LAFAYETTE — Student attendance — or the lack of it — weighed down school performance scores for the district, officials said Wednesday.

Performance scores were released by the Louisiana Department of Education on Wednesday along with the state’s new letter grade rating system that replaces the former star rating system that officials have said was too confusing for parents and the general public to understand.

Overall, Lafayette Parish received a grade of C and is ranked 25th in the state based on its performance score of 97.6 — a 1.1 point improvement over last year, according to figures released Wednesday. There are about 70 school districts in the state.

Iberia and Terrebonne parishes are also tied for the 25th ranking with the same performance score.

“Attendance makes a difference in the schools’ scores,” said Tom Spencer, the district’s accountability specialist during Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Early check-outs and late check-ins count as half-day absences whether the absence is excused or not, Spencer said.

District superintendent Burnell Lemoine encouraged parents to help improve scores by ensuring their children go to school and get there on time.

Board member Greg Awbrey criticized the state’s implementation of the new letter grade system as “politicizing education in Louisiana” and “making education look like it’s not doing its job.”

“I know there are educational issues that need to be addressed in Louisiana … but we have a lot of amazing opportunities as well,” Awbrey said. “Lafayette Parish, in my opinion, has more educational opportunities in the state.”

Board member Kermit Bouillion joked he wanted more time to “scream and cry” about the scores, which he called controversial and confusing.

Bouillion said there is still “room for improvement,” but said he felt the new system unfairly rates school performance. He read scores for Acadiana High — the high school in his district — that showed improvement in its score each year from 2007 to 2011.

“In my simple mind, I see a school that’s doing like this,” Bouillion said and moved his hand upward in the air.

“Acadiana high got a D-. Go figure that, Mr. President,” he said to School Board President Mark Allen Babineaux. “Acadiana High a D-? I don’t believe that for a minute.”

Lemoine agreed that the new rating system is “disappointing” and the state’s overall performance with more than 40 percent of state schools scoring a D or lower signals a bigger issue.

“When you look at that, you’ve got to question the system itself,” he said. “There has got to be a problem.”

Lemoine credited teachers and students for their hard work in the past year and said 87 percent of the district’s schools have “improved on a regular basis.”

“Certainly, that should be considered,” he said.

Thirteen of the district’s 39 schools charted improvement and three: Lafayette Charter High, Lafayette High and Plantation Elementary met the state’s growth target, according to the data.

Forty-one percent of the district’s schools made the “A/B honor roll” compared to the state’s 28.4 percent with a B or above, Spencer said. In that “honor roll” group — six Lafayette schools or 15.4 percent received an A and 10 or 25.6 percent received a B.

The majority of the district’s schools — 16 or 41 percent received a grade of “D” or “D-.”

Spencer noted that a plus or minus associated the letter grade symbolizes whether the school’s score improved or declined over the past year’s score.

Only one of the district’s schools — Lafayette Charter High — scored an F, and the district’s challenge of the school’s poor rating is still pending, Spencer said.

Also on Wednesday, the School Board voted 7-0 to begin an intensive educational program to help over-age fifth graders academically catch up with their peers.

The voluntary program will offer students the opportunity to take a condensed curriculum to complete the fifth and sixth grade in one year. Board members Shelton Cobb and Hunter Beasley questioned the program’s education plan and how it addressed the needs of struggling students.

Individualized instruction will help identify students’ weaknesses and the curriculum includes state-required grade-level expectations, said Katie Landry, deputy superintendent of instructional services.

So far, more than 90 students have expressed interest and over-age fifth graders at Alice Boucher Elementary and J.W. Faulk Elementary — two schools on the state’s academic watch list for low student performance — will be given priority for the 40 available spots, Landry said.

Across the district, there are about 130 over-age fifth graders — students who have failed two or more grades, she said.

The total cost of the program is about $209,000, according to Landry. About $120,000 is needed this year to cover the salary and benefits for two additional teacher positions, Landry said. Other expenses will be covered by federal grant funding, she said.