose vouchers and charters can be shut down. "In Louisiana we have a very stringent accountability system, one of the most stringent in the nation, and there serious penalties associated with your letter grade not being where it needs to be," says Richard.

Today, students must show "basic" proficiency in reading and math and get an ACT score of 18 for the school to earn an “A." Requirements will be phased in, but by 2025, those students will be required to show "mastery" in math and reading and get an ACT score of 21.

BESE member Jim Garvey supports the plan. He says the state has lied to parents and students about the meaning of A, B and C school grades. Garvey says part of the problem is tests got harder, but performance scores were curved.

"We have been not telling the truth to the parents, and to ourselves, and to the rest of the state and to the taxpayers about how many schools we have that are not doing well," Garvey says.

The new plan eliminates the curve, and allows for student progress to count for 25-percent of school scores. Right now, those gains only count for 7-percent.

These changes appeal to Keith Leger, spokesperson at Stand For Children. The education advocacy group says the plan puts students first. "At the end of the day I think we got it right. I think that 25-percent is a nice sweet spot where again we will have a clear picture of the overall effectiveness of schools in terms of performance and achievement, but also recognizing where growth has occurred," Leger saya.

Other stakeholders say they didn’t have enough input when the plan was developed. Critics say parts of the plan are still missing — including how district grades will be calculated.

At the meeting where BESE approved the plan, 61 of 69 superintendents in the room said they had problems with it. More than 90-percent of principals also objected. And that was troubling to board member Thomas Roque, who asked in March that the state get a few more months to work out the details. "Divided we will never move this state forward. Never. But together we will... My vote would be to delay, continue dialogue and submit in September," Roque says.

State Education Superintendent John White defends the plan, saying stakeholders had a chance to participate during more than 100 meetings about the changes. And some board members say the plan won’t be fully implemented until 2025, so there’s still plenty of time to make adjustments. In the meantime, the state is still on schedule to begin some reforms, like the growth score changes, next year.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Entergy Corporation.

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