One in three public school students in Louisiana is performing below grade level, new state tests results show.

And that figure — it translates to about 230,000 students — is so dismal, it demands sweeping changes in public school operations, said Chas Roemer, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We still have a sense of complacency, a sense of we need more time,” Roemer said of state education leaders.

The latest figures were released on Tuesday amid generally good news about how students fared on key tests in March.

However, less discussed was the fact that 34 percent of students statewide performed below grade level in a snapshot of tests that covered students in grades 3-8, 10 and 11.

“They’ll either spend the next few weeks in summer school, or worse, they’ll progress to the next grade behind their peers,” said Penny Dastugue, BESE president, in a prepared statement.

“We have to move faster,” Dastugue said of efforts to reduce the number of students working below grade level.

The state’s goal is to trim the percentage of students performing below grade level to 12 percent by 2014.

“Louisiana’s Vision is to create a world-class education for every student in Louisiana,” said Ollie Tyler, acting state superintendent of education.

“We define ‘world class’ as every student performing at grade level,” Tyler said in an e-mail response to questions.

But that appears unlikely to happen in just three years.

How many students are above or below grade level is also linked to the annual rollup of test results, which are called school performance scores.

If the state reaches its 2014 goal of 120, that would mean just 8 percent of students are performing below grade level.

However, the state’s school performance score last year was 91.8, up from 89.4 the previous year.

In another sign of the modest progress, 66 percent of students are performing at or above grade level now. That is up from 65 percent last year and 60 percent in 2007.

Roemer said the issue cries out for big changes, such as abolishing teacher tenure. This was an unnecessary defining of tenure that added confusion and major changes in how schools are funded.

“We keep making incremental changes when in fact we know that there are things that need to be changed right now that have a fundamental impact to having high quality education,” he said.

The state has about 1,300 public schools.

Statewide enrollment estimates vary from 668,000 to slightly higher.

State education leaders said there is no single or handful of programs aimed at trimming the number of students who are behind their peers.

What is done ranges from ninth-grade academies to stem the high school dropout rate, to new steps aimed at improving math and reading skills in early grades.

George Noell, a top official of the state Department of Education, said officials have made a deliberate decision to push 20 to 30 programs in a wide range of grades rather than focusing on the early grades in hopes of reaping dividends down the road.

“We felt like that was morally the right position,” Noell said.

To do otherwise would be unfair to struggling middle and high school students, said Noell, who is executive director of strategic research and analysis.

The latest results stem from:

  • LEAP, a test of math and English skills which fourth and eighth-graders have to pass for promotion.
  • iLEAP, which is generally given to students in grades three, five, six, seven and nine, but is not linked to promotion.
  • Graduation Exit Exam, which high school students have to pass, and meet other requirements, to earn a standard diploma.

Students have to earn scores of “basic” or above — the middle of five grading results — to be considered working at their grade level.

Focusing on whether students are above or below grade level has only been common in state education circles for the past few years.

While one in three students is below grade level now, the picture was likely worse a decade ago.

“It would be stunningly bad,” Noell said.

Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge, said the state is putting too much reliance on changes that come from the building that houses the Louisiana Department of Education and BESE.

“If we keep trying to come up with a solution from the Claiborne Building, it is never going to be solved,” he said.

Tracking student performance

Percentage of students at or above grade level in 2011:

Top Ten School Districts:

Zachary: 85 percent

Orleans: 82 percent*

West Feliciana: 81 percent

Livingston: 79 percent

Plaquemines: 79 percent

Vernon: 79 percent

Central: 79 percent

St. Tammany: 78 percent

Allen: 78 percent

Jefferson Davis: 78 percent


State: 66 percent

East Baton Rouge: 57 percent

Ascension: 75 percent

City of Baker: 40 percent

West Baton Rouge: 68 percent

Iberville: 60 percent

Tangipahoa: 60 percent

St. Helena: 30 percent

East Feliciana: 54 percent

*Most public schools are in separate, state-run districts.

Source: Louisiana Department of Education.