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The first Lee High School students get off the first bus to arrive for the first day of school for the EBR school system on Wednesday August 10, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

One of the  biggest, recurring debates in the push to revamp public schools is how to change the system for grading schools, which was launched under former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

A panel of education leaders is set to meet on Wednesday at noon to try to resolve arguments – the sixth such gathering where the topic has been aired since June.

Leaders of the group, called the Louisiana Accountability Commission, had hoped to resolve disputes at their Jan. 12 gathering.

But arguments continue on one of the most contentious subjects since schools underwent sweeping changes under Jindal. Like those battles this one pits traditional public school groups, including teacher unions, against self-styled education reformers.

Jindal, who pushed for approval of the letter grades in 2010, saw them as the cornerstone of his push two years later to overhaul public schools, Timmy Teepell, a longtime Jindal confidant, has said.

The first results, one year later, showed that 44 percent of public schools were rated "D" or "F."

Jindal used those results to help win legislative approval for landmark laws expanding school vouchers statewide, tougher teacher tenure rules and other changes in 2012.

Getting a resolution on the current dispute is important because the commission advises the policy-setting state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Letter grade calculations are a big topic in how the state plans to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is driving the overhaul.

BESE hopes to sign off on a plan next month, and the commission's recommendations are important.

The key issue is this: How much weight should yearly academic gains play in calculating school grades for students in elementary and middle schools, regardless of scores?

Under current rules, grades are based mostly on how students fare in high-profile exams.

Classroom improvements can only count for 7 percent of the grade, and that only applies to struggling students.

Leaders of traditional school groups contend the growth should play a major role in the grade, perhaps 50 percent, and apply to all students.

Opponents counter that doing so would dilute the value of what has been an easily understandable grading system, and make the states's roughly 1,300 public schools look better than they are.

Kathy Noel, a DeSoto Parish educator and chairwoman of the commission, said Friday a growth factor of 25-30 percent would strike the right balance. "There are schools that are growing students and we don't have a way to acknowledge that," Noel said.

State Superintendent of Education John White recommended 25 percent in September.

White's revised ESSA plan is to be released on Monday at 9 a.m.

"I still believe that 25 percent is too high and will continue to speak against it," said Brigitte Nieland, a member of the commission who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Nieland said she favors making student growth 10-20 percent of a school's score, which is then converted to an A, B, C, D or F. She said allowing student improvements to count for 25 percent of the tally could allow an "F" school to be misleadingly classified as a "C" school.

"I don't see how it helps children to do that," Nieland said. "All it does is mask the problem." 

Debbie Meaux, a member of the commission and president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said Friday she prefers making academic growth 50 percent of the school performance score, and 30 percent at a minimum.

Yearly growth is vital because it shows what kids are doing, she said.

Meaux said the current grading system is flawed. "It is a snapshot in time," she said.

Meaux said the issue is especially divisive because its pits concerns about distorting school performance versus arguments that improvements need to be clear to the public.

"It is something brand new that we have not looked at before," she added.

Noel said she is confident the growth issue will be resolved Wednesday.

A task force named by Gov. John Bel Edwards last month said the state should consider scrapping the public school letter grades, which would require a change in state law.

Edwards is a critic of the grading system.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.