Yes, you read that right. In a state still ranked in the bottom ten nationally for student achievement, the state’s top education board has proposed a work-around for public school students failing state tests to receive a high school diploma.

During its June meetings, instead of advancing a thoughtful plan to better support struggling students in achieving the graduation requirements, a majority of Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) members gave preliminary approval to a new regulation that would allow those students to receive a diploma by completing a teacher-graded portfolio. The proposed policy, which was opposed in the meeting by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and discouraged by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), also comes with some lagniappe for schools: these students receiving diplomas will be considered “graduates” just like those meeting the graduation standard and will boost schools’ graduation rates and accountability ratings.

What is Louisiana’s current graduation standard and how many students aren’t meeting it?

Louisiana has long had a state assessment requirement for graduation in addition to requiring students to pass (with a teacher-given grade of “D” or higher) high school courses. Concerns about graduates’ basic academic competency and readiness for college and the workplace go back to at least 1986, when lawmakers proposed legislation requiring a graduation test out of concern about social promotion and ensuring that graduates were capable of succeeding in college and employment.

BESE instituted assessment requirements tied to graduation in the early 1990s, and they’ve been in effect ever since. Current policy requires students to score an Approaching Basic level on at least three high school end-of-course LEAP tests:

  • English (either English I or II);
  • Math (either Algebra I or Geometry); and
  • Either Biology or U.S. History (which will transition to Civics beginning next year).

Statewide, 97% of high school seniors are meeting this requirement; 3% are not. The school districts with the highest percentage of students not meeting the standard are Tensas (18%), Morehouse (17%), Bogalusa (10%), St. John (8%), and Madison (8%).While poverty in these communities is a major obstacle, other school districts having even higher percentages of students in poverty have fewer students failing to meet the standard: St. Helena (less than 2%), St. Bernard (4%), East Carroll (2%), and Natchitoches (5%).

How rigorous of a standard is Approaching Basic?

The tests consist of five achievement levels, shown below from highest to lowest. The Approaching Basic standard is just above failing, two full levels below proficiency, and requires students to earn between 10-38% of total available points, depending on which form of the test they take.

Does scoring at this level correspond with true readiness for college and the workplace? An important indicator is how many graduates go on to need remediation as college freshmen. An analysis of Louisiana’s public high school graduating class of 2021 revealed that, out of the students who enrolled in a Louisiana public college or university that fall, 41% (nearly 7,500 graduates) required remediation in math and 25% (nearly 4,500 graduates) required remediation in English.

Now, BESE is proposing to allow students who score at the lowest level, Unsatisfactory, to receive a diploma. This will most likely exacerbate the remediation problem faced by college freshmen. A high school diploma won’t be a valued, trusted credential. It will be a participation trophy.

Worse than what that means for the next class of high school seniors is what is likely to happen—or not happen—for future high school students. Most of the tests used for graduation purposes are given to students at the end of ninth and tenth grade. In some cases, students take high school courses and the end-of-course test in eighth grade. If students fail to score at the Approaching Basic level, current policy says that schools must provide remediation to help them meet the bar the next time they take the test. Tests can be re-attempted numerous times throughout the remainder of high school. While BESE’s latest proposed policy retains an expectation for remediation, it contains no requirement that students ever retake the tests, so there is little incentive for schools to do much to help students address their learning deficiencies.

Louisiana’s education leaders should be concentrating on replicating what’s working and making improvements where data suggest remediation efforts aren’t successful. And if students remain trapped in a government-assigned school that fails to improve or serve them well, they should call for the legislature to authorize state education dollars to “follow the child” to a different school that can effectively serve their needs.

Louisiana’s students don’t need waivers, work-arounds, or a pass. Many years ago, state lawmakers delegated authority to BESE to develop educational standards and graduation requirements that enable students to “successfully transition to postsecondary education and the workplace.” This latest policy proposed by BESE fails to achieve that. BESE, and if necessary, the Legislature, should stop this proposal from moving forward before the value of a high school diploma in Louisiana is further diluted and significant, long-lasting damage is done to Louisiana’s students, its workforce, and its economy.