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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley says the state needs to change how public schools are rated annually.   

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley is recommending a major change in how public schools are rated annually, and the new rules would trim the number of D- and F-rated schools because of a more generous scoring system.

The proposed change has already been endorsed by the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to discuss the proposal June 15-16.

Critics contend the overhaul would water down how the state rates student performance and make schools appear better than they are simply by adopting a less rigorous grading system. The change would focus on annual school performance scores, which determine all-important letter grades for public schools and school districts.

Scores used to be based largely on how students performed on key tests.

Since 2017 student growth – whether students meet learning targets regardless of test scores and how they compare to their peers – has accounted for 25% of the score.

Brumley wants to boost that student growth calculation to 38%, which state officials said is the national average. "We do agree more emphasis should be put toward the growth part," he told superintendents on Thursday.

Kathy Noel, deputy assistant superintendent for assessments, accountability and analytics, said Louisiana falls into the lower quartile of states in how much credit they give students for yearly academic gains.

Noel said simulations show that about 50% of the state's D- and F-rated public schools would improve a letter grade under the new ratings. A total of 23% of public schools were rated D or F in 2019, the latest snapshot.

Brumley noted the School Accountability Commission, which advises BESE, recommended that student growth account for 47.5% of scores.

Wes Watts, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, praised the proposed change.

"I think it makes great sense," said Watts, who is superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish School District.

Several superintendents said they favor boosting the growth rate to more than 38% of the score.

BESE members have been briefed on Brumley's proposal.

BESE President Sandy Holloway could not be reached for comment Friday.

Kelli Bottger, director of political strategy for the American Federation for Children, blasted the plan.

"The new growth percentage increase will mask our educational challenges by significantly reducing the number of D and F schools in the state despite no real increase in student achievement," Bottger said in a text message.

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"We should raise the bar for student expectations rather than lower it," she said.

Bottger said Brumley's plan would also allow schools to earn points for students who score 17 on the ACT, which she said is below the national benchmark for college success.

Brigitte Nieland, government affairs director for the advocacy group Stand For Children, said any change should allow families to see how schools are performing.

"No matter what BESE decides there has to be complete transparency about performance, what the actual performance looks like," Nieland said. "And it can't be buried somewhere. ... It has to be, when they look at the letter grade, they need to see what that letter grade would have looked like without growth."

Others said the move would infringe on student choice, which gives families more options if their children attend schools rated D and F, and that it could also affect federal aid that targets low-performing classrooms.

The new state measuring stick would likely need federal approval.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a longtime advocate of school accountability, said Friday his group is open to Brumley's plan. "From our perspective having a higher level of student growth is not a bad thing," Erwin said. 

He said how the state measures school performance has changed in the past 20 years or so since Louisiana's launched its latest push to improve student achievement. "We are putting more of an emphasis on what is happening in the classroom than we did before," Erwin said.

Lauren Gleason, director of education for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said she and others were briefed by Brumley on Friday.

Gleason, in a text message, said "LABI is open to revisiting the growth percentage number as long as it's done in a way that puts the needs of students and families first."

Daniel Erspamer, chief executive officer of The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, said it is unclear whether changes in how growth is measured will improve student outcomes.

"State leaders should take their time, bring all stakeholders and policy leaders to the table and craft an accountability structure that can raise performance into the next decade rather than rush into a plan that may need to be continually changed to get right," Erspamer said.

Brumley said his recommendations will also include establishment of a K-2 accountability system, which will be designed in part to address dismal reading statistics for some of the state's youngest learners.

Public school letter grades have sparked arguments since they began in 2011.

Backers say they give parents and others and easy-to-understand way to see how schools are faring.

Opponents say school performance scores and letter grades are misleading, and they have tried and failed to have the grades abolished.

The new rules, if approved by BESE, would take effect for the 2021-22 school year.

Louisiana students will resume testing soon, but how will the exam results will be used?

State education leaders have not decided whether public schools will get letter grades for the 2020-21 school year.

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