About 320,000 public school students will start taking the long-debated Common Core tests Monday amid still more controversy about whether they should be able to avoid the exams without any penalties.
Students in grades three through eight will grapple with questions in reading, writing and math for about 90 minutes per day for five days.
The results are expected in October.
Louisiana students then will be compared to those in 10 other states and the District of Columbia that are part of the same testing consortium, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
But like most issues linked to Common Core, the test launch involves arguments that are also raging in other states.
The latest spat is this: How should the state should treat schools and school districts where students, with their parents’ blessing, skip the exams?
Under state rules here, schools and districts will get zeros for students who avoid the exams. Depending on the opt-out rate, that could have a noticeable impact on school performance scores issued in the fall that determine what letter grade schools get.
Despite pleas for change during a three-hour hearing on March 5, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to back off the policy.
Another push to shelve any penalties is expected during the 2015 legislative session, which begins April 13.
And BESE may tackle the issue again later this year after the test participation rates are reviewed.
The opt-out movement is visible in pockets of the state — especially in the southwest and northwest — but is registering less in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette areas.
As of the middle of last week, the tabulations showed that:
In the East Baton Rouge Parish school district, only four of 18,539 students had opted out of the tests.
In the Jefferson Parish school district, parents of seven students had made inquiries about skipping the exams out of about 20,000 students scheduled to take the tests.
In St. Tammany Parish, where Common Core criticism is frequent, at least 60 students plan to opt out of the tests, out of about 17,000.
Students who plan to skip the test in the Lafayette Parish school district total at least 81 out of about 13,000 test takers.
About five students plan to do so in the Ascension Parish school district.
Another 18 of 2,397 students plan to opt out in the top-rated Zachary school system.
Across the state, the Lake Charles area has turned into a hotbed of anti-Common Core fervor. Nearly 800 students, or 6 percent of potential test takers, plan to sit out the week of exams.
“The grass-roots movement against Common Core and PARCC is very organized over here,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a longtime Common Core critic.
In the Bossier Parish school district in northwest Louisiana, 104 of 10,068 potential test takers plan to avoid the exams.
By contrast, state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who backs Common Core, said he has gotten no telephone calls from Orleans Parish about the upcoming tests, which he says will aid public education in Louisiana. “Anything you can do diagnostically to compare outcomes is going to have value,” he said.
The tests are the culmination of a process that began in 2010, when BESE approved the then little-noticed CORE overhaul without fanfare.
Backers said the new guidelines would allow students to dig deeper into key topics and would better prepare them for college and careers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s turnaround 18 months ago — from backer to fervent foe — ignited arguments at BESE, in the Legislature and in courtrooms as critics tried to pull the state out of Common Core and the PARCC tests.
Critics contend that Common Core is an intrusion by federal officials on local school decisions.
In the key legal case, 19th Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez on Aug. 23 issued an injunction to lift the Jindal administration’s suspension of two state contracts needed for the Common Core tests.
Appeals are underway, and Jindal, Geymann and others plan to launch a new push to dump the standards in Louisiana during the two-month legislative session.
Whether to ease penalties for schools where students opt out of the tests — one such bill already has been filed — will be part of what is certain to be another pitched battle.
Michael Faulk, superintendent of the highly rated Central school system, noted that small districts are more likely to be hurt on school performance scores, especially if top-flight students take a pass.
Faulk said at least 36 of about 2,000 potential test takers in his school system plan to avoid the exams.
“When you talk about an individual school and the impact it has on an individual school, to me, that is important,” he said.
Asked for comment, Jindal said that BESE and the state Department of Education “are purposefully sowing confusion among parents and teachers by refusing to honestly declare whether kids or schools will be penalized for opting out of the PARCC test.”
Leger said BESE already has taken a wide range of steps to soften the impact of Common Core tests and added another school year — 2015-16 — to two previous ones where school letter grades were issued on a curve.
“It gives everybody a little more leeway,” Leger said of the soft-landing policies.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.