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Harriet Tubman Charter School Principal Julie Lause, second right, talks to Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White, right, in New Orleans, La. Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. According to the department of education, the school implemented a K-2 Montessori program in 2016 to provide students with greater focus, ownership of work, and accelerate student growth. Students have a two-hour work block in both the morning and afternoon to choose their own independent work Òon the shelfÓ while instruction in math and English Language Arts happens in small groups. White is taking part in a statewide tour of schools.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

For those of us who had other things on the mind than schoolwork back in the day, grading "on the curve" was a gift. More generous scoring than perhaps we'd earned was a good thing then, but with the wisdom of hindsight was it really good for us?

That thinking should guide Louisiana's reaction to tougher, but achievable, new standards for public schools.

Over the past four years, after much debate over new academic standards and the distractions caused by major natural disasters in 2016, state leaders graded school systems on the curve, to provide some relief. Among the disasters was catastrophic flooding in 2016 and those events are recognized with some waivers from test scores for hard-hit schools in Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes.

There was also the man-made disaster of several years ago, reckless opposition to higher academic standards labeled Common Core. That populist uprising led some supporters of school accountability astray, including then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, but with tough leadership from the state board of education and Superintendent John White, that crisis was gradually averted; today, schools operate on academic standards higher than the past, with some tweaking of the national Common Core levels.

"No question that this system is getting more challenging in future years," White told reporters Tuesday. "If history stands as a precedent then schools will meet that challenge."

Our new goal that we hope will be accepted by all comers in the education debates is increased "mastery" levels in English, math and science in the LEAP tests, up from the old "basic." The percentage of students who scored mastery since 2015 has inched up in all three subjects.

Still, as White and others pointed out in releasing last year's system scores, a lot of work remains to be done. Everyone is concerned that black students remain significantly behind whites in the tests. Also, just 25 percent of students classified as economically disadvantaged scored mastery compared to 52 percent of those from families with higher incomes.

Suburban systems continued to lead the state, even in the Baton Rouge area where flooding disrupted last year in many ways. Zachary was the leading system in the new scores, with Plaquemines, Central, Ascension and Vermilion systems in the top tier.

The end of grading on the curve is one thing for the systems, but the important changes are in the classrooms where a more rigorous standard must be met by students and their teachers. White's department and the majority of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is taking the lead in structuring the accountability system, but it is at the school level, in classrooms, that the rubber meets the road.

When our students compete in a more global workforce, they are going to find that they are not going to be graded on any curve, but on the quality of the stuff in their heads. That is an unforgiving standard, and Louisiana ought to have as its goal A-rated systems that produce educational quality.

Louisiana scores stall in drive for higher public school achievement