The Louisiana Department of Education has consistently touted strong academic gains in New Orleans public schools as justification for expanding its role in public schools in Baton Rouge.
This year, though, the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees an array of charter schools and a shrinking number of traditional schools in New Orleans, saw slowing in its previously swift pace of academic growth. Now, RSD New Orleans schools are improving no faster than the large urban public school districts in the state it is regularly promoted as an improvement upon.
The measure that tells this story is the percentage of students who score “basic” or above on 26 standardized tests in four academic subjects. Students in grades three to nine, as well as grade 11, take the tests each spring. Students in Louisiana who score basic or above on these tests are considered on or above grade level. Educators call this measure a “proficiency rate.”
Between spring 2007 and spring 2012, the RSD in New Orleans improved its proficiency rate from 23 percent to 51 percent, far and away the fastest growth pace in the state.
Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes, the No. 1 and No. 2 largest school districts in Louisiana in terms of enrollment, tied for eighth during this five-year period, growing 13 percentage points each.
John White, state superintendent of education, noted RSD New Orleans’ strong five-year performance during a news conference May 23 announcing the results.
White said less about how RSD New Orleans grew only 3 percentage points between 2011 and 2012. In preceding years, its proficiency rate grew between 5 percentage points and 9 percentage points depending on the year, well outpacing the state each time.
This year, both East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes grew at the same rate as the RSD New Orleans, 3 percentage points apiece. The state as a whole increased its proficiency rate by 2 percentage points.
Growth tells only part of the story. Despite its rapid improvement, RSD New Orleans still lags behind urban Louisiana school districts of similar size, and this year RSD failed to close that big gap.
East Baton Rouge and Jefferson saw 60 percent and 64 percent of their students, respectively, scoring at grade level or above this spring, well above the 51 percent in RSD New Orleans schools. The state’s overall proficiency rate is 68 percent.
Outside of New Orleans, in the state-run district known collectively as RSD Louisiana, both the overall performance has been lower and the rate of improvement has been slower than at peer schools in New Orleans.
RSD Louisiana schools — seven are in Baton Rouge — have struggled since the state took them over. They have had frequent leadership changes, lots of teacher turnover, and overall educate about half as many students as the schools they’ve replaced.
RSD Louisiana’s overall proficiency rates have improved from 24 percent to 32 percent since 2009, with 2 of those percentage points coming in the last year. That still means only a third of the children are at or above grade level. The next-lowest proficiency rate is in Baker City schools, where 42 percent of children were proficient this spring.
Of the RSD Louisiana schools in Baton Rouge, Prescott Middle, despite some improvement this past year, posted the poorest results, while Kenilworth Science & Technology School posted the strongest results.
Charles Lussier covers education in East Baton Rouge Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.