A new survey shows that the public-at-large and more parents believe the quality of New Orleans schools has improved, even though a downturn in student achievement looms on the horizon.  

The public’s increasing optimism is based on a decade of improved student test scores, college entrance test scores and graduation rates, but public mood could reverse in the future if achievement continues to drop in the face of tougher standards enacted at the state level.

Local test scores and school letter grades took a huge hit last year, even though all schools were graded on a curve to offset the effect of tougher standards. Local officials are concerned that the scores could drop even more in the future because curved grading is ending.   

“It is a huge challenge and one the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) is addressing with the utmost priority,” one board spokesperson said.      

The downturn in student achievement comes at a bad time for the OPSB. The board took oversight of all the city’s schools in July for the first time since Katrina hit 13 years ago this month. Local officials are taking over schools that have improved since 2005 when most were seized by the state because they were “failing” by state standards.

The state relinquished control of Recovery School District schools after two years of preparation on both sides, following through on its original goal to return schools after they had recovered academically.   

The Cowen Institute at Tulane University conducts an annual poll to gauge the public’s perception of schools. In the 2018 poll, more participants believed schools to be “getting better” – 39 percent compared to 33 percent in 2017. However, more participants also believe that schools are “staying the same” – 41 percent compared to 36 percent.  

The Cowen Institute also reported that support for charter schools “remains consistently high,” stating that about 66 percent believe “charter schools have improved public education in New Orleans.” Unlike other large cities, 90 percent of New Orleans public school students attend charter schools today.

Critics of charter schools refuse to give them credit for improved achievement – arguing state measurements have changed so much that past and present comparisons are unfair.   However, improvements in college entrance test scores undercut the criticism. A report delivered to the OPSB recently shows that New Orleans schools are “outperforming similar districts nationally on the ACT.”    

For example, the staff report showed that New Orleans students scored an 18.9 out of a possible 36 on the exam recently, compared to 18.6 for Atlanta’s students. Unlike New Orleans, the OPSB report said, Atlanta does not require all students to take the test. The notation is significant because Atlanta’s score reflects only students intending to attend college, while New Orleans’ score also includes less prepared students.   

New Orleans also outperformed Denver, Chicago, Memphis and Indianapolis on the ACT, the report noted. An ACT score of 18 reflects college readiness.  

Another OPSB staff report, however, showed that the district’s performance score compared to other state districts declined last year for the fourth year in a row. In 2013, New Orleans schools ranked in the middle of the pack. Last year, the city’s ranking dipped to near the bottom, at the 12th percentile; a sharp drop from 2016.