desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

A push to scrap letter grades for public schools this year is gaining steam after state officials announced last week student test scores plummeted amid classroom turmoil sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter grades are typically announced in November and are aimed at showing taxpayers how schools are performing.

But scores in math, English, science and social studies took a nosedive that affected virtually every school system in the state.

Scores on the exams, called LEAP 2025, fell 5 percentage points in meeting state achievement targets after years of inching up a point or two annually.

The state's goal is for students to achieve mastery or above – the fourth highest of five achievement levels.

A total of 29% of 3-8 students reached mastery this time, down from 34% in 2019, the latest such snapshot.

Among 9-12 students 32% achieved mastery compared to 37% two years ago.

Shelving the grades would require the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to request an accountability waiver from the U. S. Department of Education, officials said.

BESE President Sandy Holloway said "this is a conversation to be had with board members and the state superintendent."

BESE meets Aug 17-18.

Three groups that have long criticized the grades said a waiver makes sense after an unprecedented school year.

Janet Pope, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said Louisiana is one of just six states that has not sought an accountability waiver from the federal government.

"We are not putting letter grades on hospitals when they lose patients," Pope said. "We are not putting letter grades on courts because they are not having court sessions."

"Do we really want to put a letter grade on this?" she said of public schools.

Cynthia Posey, director of legislative and political affairs for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, noted that schools were open here during the 2020-21 academic year when they remained closed in many states.

"Is it really fair to grade students and penalize them when they faced unprecedented challenges?" Posey asked.

Annual letter grades for both schools and school districts, which are part of a push to improve student achievement, have sparked controversy for years.

Backers contend they offer an easy-to-understand way for parents, students and others to see how classrooms are performing.

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Critics contend test scores, which make up the bulk of the grades, are part of a flawed evaluation method that produces misleading results.

In 2019 nearly 1 out of 4 public schools – 23% – were rated D or F.

A total of 16% got an A, 32% got a B and 29% got a C.

Daniel Esparmer, president and CEO of The Pelican Institute, said the grades should proceed as normal.

"Parents and communities deserve to know how their schools are performing, especially during these challenging times," Esparmer said. "It is critical that we hold schools accountable for performance as our leaders make decisions about how to deploy resources to address literacy and learning loss."

Based in New Orleans, the Pelican Institute calls itself the state's "free market think tank."

Lauren Gleason, director of education and workforce development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the LEAP results "make it clear that we have a lot of ground to cover and remediating to do."

"Specific to letter grades, we understand that some considerations might need to be made but I don't want to confuse that for supporting a lack of information," Gleason said. 

"It is vital for information to be made available in a way that is very clear for parents and families to understand so that they can make the best decisions to get our kids back on track."

Whether the grades should be issued this year is a topic that has been bubbling for months, and well before LEAP results were released last week.

Officials in 90% of public school districts said in April they opposed the issuance of grades because of pandemic-related problems in the classroom.

The 2020-21 school year was marked by a combination of in-person and virtual instruction or a combination of the two.

About 75% of students were back in classrooms at the end of the most recent year, one of the top rates in the nation.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said public school grades and other "punitive" measures make no sense.

"It would be unfair to students, it would be unfair to educators," Mills said.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.