The education policy community in Louisiana has been in a heated debate over the last several months over the state’s school accountability formula. A little-known and even less understood formula drives school letter grades, spending decisions, and administrative actions that have a big impact on our state’s kids.

First, some history: Louisiana was an early pioneer of school accountability and letter grades. The Legislature initially established the system in 1997, with star ratings based on a 200-point School Performance Score. At the time, student achievement was so low that the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) initially set goals to get more students to a “Basic” level of proficiency, which is a full achievement level below the actual “Mastery” bar for proficiency.  In 2010, the Legislature required the use of letter grades, and, shortly thereafter, BESE transitioned to a 150-point rating scale. Then, in 2017, a major overhaul of the accountability system was made and aimed at getting kids to proficiency and have them perform on par with their peers nationally by 2025.

Good accountability policy should be directly tied to student achievement outcomes, and it should be simple, transparent, and easy for parents and educators to understand and apply.  Earlier this year, the Pelican Institute did a deep dive into Louisiana’s accountability policy and laid out principles of an effective policy.

Candidly, my knowledge of Louisiana’s policies were surface-level. Louisiana was an early adopter of letter grades. The data is posted on the Department of Education’s website, and it’s pretty easy to navigate. And, because of our early status as an innovator, it got a lot of early, positive attention.

The more our team and I dig into the details, however, the more concerned we are. And that’s why we’re calling for a reset of the entire discussion. This decision is far too important to get wrong, and now – perhaps more than ever – we have an opportunity to make transformational change.

Among our concerns, we believe the current formula is confusing and overly complex. Instead of showing scores out of 100, we utilize a 150-point scale. A score of a 90, which looks good at first glance, really represents 60 percent of possible points. In any classroom in the state, that’s a failing grade, but we give schools an “A” at that level. Further, the current growth component of the formula measures student growth as compared to other students in Louisiana’s growth, rather than progress toward proficiency in the subject, which should really be the goal. Points are also given to high schools for kids who only scored approaching basic, meaning we’re giving points when kids aren’t prepared for college or career in any meaningful way. This is unacceptable.

The current reform conversation centers around tweaks to the existing formula: changing the weighting of “growth” in the formula, closing a loophole that school systems have gamed for more points, adding accountability for K-2 students, among others. They’re well-intentioned, and some good. But the reality is, they miss the point. The whole system needs a re-look to ensure it’s really serving kids the best it can.

The good news: we have examples to look to that didn’t exist when Louisiana was pioneering these ideas. Mississippi, for example, has made significant gains in student outcomes over the last several years since they adopted new accountability rules. Florida, similarly, has made significant progress with a much simpler accountability system, directly tied to student outcomes. [For more information on this, check out our recent PeliCast!]

Let’s be clear: accountability is not the only factor in these success stories. But one thing is clear: an effective accountability system is a powerful tool in driving the behavior of the adults in our education system to act in the best interest of student outcomes, and it’s an even more powerful tool for parents as they make decisions about the best educational opportunities for their kids. It’s critical we get this right.

Some policy changes require tweaks and changes along the margins. Others require broader, more fundamental change. Like so much in Louisiana, unfortunately, this falls into the latter category. Louisiana kids are still struggling to make the grade – we’re at or near the bottom of nearly every ranking of educational outcomes, despite significant progress over the last decade. Tinkering here won’t do the trick. It’s time for wholesale change.

BESE leadership has been wise to delay implementation of changes. They’ll have another opportunity next week to continue that wise leadership, against immense pressure from status quo and other forces to take action. We stand ready to help.