Louisiana Schools Need Leadership, Not Lower Expectations

Louisiana Schools Need Leadership, Not Lower Expectations

Last week the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents–a network of public school superintendents from across the state–unveiled a ridiculous proposal to “strengthen” the state’s rating and accountability system for public schools. They hailed it as a more “fair” and “equitable” way of rating school performance.

Yet, the proposal would actually set Louisiana’s education system back several years, reversing years of progress in student achievement and reinstating mediocre expectations that have plagued our state for far too long. What was really unveiled was the lack of leadership that exists in our schools and an unfortunate display of low expectations for Louisiana’s kids.

The superintendents’ proposal begins with a call to “reduce testing” (referring to the state LEAP test) in elementary and middle schools. Let’s be clear about what this means: collect less information about the extent to which kids are learning and how schools are effectively teaching and supporting them. Louisiana students spend about 1.5% of their total instructional minutes each school year taking the LEAP test, which is a statewide, independently graded exam that measures how well they’ve learned grade-level standards in English, math, science, and social studies. The time students spend taking the test is hardly a burden; the objective information provided far outweighs any inconvenience. Results are sent home to parents so they can see how their child performs relative to other students in the district and across the state.

The report also points them to specific areas where their child is weak so they can work with their child’s teachers and tutors on improvement. At every level – classroom, school, district, and statewide – school leaders can use the information to pinpoint where student achievement is growing and where interventions are needed. That’s a good thing, and it’s the only way we know that only 31% of Louisiana public school students are performing at or above proficient levels. Any proposal to collect less information about student learning is, at best, irresponsible for school leaders. At worst, it’s a shameful ploy to mask school performance.

While the first recommendation isn’t all that surprising, the second recommendation is pretty shocking: award generous points to schools for student performance at the very low Approaching Basic level – a practice the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education ended a decade ago. The proposal also redefines a Basic level of performance as being on “grade level” when it’s absolutely not. Here’s the breakdown:

With just 57% of students performing at Basic and above (and as mentioned earlier, only 31% fully meeting expectations at Mastery and above), giving big points for performance at such a low level won’t motivate schools to help kids learn more. But it will certainly boost school ratings, particularly K-8 schools where 41% earn ratings of “A” and “B,” compared to 70% of high schools. Perhaps the superintendents’ aim is to make elementary and middle school ratings just as inflated as high schools, not to fix the problem of having extremely inflated high school ratings that don’t mirror the reality of students’ academic readiness.

Finally, their high school proposal calls for keeping expectations low and available points high, preserving generous points for students who drop out of school and earn a GED, and for career-focused students to earn low-quality “regional” credentials that aren’t aligned with workforce demands and don’t prepare students to earn a living wage. It oddly gives equal weight to students performing community service hours and enlisting in military service.

In the index that recognizes performance on the ACT, schools would receive 60-70% of available points for getting students to a meager score of 17, which currently generates no points for schools. Louisiana currently has just 18% of students pursuing a career-focused diploma, and 36% of those students fail to earn career credentials that align with high-demand, high-wage jobs. The superintendents’ proposal will do nothing to improve that, nor will it reduce the number of graduates (currently 10,000) who go to college needing remediation.

Instead of trying to preserve low expectations or water them down, Louisiana’s school leaders should embrace the challenge, commit to better preparing kids for success, and provide the leadership that positive change requires. They should start with ensuring that every child reads on grade level by the end of the 3rd grade. They should prioritize the $4 billion in federal COVID-19 pandemic recovery money they have received on direct student academic supports like tutoring and other evidence-based interventions designed to help all kids improve and reach grade level, not as a slush fund to supplement general operating budgets that fund facility enhancements.

And finally, they should develop meaningful partnerships with regional colleges and employers to better understand their needs and expand opportunities for high school students to successfully transition to great careers and a prosperous future. That’s leadership.

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