Nearly half of Louisiana’s public schools would get a “D” or “F” if a controversial grading system that begins later this year were in effect today, officials said Tuesday.

The issue surfaced during a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

That panel approved the grading policy in December after legislators passed a law that required letter grades, and left BESE to hammer out the details.

The grade plans set off a new round of concerns on Tuesday but no changes in rules set to take effect in the fall.

The state now uses stars and labels to rate school performance, which critics say means little to students, parents and other taxpayers.

The change will link traditional letter grades to annual school performance scores, which primarily reflect how students fared on key tests.

Scott Norton, assistant state superintendent, told BESE that, if the grades were in place today, nearly half of the state’s public schools would receive a “D” or an “F” based on 2010 school performance results.

Norton cited state Department of Education data that showed 594 of 1,280 public schools would get a “D” or an “F,” which is 46 percent.

The department’s breakdown is:

A — 75 schools.

B — 236 schools.

C — 375 schools.

D — 513 schools.

F — 81 schools.

Backers said that, despite worries on how taxpayers will greet the news, issuing traditional letter grades is a positive step.

“We should not be afraid of the truth,” said Stephanie Desselle, senior vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

But Linda Johnson, a BESE member from Plaquemine and critic of the grading system, noted that nearly half of the schools would receive a “D” or “F” if the system were in place today.

“There has to be a better way to do this,” Johnson said.

Ollie Tyler, acting state superintendent of education, noted that BESE approved the policy in December.

“All the progress is excellent,” Tyler said of overall state education gains in recent years.

“But we still have a long way to go,” she added.

BESE member Chas Roemer, who played a major role in crafting the policy approved by the state board, said issuing traditional grades to schools is far better than a stars and labels system that few understand.

Janet Bean, an official of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, said her group favors a delay on the grades until they reflect school academic growth.

Issuing a single grade to schools “ignores the great progress that has been made,” Bean told the state panel.

Many public schools in New Orleans, despite some recent gains, are expected to receive failing and near failing marks this year.

Roemer said schools that meet their annual state growth targets will get a “plus” on the letter grades. Schools whose scores drop will get a minus.

Johnson said that 20 superintendents who studied the issue last year recommended that academic growth be part of the state’s evaluation.

However, those efforts were shelved during a lengthy process that ended with BESE approving its own plan in December.

The ranks of “F” schools could skyrocket next year when the minimum school performance score goes up.

If that standard was in effect today 239 schools, or 20 percent, would get failing marks.