Last week, a subgroup of State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) members tasked by the full board to study Louisiana’s K-12 education accountability system had its first public meeting. The group is reviewing information tied to the current accountability system, which was implemented in the 2017-2018 school year, to determine the extent to which it is effectively measuring school performance and communicating the same to parents, educators, and communities. They began with a deep dive into two components of the system: growth and high schools.

The growth component of the accountability system measures how well students in a school are making progress relative to expected gains and compared to similar peers. The study group reviewed information provided by the Louisiana Department of Education showing that the current system, which was established to drive growth toward a standard of proficiency for all students, values academic growth pretty unevenly. Children who are significantly behind academically have to make larger gains to generate points in the system compared to children who are performing just below, at, or above proficiency or “Mastery.” The result is that when notable growth happens at the lower achievement levels, it may not be rewarded, leaving schools and teachers discouraged and perhaps serving as a disincentive to work at some of our most high-need schools. In another part of the growth calculation, the system awards significant points to some schools for student “growth” when they don’t actually grow at all. That is, when some students perform on par with similar peers, even if they do not grow, points are added to the school’s score for performing “as expected.”

The group then examined the high school component, which measures how well schools are preparing students to be college and career ready. This component is a great deal more complex than K-8, measuring not only student achievement and growth via state standardized tests, but also graduation rates, ACT scores, and whether students earn college credit and work-based credentials while in high school. The Department presented data confirming what some advocacy groups have been saying for some time – that Louisiana’s high school scores and ratings are inflated. In fact, 70 percent of high schools are currently rated A or B, while only 41 percent of elementary and middle schools are rated A or B. The percent of students performing at or above Mastery is about the same: 63 percent in elementary and middle school and 66 percent in high school. One reason for this is that the attainment of a high school diploma generates full (100) points in the system, even though the standard for earning a high school diploma is that students pass state tests at an Approaching Basic level, which is two full levels below what is considered to be proficient. The high school component is more heavily weighted toward graduation outcomes and less on proficiency.

Throughout the meeting, board members also commented on the complexity of these and other components of the accountability system, noting just how difficult it is for school leaders, educators, parents, and the public to understand what school ratings mean and how to use the information to improve student achievement. The Department described the purpose of accountability as “providing a fair assessment of performance” and “improving student academic achievement,” but noted that changes are needed to ensure that real growth is incentivized and rewarded, proficiency and college and career readiness goals are maintained, and that results are clear, transparent, and easy to understand.

The Pelican Institute agrees that these problems should be addressed and has offered a number of recommendations to strengthen Louisiana’s system based on other successful state models and what we believe parents and communities need to engage in a deeper way in their child’s education and in their local community schools. We appreciate BESE’s openness to making improvements to the accountability system based on data resulting from its initial implementation and look forward to working with them and others across the state to make Louisiana’s public education system as strong and transparent as possible.