Louisiana K-12 schools have begun putting billions of federal recovery dollars to use to help students and schools bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and several recent natural disasters. Teachers and school leaders have been working hard to strengthen instruction and put safeguards in place that allow children to learn safely. Parents have made plenty of adjustments as well to help their children learn in new ways and follow new protocols. It hasn’t been easy, but every day seems to be a little better and, at last, we seem to be turning the corner toward greater stability and true recovery.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, student achievement in Louisiana plunged five percentage points over the past year, as measured by state tests. In response to the decline, state education officials unveiled a “Louisiana Comeback” plan to guide local school systems in developing academic improvement and expenditure plans for the current school year. It’s only natural to want to get back to “normal,” making up lost time, closing learning gaps, and rebuilding what has been lost.

Getting back to pre-pandemic student achievement levels quickly will require hard work. It will be tempting to declare victory once we achieve that goal, breathe a sigh of relief, and take our foot off the gas for a while. We can’t do that. We should certainly celebrate recovery but must immediately set more ambitious goals for growth.

Why the rush? Because even at pre-pandemic levels, roughly two-thirds of our state’s public-school students were below grade level. The hard work put into the past few decades of educational improvement and reform was noble and indeed made a difference for many children, but it was never enough. It’s still not enough. Louisiana continues to trail the nation in proficiency rates and multiple indicators of college and career readiness. We must do better.

What should we do differently? First, we have to ensure that the $4 billion in federal education recovery money our schools have received – arguably the largest in the state’s history and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – is spent wisely to build high-quality educational programs and target effective interventions in areas of need. Second, we have to redesign our state K-12 education accountability system to make abundantly clear that proficiency and competitiveness at national levels is the goal for our children.

The state accountability system is what communicates school performance to parents and the public. It’s the report card by which families, communities, and policymakers measure how well our tax dollars are being spent to prepare our children for lifelong success in an increasingly demanding economy. And in communities where school choice exists, it’s an important tool parents use to determine which local school has the privilege of educating their child.

Unfortunately, despite years of fine-tuning and gradual increases in expectations, Louisiana’s accountability system continues to reward schools for student outcomes that fall well below proficiency. “Growth” incentives and rewards within the formula give generous points to schools for making modest gains, sometimes for even making no gains if all schools fail to grow on a relative measure. Graduation requirements for students are set at very low levels, rewarding schools for graduating students who “pass” state tests at two full achievement levels below proficiency, leaving them ill-equipped to meet the demands of college and the workplace as young adults. The state’s accountability rating system, in general, remains incredibly complex and confusing for parents and the public who struggle to understand whether schools that are graded on a 150-point scale are actually preparing students for the next grade level and ultimately for college and careers.

We at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy believe it’s time for a reset – time for a bigger, bolder plan to not only recover from the past few years’ declines, but to finally put Louisiana’s educational system on a strong path to success. We must equip our school children with the critical knowledge and skills they need and deserve to be successful and to contribute to Louisiana’s economic competitiveness as these young people grow up to be our next generation of workers and professionals. A new K-12 education accountability system should prioritize the following principles:

  • Set high expectations for academic performance in core subjects at proficiency or above, comparable to peers nationally;
  • Motivate school progress toward proficiency expectations in a simple and transparent way;
  • Provide easy-to-understand public reporting that is consistent with how student performance is graded; and
  • Embed within the system an automatic increasing of expectations to promote year-after-year growth until such time as Louisiana student achievement reaches desired outcomes.

State education officials have a choice of either tinkering around the edges to get our K-12 educational system back to pre-pandemic levels, or to once and for all make student achievement and true college and career readiness a priority. We urge them to choose the latter.