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Advocate staff photo by ELLYN COUVILLION - Donaldsonville Primary teacher Jenny Heroman Koenig and her second-grade magnet students work together on a phonetics lesson. Koenig became certified to teach though the school district's Teach Ascension Academy

Two years after purchasing a custom-made standardized test to screen applicants for its magnet schools, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has decided to rely almost solely on tests that public and private school students already take to determine whether they are admitted.

The in-house test, developed in 2015 by Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was never used as much as anticipated. School officials were expecting that 1,000-plus applicants that year would have to take the three-hour-long test, perhaps more.

'Magnet Mania': East Baton Rouge magnet schools open up for new applicants

Instead, only about 500 of the more than 4,200 magnet school applicants in 2015 ended up taking it. About the same number took it in 2016.

Prior to 2015, the school system relied on state standardized tests, particularly the LEAP test, or Louisiana Educational Assessment Program. Most of the magnet programs in Baton Rouge, including the most popular, Baton Rouge Magnet High, have minimum admission standards. Third grade to 12th-grade students applying for most magnet spots have historically had to show they are “proficient” on a standardized test, meaning they are on grade level and above in math and English.

In 2015, Louisiana discontinued the old LEAP tests. Instead, the state required public school students take a new, much more controversial standardized test: PARCC,  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

PARCC was designed to align with Common Core educational standards that more than 40 other states adopted. Louisiana and a few other states ended up dropping Common Core.

Drawing heavily from Common Core, Louisiana crafted its own standards in 2016 and developed yet another standardized test, first given in 2016, called LEAP 2025. It features a mix of PARCC questions as well as questions developed just for Louisiana.

East Baton Rouge Parish school officials were not as concerned about the controversy over PARCC as they were about relying on that test to accurately identify students who were at grade level or better. They were also concerned that results from the spring 2015 PARCC tests were scheduled to come out months later than normal, and they would not be available when the Magnet Office decided which students met the cut and which ones didn’t.

As a result the district purchased the Houghton Mifflin test and estimated they would need to test more than 1,000 students.

Those concerns in retrospect were unwarranted, said Theresa Porter, director of magnet programs.

“Initially, we didn't think we would have the results in time, which is why the projected number (of test-takers) was larger,” explained Porter. “When (the state) released their results, it was much earlier than the expected fall date originally announced.”

Consequently, the school system ended up giving about 500 students, the bulk of whom were public school students who fell a bit short of earning a proficient grade on the PARCC test, the chance to try again with the Houghton Mifflin test.

Later, the district learned that students who scored less than proficient on PARCC and later LEAP 2025 also scored about the same on the Houghton Mifflin test, Porter said.

“They were not notably different,” Porter said.

As a result, those students will no longer get a second chance by taking the Houghton Mifflin test, she said.

As of Monday afternoon, 4,776 students had applied for a magnet program. Midnight Monday was the deadline to file their application.

About 100 private or home-school students, who have not taken a comparable standardized test but want to attend a district magnet school, are the only ones so far the district has asked to take the Houghton Mifflin test, which will be given Dec. 9 and Dec. 16.

Private school students can also avoid taking the Houghton Mifflin test if they can show they took a comparable test, known as a norm-referenced test, at their private school. Porter said her office, over time, has become better at identifying which private schools are taking which tests and pressing families to dig up the child’s scores from those with comparable tests.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.