'Really a major concern:' Obamacare forces Louisiana public schools to scramble for substitute teachers _lowres

Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard speaks at the Press Club of Baton Rouge in this October 2013 Advocate file photo.

The number of F-rated public schools is expected to shoot up 57 percent next year, and those with A ratings will drop 38 percent, under a new rating system approved last week by Louisiana's top school board.

Backers praised the revamped measuring stick, which is part of the state's push to make student rankings here as rigorous as in most other states.

"I think it is a reasonable compromise," said Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

The changes were approved over the objections of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, Louisiana School Boards Association and Louisiana Association of Principals.

Critics contend the public will be jolted when top-rated schools suddenly drop a letter grade or more.

Scott Richard, executive director for the LSBA, said district superintendents, school board members and principals will have to get the word out in the next year for parents to expect "some bumps in the road, some drops in letter grades."

The new rating system won approval from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on an 8-3 vote after a lengthy debate.

Two efforts to soften the impact of the new rules failed on identical 4-7 votes, with all three of Gov. John Bel Edwards' appointees siding with the push for a milder approach.

Donald Songy, education adviser for the governor, earlier urged BESE to "give every consideration" to the superintendents' plan, which would have meant a smaller drop in the number of A-rated schools and a smaller hike in those with F ratings.

Tony Davis, a BESE member usually aligned with advocates of changes in public schools, said the day after the vote that an initial dip in school grades is inevitable when a rating system is toughened.

Davis, who made the motion for the plan that was approved, said he understands the new rules will cause a "perception" issue for education officials amid public concerns when the grades drop.

"But we have to maintain this high level," said Davis, referring to the increased rigor in how the state measures public schools.

The changes apply to the current school year, not the state-issued letter grades for the 2016-17 school year set to be unveiled in the first week of November.

The overhaul stems in part from changes sparked by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Every state had to produce a plan on how to comply with the federal law. Louisiana's proposal, among the first approved, included a revamped rating system that set off alarm among superintendents.

It also triggered weeks of meetings among state officials, BESE members, local school board members, parents and officials of a wide range of education groups.

"I would assure you there there has been no shortage of discussion," Davis, who lives in Natchitoches, told colleagues on the day of the vote.

The focus of the revamped scoring system is the five achievement levels used by the state in testing students on English, math, science and social studies.

The categories are advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic and unsatisfactory.

The state's goal by 2025 is to require students to average "mastery" in order for the school to earn an A rating, up from the more modest standard of "basic" used for years.

The bulk of the results are in mastery and basic, and points earned for those two categories became the focal point of negotiations.

Under current rules, schools get 125 points for students who earn mastery and 100 points for basic.

The top tier, advanced, is worth 150 points; the two lowest, approaching basic and unsatisfactory, generate none.

The initial plan proposed by the state Department of Education, and approved by BESE earlier this year, would have changed that to 100 points for mastery and 70 points for basic.

That would have resulted in an 80 percent increase in F-rated schools and a 47 percent drop in those with A ratings.

The Louisiana Association of School Superintendents then offered its own plan, with students earning 110 points for mastery and 85 points for basic.

Taking that route would have meant next year's drop in A-rated schools would have been just 14 percent and the rise in F schools 29 percent.

Raising the bar too high would make it difficult for superintendents to find high-quality teachers and win community support for renewing a school millage, said Cade Brumley, president of the group and superintendent of the A-rated DeSoto Parish school system in northwest Louisiana told BESE.

Nieland disagreed.

She called the superintendents' plan inflated, meaning that it would make students appear to be performing better than they are.

Jessica Baghian, assistant state superintendent for assessments and accountability, told a state education panel Friday that the new system will ensure that an A in Louisiana "holds water" with the quality of A's in other states.

Under the outline approved by BESE, 44 percent of public schools will be rated A or B next year, compared with 48 percent expected to get those two grades in 2017, according to department estimates.

Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, backed the superintendents' proposal. She said that, if the state raises the achievement bar too quickly, educators will be "stressed and overwhelmed."

Voting "yes" on the plan adopted were BESE members Holly Boffy, Tony Davis, Jim Garvey, Sandy Holloway, Kira Orange Jones, Jada Lewis, Gary Jones and Doris Voitier, an Edwards appointee who broke with her colleagues on the third and final tally.

Voting "no" were Kathy Edmonston, Thomas Roque and Lurie Thomason.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.