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The first Lee High School students get off the first bus to arrive for the first day of school for the EBR school system on Wednesday August 10, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

How to revamp public school letter grades continues to spark controversy, including charges that the state could launch a new grading system that would distort how students are really performing.

Leaders of a key state panel Monday hoped to win approval for a plan that would more than triple the value of annual academic gains in calculating grades.

But the proposal failed to win approval in the Louisiana Accountability Commission, which advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Instead, the panel of teachers, superintendents and others will tackle the issue again on Feb. 8 in hopes of resolving the dispute.

BESE is set to address the thorny topic in March as part of a state plan to revamp public schools to comply with a 2015 federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under current rules, key test results for elementary and middle school students account for most of the letter grades.

The grades, which began in 2011, are designed to give parents and other taxpayers an easy way to see how schools are faring.

Last year, state Superintendent of Education John White proposed changing how the grades are calculated, possibly for the 2017-18 school year.

That plan would require that 25 percent of the grade stem from yearly academic gains by all students, regardless of the final score.

Current rules limit those bonus points to 7 percent of the grade, and only apply to struggling students.

Backers contend that giving academic growth more weight ensures that yearly progress is reflected in the school's grade, not just  whether students reached a certain achievement level.

Kathy Noel, a DeSoto Parish educator and chairwoman of the commission, hoped the panel would approve setting academic growth gains at 25 percent of the grade, which would boost  chances it would win final approval at BESE.

However, the push sparked resistance on the commission during a lengthy meeting Monday.

Brigitte Nieland, a commission member who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said Tuesday she was among panel members objecting to the 25 percent standard.

Nieland said that, under the plan, a school that would otherwise earn an "F" rating could collect so many bonus points that it would be listed as a "C school.

"You are still awarding a lot of points for growth but growth that is not near the achievement level where kids need to be," Nieland said. 

"I feel this could be masked under a system that says 'Oh, it is a "C" school. Everybody is fine,'" she said.

Noel said she thinks there is a group of people on the panel ready to endorse the move to allow 25 percent of the grade to stem from annual academic growth.

The panel on Monday reviewed simulations on how the new rules would work at  10 percent, 25 percent and 50 percent.

More detailed simulations are planned for the Feb. 8 gathering.

Jessica Baghian, assistant superintendent for assessments and accountability, said the drive to increase the value of yearly academic growth on school letter grades stems from months of hearings last year as the state was developing its plans to revamp public school policies.

Baghian said officials heard that the public wants the gains to apply to all students and that it should be significant.

The panel did agree on a related issue that sparked arguments earlier – how to measure academic growth.

The measuring stick would be a two-prong system.

Schools could earn points if students met annual goals in reaching Louisiana's long-range achievement goal, which is called mastery.

They could also benefit if troubled students outdid their peers.

In another twist, Gov. John Bel Edwards' Advisory Council on the Every Student Succeeds Act is set to take up letter grades when it meets on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

The governor, who has criticized the state's public school grading system, will have a voice in any overhaul plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.