While Louisiana students face a long road to reaching new achievement targets, top-flight students actually showed better results on the first round of Common Core tests than on less rigorous exams last year.

In all but three school districts, students scoring at the fourth of five levels — “mastery” — or higher surpassed how they did on the 2014 assessments.

State education leaders said that, in general, scores rose because the Common Core tests are more conducive to letting the best students demonstrate their skills than the multiple-choice bubble tests used in the past.

The test students took last year was the final time for the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program.

The one used this time, linked to the Common Core, is called the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness of College and Careers.

The increases in students achieving mastery showed up all over the state, sometimes in double-digit hikes.

The percentage of students in the Zachary Community School District who earned mastery or better rose from 49 percent to 59 percent this time, tops in the state.

In the third-ranked Ascension Parish school system, students who did so shot up from 38 percent under the last LEAP test to 49 percent under the first Common Core assessment.

“While the LEAP test is primarily multiple-choice, the PARCC test had more open-ended questioning that allowed students to demonstrate content knowledge,” the district said in a prepared statement.

State Superintendent of Education John White made a similar point.

“The test basically differentiated performance to a greater degree than they did on LEAP,” White said. “By having harder questions but graded the same way as in the past, you are giving advanced kids more opportunity.”

About 320,000 students in grades three through eight took the tests in March and May.

Under the state’s plan, mastery, not “basic,” will be the average score for an A-rated school in 2025.

The old standard, White said, did not provide students with the skills needed for education after high school.

Even with the rise in high-end scores, the state faces a huge challenge in making mastery the benchmark.

Most of the top 10 school districts — half from the Baton Rouge area — were at 50 percent or lower in terms of students who met the state’s long-range target.

The state average was 33 percent.

In addition, while the new test format helped the best students, it hurt others who struggled to reach basic in the past.

Last year, about half the students were classified as basic on the LEAP exam, according to the state Department of Education.

This time those results were spread more evenly, with some slipping from basic to the second of five achievement levels — “approaching basic.”

“Lower-achieving kids, who before may have barely gotten across the basic line, struggled with those questions more,” White said of this year’s test.

In addition, suspicions remain among some educators that the scores were worse than they appear and that they seem brighter only because of how the state Department of Education converted “raw scores” to those released.

Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, praised the work of students, teachers and parents, including the West Feliciana Parish school system, where he is superintendent.

But Milton also said in an email that caution is needed “because the raw scores were sobering and achievement levels have been adjusted by the Department of Education.”

White disputed Milton’s comments and said scores in Louisiana are handled the same way as other states.

The Central school district, which finished eighth statewide, rose from 39 percent of its students achieving mastery last year to 45 percent this time.

It could have been even higher, said Michael Faulk, superintendent of the school system.

Faulk said that in one school, 11.8 percent of students opted not to take the test.

“And I would say between 75 and 80 percent of the opt-outs were kids that were scoring mastery and above under the old standards,” he said.

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