The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released spring 2021 LEAP test results, showing declines in student achievement from the last time students took the tests in 2019. The results confirmed what we feared, that Louisiana children whose overall academic performance already trailed the nation lost valuable ground — a decrease in five percentage points overall and declines in all grade levels, subject areas, and student groups. The declines disproportionately impacted economically disadvantaged students, young learners in 3rd and 4th grades, and student performance in mathematics. Algebra I, often referred to as a gatekeeper course for college and career readiness, took a nosedive.

A week after the release of these scores, LDOE announced plans to encourage local school systems to align spending plans for $4 billion in federal recovery money with the needs illuminated by the LEAP test results. The state agency has also unveiled a public dashboard for parents and other citizens to view school academic performance data, spending/improvement plans, and academic progress.

The “comeback” plan includes some positive features, including public transparency and incentives for schools to earn accolades for academic growth. But make no mistake, pre-pandemic status quo should not be the goal. Our state’s educational outcomes lagged behind the rest of the country long before COVID-19. That’s why in 2017, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education set goals to bring Louisiana student performance closer to national averages and to have the majority of students performing at proficiency, referred to as “Mastery” in Louisiana.

The board committed to achieve student demonstration of mastery of skills rather than simply basic skills, raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent, and achieve a statewide average ACT composite score of 21 by the year 2025. In 2019, 34 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored at Mastery. Today, that number is 29 percent. The impact of the pandemic on graduation rates (using comparable methodology) and ACT scores is not yet available, but given LEAP results, we expect troubling declines in those indicators as well. Again, we cannot just set our sights on returning to pre-COVID levels. We have to return to the work of reaching those 2025 goals and then some. We have a long way to go.

The federal government has given Louisiana school systems an unprecedented $4 billion in recovery money to get students back on track and to accelerate progress to higher levels than ever before. To further bolster those efforts, the legislature passed and Governor Edwards signed into law Senate Bill 234 (which became Act 294), requiring each local school system to develop a plan for expanded academic student support over the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years, and for LDOE to review and approve such plans this fall. State Superintendent Cade Brumley and his staff have an obligation to ensure that local school systems are developing high-quality educational and spending plans that align funding to the highest academic needs. The law requires LDOE to provide progress reports to the legislature, and we expect that those educational and expenditure reports will be part of the transparent dashboard reporting unveiled by Superintendent Brumley.

Now is the time for high expectations, bold action, and clear accountability to ensure that every Louisiana child is on track to be college and career ready. As Louisiana focuses on recovery and progress, parents must be given expanded options to meet their child’s needs. The state’s objective in deploying billions of one-time federal dollars should be clear: establish Louisiana as a worldwide leader in student outcomes, innovation, and parental choice. LDOE’s announcement is a hopeful step forward, and we encourage all our state’s education leaders to cast and achieve a big vision for our kids.