For years, American schools have based student promotion from one grade level to the next and ultimately high school graduation, in part, on whether students are in attendance for a minimum number of instructional days or minutes. Louisiana is no exception.

State law (La. Revised Statutes 17:154.1) requires Louisiana public schools to ensure that students receive a minimum of 360 instructional minutes per day for 177 days of the school year, or at least 63,720 minutes total. The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education requires state-approved private schools to provide at least 57,750 instructional minutes per year.

The Board requires both types of schools to ensure that students are in class for a minimum required number of minutes in order to receive course grades – 60,120 minutes for public schools (94% of minimum required) and 52,800 for private schools (91% of minimum).

High school students attending public schools must be in attendance a minimum of 30,060 minutes to receive grades and earn Carnegie credit; private high school students must be present for at least 26,400 minutes.

On top of these instructional minute requirements, students also have to pass the course, meaning a grade of D or higher, to be promoted to the next grade level and ultimately to graduate.

Louisiana students must also achieve minimum scores on Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) exams in high school for English, math, science, and social studies in order to graduate. But those required scores are nowhere close to signaling proficiency. The minimum score is Approaching Basic, which is two full levels below proficiency, which is called Mastery.

Since the pandemic and documented, widespread learning loss of as much as a 25% drop in student learning, many have advocated for the use of tutoring, after-school programs, summer programs, and other strategies involving extra instructional time. The problem is that some schools aren’t offering them, and in some cases where they are being offered, students aren’t taking advantage of them.

In Louisiana, many school districts that budgeted COVID-19 recovery dollars toward these types of programs have gone unspent. And in the new Steve Carter Literacy Tutoring Program, which provides elementary students who are struggling to read with access to free high-quality tutoring services, the state Department of Education is planning to redirect dollars to other initiatives. This is due to few families signing up compared to the number eligible, although the state and several local school districts are actively promoting it. What will this mean for students? Well, they just won’t learn certain content and skills, and learning deficits will widen over time. However, most students will likely still be promoted and graduate, because passing standards are low and students will likely meet the minimum number of minutes or days required.

Chester Finn, Jr., distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, posed an important question last week: Is it time to reconsider minimum instructional time policies, which insiders often refer to as “butts in seats,” and instead focus on what students have actually learned? More eloquently, he suggests, “Maybe, finally, today we’ve reached an inflection point where, with the help of better assessments, lots of 24/7 technology, and much greater concern with ‘readiness,’ we should ease off the focus on time and refocus instead on mastery…. Isn’t it time to consider rethinking ‘compulsory attendance’ in terms of achievement rather than time spent?”

Some states and private schools across the country have begun moving in this direction, either entirely or at key moments within students’ educational journey. They’ve done this by basing promotion and readiness for the next grade level or higher-level content on what students have demonstrated they’ve learned, not on how much time they spent learning it.

This approach allows kids to move at different speeds, accelerating if they’re ready and spending more time learning or re-learning content with which they’ve struggled. Doing so helps ensure they’re ready to move on and tackle the next challenge successfully. It seems to be a great approach for individual kids, but one that presents headaches for educators who are teaching and guiding them, all at different levels.

Finn asks if America is ready for that. Is Louisiana ready for it? “If not,” he says, “we’re stuck with a lot of learning gaps and learning losses that will never close.” That’s unacceptable.