Various commercials and endorsements in support of David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign extol the alleged virtues of Louisiana’s K-12 testing and accountability system and warn the voters of dire consequences should John Bel Edwards be elected. Please allow me to thank Edwards for his support of real educational improvement and to explain some of the shortcomings of the school-grading system that Vitter’s supporters are so eager to maintain.
The Louisiana Department of Education bases all of an elementary school’s performance score on test results. Scores in each subject are compared with targets to determine whether the test performance was Advanced, Mastery, Basic, Approaching Basic or Unsatisfactory. For students in grades three through eight, each score in the lower two ranges earns zero points. Scores in Basic, Mastery and Advanced ranges earn 100, 125 and 150 points, respectively. Generally, the average score determines the school’s letter grade: A (100-150), B (85-99.9), C (70-84.9), D (50-69.9) or F (lower than 50). Thus, an individual’s test performance can lead to only two possible grades: A (100, 125 or 150 points) or F (0 points).
Consider this May’s third-grade mathematics test. Each student earned a raw score between zero (all answers wrong) and 81 (all answers correct). Those scores were converted to “scaled” scores on the range 650-850. Finally, the cutoffs for each achievement level were set. A student who earned 26 points out of the 81 raw points available just missed the cut for a score of Basic, so their contribution to the upcoming school performance score will be a zero. However, a student who answered one more question (or part of a question) correct and scored a 27 (33 percent) will earn 100 points toward the school’s average. A school in which every student earns 26 raw points will get an F. A school in which all students earn at least 27 raw points will get an A.
There is a perverse incentive for schools to concentrate on improving the test-taking ability of individuals near the boundary between Basic and Approaching Basic, to the detriment of other students. Furthermore, considering a student proficient when he or she earns only 33 percent of the available points in the raw score suggests that the state is subjecting students to inappropriately difficult questions for their grade level. Given the state’s steadfast refusal to comply with public records law, it is impossible to tell whether any student actually got every answer correct.
Accountability is desirable. So is transparency. At present, the K-12 testing and grading scheme possesses neither trait, and I plan to vote for Edwards as a step toward correcting those deficiencies.