MET School bus cams GSJ 3.jpg

School buses head down Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010.

File photo by GAVIN JACKSON

In a late change, the state school board Wednesday night voted to end Louisiana's generous system for awarding public school letter grades.

The controversial switch was one of several that amounted to amendments to state Superintendent of Education John White's blueprint for revamping public schools.

The key document won approval 7-4,  just before 7 p.m.  and after nearly six hours of discussion.

Shortly after, BESE took up and endorsed a series of other changes in public school operations, which are set to be part of the state's proposal to the U.S. Department of Education.

The new rules were prompted by a 2015 federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

They have sparked controversy for weeks, with White and his allies on one side and Gov. John Bel Edwards and his team on the other.

The panel revamped the state's long controversial method for assigning public school letter grades, which have a huge impact in how schools are viewed. The grades also help determine whether students are eligible for vouchers, which allow students from low-income families attending troubled public schools to move to private schools at state expense.

The change would end what  is called the state's "curved" system for assigning the marks. It would take effect for the 2017-18 school year.

Under the current policy, the distribution of A's, B's, C's, D's and F's statewide has to remain the same year to year.

That rule stemmed in part from complaints that, during the move to Common Core, school districts needed protection from wholesale drops in student performance amid tougher academic benchmarks.

White has complained that, because of objections from teacher unions and others, the state is in the midst of a five-year delay giving meaningful ratings like systems in other states.

The issue triggered sharp criticism from former BESE President Jim Garvey, who is now a rank-and-file member  of the panel.

During comments before the key vote, Garvey said the state has been "lying" to parents and students for years about the value of public school letter grades.

Garvey, who lives in Metairie, said an A school in Louisiana would likely be rated B or C in other states, and a B school here would be a C or D school elsewhere.

"I know that other states have more rigorous accountability systems," he said. "Yet we put these false grading systems out there."

Critics contend public school letter grades are misleading, and fail to reflect student performance.

Backers call the grades an easy way for parents and other taxpayers to see how schools are faring.

In an email Thursday, Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said he hopes White's plan will be revised again.

"Superintendents and principals hope to have meaningful dialogue to correct the various issues within the plan," said Milton, who is superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish School District.

Other BESE-approved changes on how schools are rated may win favor with local educators.

Requirements to be an A-rated school will be dropped for the 2017-18 school year, then gradually rise during the state's move to increase requirements for a top rating by 2025.

In addition, schools will be awarded a C rather than a D for students earning the third of five achievement levels – basic.

Also, parents will be able to see how students scored both on performance with yearly academic gains as well as performance alone.

White said Thursday the late additions were a response to concerns by the governor, superintendents and others.

The list includes changing how 3 percent of federal education dollars would be used after complaints from superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The money will go to school districts, with restrictions.

In addition, the state Department of Education was directed to study the impact  of shelving end-of-course high school exams for biology and U. S. History.

The BESE action means the state plan will be submitted to federal officials around April 15, despite objections from Edwards, the Louisiana School Boards Association and 61 of 69 superintendents.

They favored sending the state proposal in September.

White hopes the plan will win approval in time for the start of the 2017-18 school year.

Rules to implement the proposal, which are sure to spark controversy, are set for BESE action June 20-21.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.