desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

One of the bright spots for Louisiana in the latest installment of the nation's report card is the performance of African-American students in reading and math.

While Louisiana students overall finished between 44th and 49th nationally, the state's African-American students were at or near the national average in three of four categories when compared to black students in other states.

They finished 23rd in eighth-grade reading compared to their black peers, 28th in eighth-grade math and 32nd in fourth-grade math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

All three were improvements over previous tests in 2017, including an 11-point gain in eighth-grade reading.

The gains are especially striking since the state has the second highest percentage of black students in the nation, and those students typically score well below white students in key subjects.

"We are doing better today with our challenged populations that we were just a few years ago," said Jim Garvey, a Metairie attorney and 11-year veteran of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"And I think that it is because of our constant dedication to raising the bar, raising the expectations," said Garvey, who was re-elected to BESE on Oct. 12.

Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE member who helped launch the state's latest bid to improve schools, said the gains by black students stem from changes that rarely win lots of attention.

"I suspect our standards and our curriculum are pretty well aligned with NAEP," she said, a reference to the nation's report card.

"There has been a lot of research that curriculum really matters," Jacobs said. "What you ask students to do in the classroom really matters."

Classrooms have undergone major changes in recent years, including tougher academic benchmarks that began with Common Core and were later changed to carry a heavier state imprint.

In addition, more of the state's 69 school systems have adopted a high-quality curriculum that aligns with those standards for teaching and learning, according to the state Department of Education.

School districts have also trained and supported their teachers to use the curriculum as a way to improve student learning.

Linda Johnson, who served on BESE from 1999 to 2011, said the state's focus on black students, those from low-income families and other "subgroups" is paying off.

"A lot has to do with the curriculum materials we have in place," Johnson said. "A lot has to do with the emphasis we put on subgroups."

Garvey made a similar point. "I think that raising the standards typically helps your lower-performing students," he said.

"The standards kind of serve as a floor, not a ceiling," Garvey said. 

"As you raise the floor it typically brings up first and foremost students closer to the floor," he said. "And that would apply more to low-income and minority families."

Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said reading and math scores show changes in education policies are working.

"In the past few years our state has worked hard to ensure students who are traditionally underserved receive more opportunities for success," Kemp said.

The outlier in gains by black students is fourth-grade reading, where they rank 39th compared to African-American students in other states.

They finished ahead of white students, whose rankings ranged from 34th to 45th in reading and math compared to their white counterparts nationally.

But while black students here are generally competitive with black students in other states, lower scores for black test-takers in general soften the overall impact.

Black students in Louisiana scored an average of 26 to 30 points lower on a 500-point scale than white students.

Jacobs, who lives in New Orleans, said students there are closer to the state average for academic achievement the longer they are in the public school system, unlike in the past, when the gap widened yearly from elementary school.

"On an absolute basis our black students are moving to the national average, which is really cool," she said.

State leaders often note that poverty, demographics and other issues play a huge role in test score results, and a study last week backed that up.

The Urban Institute, which includes social scientists, mathematicians and demographers, tweeted the results of a simulation that assumed all states had the same racial and other breakdowns.

Under that scenario, Louisiana was the second biggest winner in the nation, with unheard-of overall rankings of 24th in fourth-grade math, 20th in eighth-grade math, 29th in fourth-grade reading and 10th in eighth-grade reading.

New Hampshire, which scores in the Top 10 in actual tests, plummets to the high 30s and low 40s with a more diverse simulated population.

"When Louisiana ranks 40-something, that is because overwhelmingly we are also one of the states with some of the highest percentages of poor students and students of color," Jacobs said.

"When you compare our performance by subgroups, when all states are evaluated assuming they have the same mix of students and that mix mirrors the national average, then we move from in the 40's to like No. 10 in eighth-grade reading," she said. 

"That is pretty amazing."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.