State education leaders say they are less than surprised that nearly every other public school in Louisiana would get a “D” or “F” under the state’s new system of assigning letter grades for student performance.

“Unfortunately it tells the ugly truth,” said Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE.

State leaders have spent more than a decade trying to improve the state’s nearly 1,300 public schools through more academic rigor, annual snapshots of school performance and other steps.

But a new system of giving schools traditional letter grades — it starts this fall — will also provide students, parents and other taxpayers with a new way of looking at school performance.

Top officials of the state Department of Education disclosed last week that if the system were in place today, 46 percent of public schools would receive a “D” or “F” from the state.

Under current rules, schools are given stars and labels linked to their annual school performance scores, which mostly reflect how students fared on key tests.

Critics say the labels and stars mean little to parents.

School leaders contend that, while the letter grades will be jolting, they merely reflect school and student performances in terms that are readily understandable.

“Grades have a more compelling reaction on people,” said Laura Lindsay, interim dean of the College of Education at LSU.

But Lindsay cautioned that grades only tell a piece of the puzzle and that issues like where a school started, resources, student needs and other issues merit attention.

Others noted that the low grades, if applied today, are in line with other snapshots.

Earlier this year Education Week magazine gave Louisiana an “F” for student achievement.

About one in three students performs below grade level, which is about 230,000 students.

Dastugue said the wave of “Ds” and “Fs” also reflects rising state standards designed to improve student performance.

Schools now have to achieve a minimum score of 65 out of about 200 to avoid state sanctions.

That minimum rises to 75 next year.

Dastugue said it is also encouraging that about one in four schools are close to moving up a grade.

“People are not going to want to be a “D” school or an “F” school or a “C” school,” she said.

Yet the new system, which was hammered out by BESE in December, remains controversial.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the push to grade public schools stems in part from a visit to Louisiana by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, touting the grades “as the next great innovation.”

“One letter grade is not going to provide anymore than a superficial understanding of what a school is doing,” Monaghan said.

Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the grades are “just another one of the attacks on public education.”

Once public schools are saddled with low marks, families and businesses will avoid the area, Haynes said.

The ratings are the outgrowth of a 2010 state law.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie and a key backer of the plan, said it is not surprising that if the grades were in effect today, nearly half of public schools in Louisiana would get a “D” or an “F.”

“I think a lot of the reforms are relatively recent,” Appel said.

“The things that we have been doing here for the last four or five years will take time to jell and develop,” he said.

Stephanie Desselle, a former BESE member, said the grades have sparked controversy in part because they will contradict what some school leaders have told patrons for years.

“A lot of school districts were saying to the parents and taxpayers that we have good schools, our schools are all right,” said Desselle, who is senior vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

“A lot of people are going to learn that there are concentrations of schools in which students are not being taught well enough and are not achieving,” she said.