The past two decades have been tumultuous ones for Louisiana’s educators and students, especially in New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina triggered a total overhaul. Every reform measure aimed at improving the academic performance of students has met intense hostility and resistance from one group or another.
Parents raged when students were not promoted to higher grades; teachers unions raged at tougher evaluation standards; New Orleans raged when the state took over most of its failing schools; and far right political conservatives raged when the state moved to bring academic standards in line with national expectations.
Since the end of the 1990s, the state has gradually instituted tougher academic standards and held students and schools accountable for meeting those standards. For students, the consequences include not being promoted to the next grade or not graduating on time. Consequences for schools are termination of school leaders and possible closure. High stakes testing and state takeovers of poor schools have created a good deal of hostility. But when all the fanfare died down after each controversy, the result was clear: In time students, teachers and schools adapt just fine to higher expectations.
Because state leaders held firm, all that pain is beginning to pay off with rising standardized test scores, high school graduation rates and growing college entrance exam scores.
According to a report released by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in July, Louisiana’s “fourth-graders outpaced the region and nation in gains in reading and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at the Proficient level.”
The report also said that “the number of ninth-graders who were promoted to 10th grade on time increased, indicating more ninth-graders were prepared for success in high school.” Better yet, “Louisiana’s high school graduation rate outpaced the nation in growth.” This statistic indicates that these trends started for recent graduates in their elementary school years.
More good news came in August, when the state’s department of education released the results of its 2016 standardized tests. Academic performance on LEAP tests improved in English and math at both the “basic” and “mastery” levels, the department of education reported on its website. In ’16, 67 percent of the state’s students scored “basic” compared to 65 percent in ’15. The percentage of students scoring at the “mastery” level in those subjects improved by five percentage points – from 33 percent in ’15 to 38 percent in ’16.
Much of those gains came from academic improvement among “economically disadvantaged” students, the DOE’s report shows. Thirty percent of low-income students scored at the mastery level in 2016, five percentage points better than ’15. African American students also scored an increase at the mastery level, from 21 percent to 24 percent.
The DOE’s focus on mastery reflects the state’s latest step in improving student achievement. By 2025, a school must have an average score of mastery in order to get an A rating, whereas in the past that rating applied to schools with high levels of “basic” scores. Students who score at the basic level, however, are not prepared to succeed in college.
College preparedness is the DOE’s new goal for student achievement and was also the goal of the controversial Common Core standards. Those standards underwent some revision recently here and in other states in response to political attacks, but most states are still committed to the higher standards to boost the United States’ ranking on global report cards.
New Orleans students’ scores are also inching up at a steady rate at both the mastery and basic levels. According to a report released by Education Now, an education information website, 31 percent of the city’s students scored at the mastery level this year, compared to 28 percent last year. At the basic level, 61 percent scored at the basic level in New Orleans, compared to 60 percent in 2015.
New Orleans students still trail the state average at the basic level by six percentage points, but their test scores at that level have improved considerably. Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told board members in August that only 35 percent of Orleans Parish students were proficient on state assessments in 2005.
“This improved performance in New Orleans has closed the gap with the rest of the state,” Lewis said. “In terms of school quality, the percentage of D and F schools in New Orleans has dropped from 79 percent in 2005 to only 26 percent in ’15.”
Moreover, Education Now reported that New Orleans’ African American students “outperformed the state average” for African American students at the mastery level by four percentage points, 28 percent compared to 24 percent.
These gains have been achieved even though Louisiana has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. SREB’s report showed that 22 percent of children under 18 years old live in poverty nationwide. In Louisiana, it’s 28 percent. An even higher number of the state’s children – 67 percent – come from low-income families, which qualifies them for free or reduced priced lunches. Louisiana’s percentage of low-income families is 10 percent higher than the southern average the SREB says, and 15 percent higher than the national average.
Educators and state officials deserve praise for these gains, but they’re the first to acknowledge that the state will continue to struggle to compete with national averages in academic performance. The gap between average national performance scores and Louisiana’s average is still wide. SREB reported that in reading, for example, 40 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient on Louisiana’s academic assessments in 2015. But when Louisiana’s students took the NAEP, only 23 percent scored at or above proficient.
The 17 percentage-point gap shows that Louisiana’s academic standards for grade level are still lower than national standards. Meanwhile, national standards are also inching up.
Louisiana’s students are chasing a moving target, but at least they’re finally in the race.