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Louisiana's top school board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to shelve public school letter grades for the 2020-21 school year.

Federal officials are expected to approve Louisiana's request to shelve public school letter grades amid declining test scores blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.

If so, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is prepared to finalize the move during a committee meeting Tuesday and by the full board on Wednesday.

The grades, which have sparked controversy for years, are usually released in November and show how students fared on key tests as well as how school districts compare with each other.

But education leaders have complained for months that it would be unfair to assign grades to public schools and school systems after 18 months of upheaval in the classroom caused by the pandemic.

The Aug. 3 release of all-important test scores from the spring – called LEAP 2025 – showed scores in math, English, science and social studies fell in virtually all of the state's 69 school districts.

That all but ensured public school letter grades would plummet as well.

BESE voted a few weeks later to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver that would largely set aside Louisiana's public school accountability system for the 2020-21 school year.

State officials are awaiting an answer from the federal agency.

However, education officials who follow the issue said they are confident the state will get the approval, especially since at least 45 other states have won waivers from federal officials.

The grades began in 2011-12 under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, and 44% of schools were rated "D" or "F" in the first snapshot. Backers have long said the grades offer an easy to understand way for taxpayers to see how public schools are faring.

Critics say the marks are misleading.

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Repeated efforts to get rid of the grading methods have failed but the state relied on a curved system for four years, which critics said inflated the results, during the move to tougher academic standards embodied in Common Core.

While the grades are a state measure, wholesale changes or a pause in a state's accountability system require federal approval. 

The waiver would allow the state to shelve the calculation of school performance scores, which are then linked to letter grades; spell out how Black students, those from low-income families and others did in the classroom; identify schools that need urgent intervention; label schools as "declining" or those showing "top gains" and assign letter grades to school districts.

The waiver request was backed by BESE, the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, the Louisiana School Boards Association and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Backers of the request said the grades would be detrimental to the state and would damage the morale of teachers and administrators.

The Legislature all but invited BESE to seek the waiver.

Education leaders said the waiver would be in effect for one year.

They have also said local school districts will be provided tests results and other information on student performance, including progress toward the fourth highest of five achievement levels that is the state's 2025 goal.

A total  of 29% of students in grades three through eight reached that mark this year compared to 34% in 2019, the last time the exams were given.

Among high school students 32% achieved the goal – called mastery – compared to 37% two years ago.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.