The St. Helena Parish School Board has asked a federal judge to view the district’s dramatic improvement in state test scores as a sign that local officials know how to turn around the parish’s failing education system — and, by implication, that the state does not.

But is that enough to warrant removing the parish’s middle school from the Recovery School District and returning it to School Board control?

State law would say no, and RSD officials would agree.

The Louisiana Legislature created the state-run RSD in 2003 to turn around academically failing schools.

By law, any school labeled “academically unacceptable” four years in a row can, with permission of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, be placed in the RSD’s exclusive control.

Academically unacceptable status, or AUS, is tied to a school’s performance score, which depends heavily upon students’ test scores.

St. Helena Central Middle School joined the RSD in May 2010, after five years in AUS and one year under a state-mandated agreement defining specific goals for the school.

School performance scores for 2011-12 are not yet available, but state Department of Education reports do show some improvement within the middle school over the past school year.

The number of students scoring basic or above on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program tests increased in three out of four testing areas for fifth-graders; one for sixth-graders; and two each for seventh- and eighth-graders.

The largest gains were in mathematics, where the numbers of sixth- through eighth-graders meeting basic standards increased by 11-22 percentage points.

Other testing areas showed either little change or dramatic improvement in one grade amid dramatic decline in another.

St. Helena’s two other schools, both still under control of the School Board, were the most-improved in the state this year, with an overall gain of 13 percentage points in the number of students scoring basic and above.

Local school officials now point to those numbers and say the state-run middle school should be handed back to the School Board.

State law makes clear, however, that all schools transferred into the RSD must remain under state control for a minimum of five years, at which point the state must decide whether to continue RSD control, convert the school to a charter, close it or return it to the local school district.

But the St. Helena School Board isn’t asking the state to return the parish’s middle school — they’re asking a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady, who oversees the parish’s 60-year-old desegregation case, gave his initial approval for the state to take over the middle school on May 19, 2010.

The state had acknowledged the federal court’s control over St. Helena schools because of the ongoing lawsuit, but argued that the judge should allow RSD control of the middle school because doing so would not hinder the district’s ability to reach the court-ordered desegregation goals.

“The (takeover) will not only improve academics and enhance educational achievement in the parish, but will also further the underlying goals of desegregation by improving learning … and thus make the school more attractive to students of all races,” the state argued at the time.

The question is not only whether the state has lived up to its promise, but also whether enough time has passed for the judge to render that verdict.

Heidi Kinchen covers the St. Helena school system for The Advocate. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.