One story points up the challenge that Louisiana faces as it begins a push to raise the bar for what students should know in the Common Core era.
“I have never had a kid transfer to my class from another state and be behind where we are,” said Carol Price, who teaches math at Zachary High School and is a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year.
“They are always a year or a half a year ahead of my students, and my students always find that quite depressing,” Price told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Zachary is the top-rated school district in the state.
The story is pertinent because BESE, in something of a sea change, voted last week to go along with 10 other states and the District of Columbia in how students will be graded in what they know about reading, writing and math on annual Common Core exams.
In a related policy, what students are expected to know will gradually undergo major changes, ending Louisiana’s longtime reliance on artificially low achievement barometers.
“We are trying to raise this level dramatically,” state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.
The new rules mean it will gradually be tougher for the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools to earn A-ratings, for school districts to thrive on annual report cards and for students to earn high marks on key spring tests.
For about 15 years, the state has said the third of five achievement levels — basic — was the minimum students needed to succeed after high school.
Starting in 2017, the state says, the fourth of five levels — mastery — will be the key benchmark.
Eventually, a school will have to have a student population where mastery is average to earn an A rating.
“It is a big goal, no doubt about it,” said Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “But I think our kids are just as capable as any other child in this country,” she said.
BESE voted 7-4 on Tuesday to adopt the achievement levels used by the other states and D.C.
The move was backed by LABI, the Council for a Better Louisiana, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, higher education leaders and others including Price.
Others are leery of how the new requirements will unfold.
“There are going to be a lot of challenges to make it happen,” said Brian LeJeune, superintendent of the Jefferson Davis School District in southwest Louisiana.
One of the hurdles, he said, is the fact the state’s new career education track called Jump Start will appeal to lots of students, lessening incentives for them to achieve mastery on all-important standardized tests.
“There are excellent jobs, especially in southwest Louisiana, that pay more than getting a four-year degree,” LeJeune said.
With that mindset, he said, those students will see little reason why they should aim for mastery on math and English exams — the fourth of five achievement levels — when basic is fine for their plans.
In the first round of Common Core tests, students who earned mastery ranged from 22 percent in seventh grade math to 40 percent in eighth-grade English.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, echoed LeJeune’s concern about the challenge of higher standards.
Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and leader of the highly rated West Feliciana Parish school system, said raising the academic bar is a good idea.
However, Milton said the push will be hindered because some superintendents want more information about Common Core exams so they are confident the “playbook” is reliable.
The state began its latest push to improve student achievement and to trim social promotions in 1999.
How students fared on the Louisiana Education and Assessment Program, or LEAP, was the focus of annual spring tests for years. But that ritual often revolved around the merits of students having to repeat the fourth and eighth grades if they failed to earn enough points on LEAP, not the rigor of the exams.
The state also set passing marks well below comparable exams in other states, and below what students are expected to know on assessments that make up the nation’s report card.
Not only is the state raising the bar. The Common Core tests are considered more rigorous than those on LEAP, including multistep tasks rather than filling in a bubble.
Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, said expecting students to earn the fourth of five achievement levels raises a variety of questions.
“I just think that there are going to be a lot of issues that arise about schools maintaining an A status if they have to have everybody at mastery,” Schum said.