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 A panel that advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday discussed how public schools will be rated for the 2020-21 school year.

Amid rising concerns, officials in 90% of public school districts in Louisiana oppose the issuance of school letter grades because of the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association said Thursday.

Janet Pope, who leads the group, said the conclusions are based on a survey done by the LSBA. "We need to show grace for our students and their families," she said.

The issue surfaced during a meeting of the Accountability Commission, which advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Students last month began taking yearly standardized tests, called LEAP 2025, that measure what they know in math, English, science and social studies.

Those results usually play a major role in letter grades assigned to the state's 69 school districts and individual schools. But some educators this time are worried that scores are going to plummet in a school year marked by the unusual, including stops and starts in some districts because of coronavirus outbreaks.

About 70% of students are attending in-person classes.

The rest are relying on virtual instruction or a combination of virtual and in-person classes.

BESE has directed state education leaders to review the results of the tests.

"And at that point decisions can be made," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told the group.

When that will be is unclear.

State education leaders also want to get input from lawmakers on whether letter grades should be issued.

A law approved last year directs BESE to seek a waiver that would sideline letter grades this year if doing so would be "detrimental" to the state.

The 2021 regular legislative session begins April 12.

BESE leaders said last month it is vital that students proceed with the tests while noting no decision has been made on how the results will be used.

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The U.S. Department of Education has invited states to seek federal waivers that would allow normal school accountability rules to be shelved for the 2020-21 school year.

Brumley has made a point of saying the state has sought no such waivers.

Pope said all 17 states that sought accountability waivers have had their requests approved by federal officials.

"We are asking you to take advantage of this waiver," Pope said to Brumley and others.

In an interview, Pope said the LSBA believes in testing students, and the results can help drive instruction.

"But to come back and say after this type of year that we have been through and the uneven implementation of instruction, to assign a letter grade to that, we are grading the pandemic," she said. "We are not grading what our school systems should be doing or not doing."

The state has already made some allowances for the pandemic.

High school seniors who failed to win passing marks on LEAP 2025 have multiple alternatives in lieu of that requirement, including scoring a modest 17 composite on the ACT, which is supposed to measure college readiness.

Kathy Noel, deputy assistant superintendent of assessments, accountability and analytics, said school districts can opt out of labeling schools as needing "comprehensive" or "urgent" intervention.

Noel also said state education officials are in regular contact with their counterparts at the U.S. Department of Education.

"There is not a deadline for when we submit a request for a waiver," she said.

Debra Schum, a retired principal, former commission member and current member of the St. John the Baptist school board, noted that some students are still relying on virtual instruction.

Schum urged state officials to hold students harmless because of the tumultuous school year.

"Hopefully we can come up with something that is fair to all the districts," she said.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.