Last week, The Advocate reported on plans by state education officials to make significant shifts to the statewide school and district accountability system. Some of the proposed changes are a step in the right direction; others will make our school scoring significantly more lenient. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) is expected to vote on the proposal on June 15 and 16. To put these proposals in context, it’s helpful to reexamine the state’s accountability system and recall the specific indicators on which school ratings are currently based.

Louisiana’s public school rating system is based primarily on indicators of student achievement, including LEAP test results taken in grades three through high school. Ratings are issued annually in the form of an A-F letter grade and a numeric School Performance Score that falls on a 0-150 scale. The rating system, described in greater detail in this Pelican Institute report, is based primarily on performance – student achievement measured at a moment in time. A smaller percentage, 25 percent for K-8 schools and 12.5 percent for high schools, is based on students’ academic growth over time and growth relative to peers.

After years of operating an accountability system that begins at third grade, education officials are finally taking the step of measuring, reporting, and holding schools accountable for student achievement in grades kindergarten through two. These grade levels are critical for children to learn to read and develop critical foundational skills that set them up for success throughout their educational journey. The Louisiana Department of Education has spent considerable time collaborating with educators, stakeholders, and national experts to develop a high-quality system of measurement, support, and intervention that is developmentally appropriate and based on the science of early literacy and development.

The shift toward a more responsible approach in recognizing student performance on the ACT versus ACT’s WorkKeys assessment, tied to the student’s chosen diploma option and post-secondary goals, is another positive step that will curb over-testing and inflation in some high school scores.  Other additions that reward schools for achieving outcomes through Fast Forward, the state’s new initiative to enroll high school students in apprenticeships and associate degree programs, will motivate schools to implement this work well and scale these opportunities to more students over time.

Unfortunately, these latest proposed changes also include elements that seem to weaken the accountability system and make it far more lenient, thereby potentially jeopardizing its transparency and value in helping parents and communities understand overall school quality. The proposal raises the K-8 growth component from 25 to 38 percent, possibly serving as a greater motivator for schools to do better, but in the process reducing the level of transparency about the extent to which students are performing at proficient levels, the need for continued interventions, and how schools perform relative to others around the state and nation. According to the Department, this shift alone would immediately increase ratings by an entire letter grade for approximately 300 schools rated “D” or “F”. In addition, high school ratings would likely also increase with no change except how the schools are scored.

High school ratings are based 25 percent on performance on the ACT. Schools receive points for students scoring a pretty meager 18 and above (the national average is 20.6), even though the test vendor has set “college and career readiness” benchmarks much higher for some subjects. This latest proposal calls for schools to receive points toward their rating for students scoring 17 and above on the ACT, and also increases the number of points schools receive for students who earn the current minimum score of 18.

Higher school ratings might be justified for schools that have truly achieved remarkable growth in student achievement, but more information is needed to determine if this is the case, and whether the proposed changes are the best way of recognizing and incentivizing that growth in a state currently ranked between 44th and 49th in education outcomes with approximately 300 D- and F-rated schools. Rewarding high schools for lower performance on the ACT is hard to describe as anything but lowering expectations for our students.

Accountability is too important to not get right. Rushing through its passage with significant concerns on the table would be a mistake.