High school test scores for the most part continued to improve in the New Orleans metro area this year, according to the latest official figures, though graduation rates dipped in local high schools governed by the state’s closely watched turnaround agency.
The new data include the percentage of students passing exams in specific subjects, ACT results and so-called cohort graduation rates, measuring the percentage of students who finish high school within four years of entering the ninth grade.
For schools in Orleans Parish, where a high-profile experiment with independent charter schools has been playing out for nearly a decade, the latest snapshot of high school performance suggests another year of progress. But the figures also show the city continues to lag the state as a whole in some areas, and performance from one school to another remains, in some cases, starkly uneven.
“The improvement is absolutely a good thing, and it’s some very nice gains, probably bigger gains than we’re seeing in a lot of urban districts,” said Daria Hall, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. “But there’s still a really long way to go.”
For instance, 50 percent of New Orleans high school students scored an 18 or better this year on the ACT, out of a possible 36, hitting what’s considered an important benchmark for college-readiness. That’s up from 44 percent the year before, with both districts that operate in New Orleans showing improvement. But it was still short of the 59 percent of students who scored an 18 or better statewide.
On Louisiana’s so-called end-of-course exams, given in various subjects, New Orleans students have gotten closer to erasing the gap between city and state. Across both school districts, the percentage of high school students scoring “good” or “excellent” — as opposed to “needs improvement” or “fair” — climbed to 59 percent in New Orleans this year, up from 52 percent the year before.
Statewide, 62 percent of students earned “good” or “excellent” scores, compared with 59 percent the prior year.
On the other hand, the cohort graduation rate in New Orleans dropped to just under 73 percent from nearly 78 percent the year before. That decline happened entirely in schools governed by the Recovery School District, the state turnaround agency that took over most of the city’s public schools after Hurricane Katrina, and it left state officials somewhat at a loss.
“This is basically a head-scratcher,” said Adam Hawf, an assistant superintendent for the Louisiana Department of Education.
In part, Hawf said, the dip may be a statistical fluke. A policy shift led district officials to hold back an unusual number of eighth-graders in 2008, shifting some of the lowest-performing students from the cohort that was supposed to graduate in 2012 to the one that graduated in 2013. It’s possible that caused a jump in the graduation rate one year, followed by a sharp decline the next, though Hawf acknowledged there is no telling how many of those students might have ultimately been held back anyway.
In any case, he pointed to ways the state is trying to improve the graduation rate. In the past few years, the district has been diversifying the types of high schools it offers in an effort to keep more students in school.
That includes schools specifically designed to catch up students who have fallen behind, as well as career or vocational options.
In high schools governed by the Orleans Parish School Board, which hung on to a small number of relatively high-performing schools after the storm, the cohort graduation rate remained steady at just over 89 percent.
In the rest of the metro area, test scores and graduation rates generally improved, if somewhat modestly.
The state did not release ACT scores for parishes outside of Orleans on Friday, but the percentage of students scoring good or excellent on end-of-course exams climbed to 60 percent in Jefferson Parish this year, up from 55 percent the year before. That figure in St. Tammany Parish rose to 77 percent, up 2 percentage points.
Scores also improved in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Charles parishes, though St. John the Baptist saw a small decline.
Cohort graduation rates held steady or improved slightly in every parish except for Jefferson and St. Charles, which saw declines of about 1 percentage point.