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School scores dropped for most Louisiana districts; here's why that won't count against them

Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.

Performance scores would have dropped for three-fourths of Louisiana public schools and districts for the 2020-21 school year if the state had decided to issue them, according to data released Friday.

New scores and corresponding letter grades, based largely on how students performed on standardized tests the previous school year, are normally issued each fall semester.

Instead, district superintendents received “simulated” performance scores last week, after the state’s board of education voted to shelve letter grades for a year, with the support of the federal government, due to the pandemic and loss of instruction.

Louisiana is one of 47 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, that requested and received waivers allowing them to forgo their state determined accountability standards for one year.

In a release accompanying the scores, Louisiana’s department of education said the data should be used for “informational and planning purposes only” and interpreted with caution since the 2020-21 school year was “unlike any other and results cannot be accurately compared.”

Some districts started last school year entirely online due to the pandemic and relied on a mixture of in-person, remote and hybrid instruction over the course of the school year. Test scores from the spring fell statewide, which meant performance scores and corresponding letter grades would have too.

Louisiana’s overall performance score — out of a possible 150 points — declined 1.8 points to 75.3. Corresponding letter grades are typically awarded using the following scale: A, 90.0-150.0; B, 75.0-89.9; C, 60.0-74.9; D, 50.0-59.9 and F, 0-49.9.

Seventy-one percent of districts and 70% of schools received a performance score lower than their 2018-19 score, the last time official scores and letter grades were issued, according to the state.

“The larger the number of students who attended most of the school year virtually, the larger the decline in scores the school would have seen,” the department release said, adding that when less than 25% of students were learning virtually for at least half of the school year, the drop was 2.8 points compared to 5.9 points, when 50% or more of students did virtual instruction.

Schools with a high percentage of non-white students and students identified by the state as economically disadvantaged also showed greater drops in performance scores, the department said.

There are several reasons why last year’s data may provide an incomplete picture, the state said, and therefore should not be compared to results measured before the pandemic.

First, far fewer students sat for standardized tests last school year than in a typical year largely due to pandemic health concerns. Second, results are typically compared year over year, but there are no scores from the 2019-20 school year since testing was canceled due to the pandemic.

Lastly, performance scores also consider graduation rates and the number of students that take the ACT, both of which were also disrupted.

Graduation accommodations were offered for the 2020-21 year, which could have inflated rates, and fewer students likely sat for the ATC because several testing opportunities were canceled.

New Orleans Public Schools (NOLA-PS), which serves a student population that is majority non-white and economically disadvantaged, saw its simulated performance score drop by 4 points to 63.8.

The district started last school year online before reopening classrooms in age order. Younger students resumed face-to-face instruction in September, and all students had access to in-person instruction, at least part time, by the end of October.

Families reserved the right to keep their children at home if they chose, and many did so for the entire school year.

“COVID-19 has impacted student learning across Louisiana, and NOLA-PS was no different as we navigated a challenging year last year,” district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement Friday. All students are required to attend classes in-person this year unless they have a qualifying medical condition.

Most districts reopened faster than New Orleans and had a greater percentage of students learning in-person during the 2020-21 school year, a factor that translated to higher simulated performance scores, the state said. 

Jefferson Parish Public Schools saw its performance score increase by less than a percentage point to 71.6, while East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools and St. Tammany Parish Public Schools both dropped by roughly two percentage points to 67.1 and 82.9, respectively.

West Feliciana Parish Public Schools grew nearly 6 percentage points to 95.7 and posted the highest score in the state.

While the department will not be using last year’s unofficial scores to hold schools and districts accountable — they’ll keep using scores from the 2018-19 school year instead — they said it was important to test students and share data to help inform “recovery strategies.”

Lewis said New Orleans Public Schools will use the data as a baseline to improve school performance, adding that last year’s state testing results had already been used to identify at-risk students and connect them with additional support, including summer programming.

“We can use these scores as a snapshot of learning during COVID and help our schools continue to lift up students,” he said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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