One year after key tests were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana public school students will soon resume traditional yearly exams in math, English, science and social studies.
But how those results will be used, including whether public schools and districts will be assigned letter grades, is a big, unanswered question.
The issue is on the agenda when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meets Tuesday.
It has already sparked two laws and may be the subject of new debates when the 2021 regular legislative session begins April 12.
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How students fare on the tests — called LEAP 2025 — typically play a huge role in school performance scores, which also determine all-important letter grades assigned to schools and school districts.
Exam results are normally key factors in how some teachers are evaluated, one of several practices that has already been shelved because of one of the testing laws enacted during the second special session of 2020.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' plan to boost teacher pay by $400 per year got a blistering reception Friday from teacher leaders.
The fact that the yearly exams are even moving ahead has sparked some pushback. The state branch of the NAACP has called for all tests to be suspended.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said exam results should be purely advisory.
"At the end of the day, no kid should be penalized this year," Fields said. "We have to know where we are. But it should not be used against anybody."
The U.S. Department of Education, in a Feb. 22 letter, invited state education leaders to seek a wide range of waivers that would allow states to put off key parts of their spring testing routines.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the state has not sought any federal waivers.
"We think it is really important that students test because we haven't tested in two years," Brumley said. "We need to know where our kids are, and that is important because it will drive instructional decisions and will also drive resource allocation decisions."
BESE President Sandy Holloway and two other leaders of the panel made the same point when federal officials spelled out what they were offering states last month.
"Assessing all students not only helps us understand what learning gaps have been created or widened but also what we must do to close them," according to a statement released by Holloway and BESE members Kira Orange Jones and Ashley Ellis.
"Families, schools and educators deserve to know where each student is in his or her academic trajectory."
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced in March 2020 that he would be issuing a proclamation that shelved standardized tests because of the virus.
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The cancellations also applied to end-of-course exams, school and district accountability and teacher evaluations.
Classrooms closed nine weeks ahead of schedule for the 2019-20 school year, forcing a sudden lurch to distance learning that is still in place today.
About 70% of public school students are attending in-person classes. The rest are learning through virtual instruction or a combination of virtual and in-person classes.
The turmoil has sparked concerns about learning loss that could cripple students for years, especially for those living in rural areas that lack internet access.
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BESE may or may not reach any conclusions Tuesday on test plans, including how the results will be used.
Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said superintendents are waiting on guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how to handle test scores.
Faulk said some families have said they do not want their children to return to classrooms for the exams because of the virus. "How do you ensure that the security measures have integrity?" Faulk asked.
Said Brumley, "We have already been working to provide accommodations for testing, such as weekend testing, off-site testing, evening testing.
"So if a family is concerned about large groups we have made reasonable accommodations to account for that."
The tests are usually given statewide in late March and early April.
This time, schools will have multiple options in April and May, with the first set for April 15 for high school students.
The same 2020 state law that bans the use of tests results to help evaluate teachers — Act 53 of the second special session — also prohibits officials from using scores to determine whether fourth and eighth graders move to the next grades.
Another measure from the same session — Act 47 — gives BESE the authority to make allowances on school and district scores "as the board deems necessary and appropriate."
The law also directs the board to seek a federal waiver to shelve letter grades this year if issuing the marks would be "detrimental" to the state.
Brumley told local superintendents that districts will have the option of not labeling schools this year as needing "comprehensive" or "urgent" intervention.
BESE earlier approved a policy that will allow one observation, not the normal two, for teachers and administrators who earn top ratings.
Others will still face two observations on how they are performing.