As public schools reopen this week, local superintendents are telling parents to brace for a drop in upcoming school letter grades because of Louisiana's new rating system.
The worry is that a plunge in school grades will spark a public firestorm.
Public school letter grades, which have sparked controversy since they were unveiled in 2011, are at the center of a new dispute between stat…
"Obviously I think there will be concern from people that do not understand that there was a shift in the formula," said Cade Brumley, superintendent of the Jefferson Parish School District, the largest in the state.
"That is what I am talking about in community groups and I know other superintendents are as well," Brumley said.
Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said his group has been advising superintendents for months on how to get ready for the changes.
"To prepare people so it won't be a shock," said Faulk, former superintendent of the Central School District.
The state has about 700,000 public school students, and many classrooms reopen on Aug. 8 and Aug. 9.
The worries stem from major changes in the calculation of school performance scores, which show how students fared on key tests, graduation rates and academic growth.
Those scores are then converted to all-important letter grades, which play a big role in how public schools are viewed by parents and others.
The change is aimed at adding rigor to classrooms and to make annual snapshots of student achievement in Louisiana comparable to other states.
In the past, critics say, those scores were inflated and misled parents on how students were performing.
However, during the transition the number of F-rated schools will rise by 57 percent and those with A ratings will drop 38 percent, according to state figures released last year.
Earlier this year the Legislature took the unusual step of requiring the state to issue two scores and two letter grades this time — one on how schools fared under the old, more generous system and the other with the new ratings.
Legislation aimed at cushioning the expected drop in public school letter grades won final legislative approval Tuesday.
Educators say that while the law will help soften the blow when grades drop, spreading the word in advance is the best way to avoid an uproar.
Scott Devillier, superintendent of the top-rated Zachary School District, said officials are even considering a town hall meeting to explain the changes after the scores come out, possibly in October.
Including the topic in school board meetings, on informational flyers and the district's website are other steps planned.
State leaders are taking the unusual step of enacting a law to soften the blow when lots of public school letter grades decline later this year.
"We have talked about it and we are going to get something out to the community and we are probably going to do that fairly quickly," said Devillier, whose district has been the top rated in Louisiana for 13 consecutive years.
Wes Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge school system, said officials have discussed the new rating system at chamber and other meetings.
"We have tried to prepare our community as much as possible," Watts said.
Under the state's rating system, scores are put into one of five categories: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic and unsatisfactory.
The state's goal is for schools to average mastery by 2025 for schools to earn an A.
The old standard was basic.
Until this year, students got 125 points out of 150 for mastery and 100 points for basic.
When public school letter grades are released on Tuesday, it will mark the end of a generous scoring system sparked mostly by the tougher acad…
The change means they will get 100 points for mastery and 80 for basic, the two key changes. That means if students perform like they did last year, the overall scores will drop, and possibly the grade too.
"That is why it is important for them to see what it would have been on the old scale," said Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals.
Schum said principals are trying to get the message out that the system has changed.
"I think there is going to be some surprise," she said.
West Feliciana Parish Superintendent Hollis Milton said he has made no major push to discuss the changes and plans to put most of the attention on whether students show improvements.
"It might be much ado about nothing," he said of any fallout from the new rating setup.
Jason Fountain, who has been superintendent of highly-rated Central public schools since January, said while officials hope to explain the new rules it is unclear whether the message will take hold.
"I think all superintendents, all districts, have tried to put this out there, to make sure their constituents understand the changes in accountability and so forth," Fountain said.
"But I think for the most part the public is just going to look at the sheer score and make judgments based on that," he added.
David Alexander, superintendent of the highly-rated Ascension Parish School District, said officials have been discussing the new ratings since the previous school year.
"We want everyone to know," Alexander said. "This is a message we are trying to get out."
Jim Garvey, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Texas, Florida and other states have used tougher standards to grade schools than Louisiana.
"The people who are afraid of their letter grades going down, I think they are focusing on the wrong thing," Garvey said, an attorney who lives in Metairie.
"What we need to do is decide which schools are really B's and which schools are really C's and focus on getting those to A's," he said. "We are not trying to play a game of gotcha."