Board of Regents meeting 092618

Board of Regents Chairman Robert W. Levy and Regent Richard Lipsey discuss changes in LSU admission standards during the board's meeting on Sept. 26, 2018.

Four years ago, seething tea-partiers and their allies stormed the State Capitol to stop Louisiana from joining Common Core, an effort to raise academic standards in the nation’s schools.

Irate parents drove in from the Northshore and Acadiana to pack legislative hearing rooms. Many stood for hours waiting their turn to tell lawmakers how Education Superintendent John White had no children yet wanted to send theirs to perdition to satisfy some deep-state agenda.

Dozens of bills were debated. Only one truly succeeded: a measure by then-Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, that criminalized sharing student data without parental permission.

Today, Common Core is the everyday curricula. White is a father. Schroder holds a statewide office.

And the Board of Regents is wondering how — with their hands tied by Schroder’s privacy law — their auditors can take a deep enough dive into college admission standards for an audit demanded after LSU administrators unilaterally changed theirs.

Prior to their regular meeting last week, the 16-member board that decides policy for the state’s public colleges and universities squeezed into a conference room to talk specifics about the proposed First Time Admissions Audit. As regents heard the details, staffers stood around the room, blocking access to the fruit plates and coffee urns.

Regents wanted to know if the LSU applicants who failed to meet the admissions criteria performed well in college or if they slowed down other students. If some of those admitted by exception had lower grade-point averages because they took much harder courses, like calculus instead of general math. Or if there were extenuating circumstances in high school that account for lower ACT test scores.

Identifying the factors that predict how a student will do in college wasn’t part of the audit plan.

“Why aren’t we looking deeper?” asked Regent Edward D. Markle, a New Orleans attorney. “Clearly we need standards and we also need to know what happened in the past. ... Isn’t there information out there for us to grab that we would allow us a better understanding of performance?”

Well, no, replied Deputy Commissioner Larry Tremblay. In fact, the Regents had been specifically forbidden from accessing high school transcripts and student data by Schroder’s privacy law.

“It ties our hands in terms of being able to follow students through the process to see what course-taking patterns work best,” Tremblay said. “We would like the opportunity of using the high school transcript data to see patterns.”

He was drowned out by a din of all the regents speaking at once.

Chairman Robert W. Levy, a lawyer from Dubach, raised his voice. “We do have the authority to collect data to see if the universities are operating outside the lines,” he said.

Universities must flag incoming students admitted by exception. Auditors can look as those exceptions, grade-point averages, ACT scores. Eventually, they can see how well those students performed in their first year in college, and identify who needed remedial courses to get up to speed.

The data available is woefully short to test the presumptions on which college administrators rely when arguing they need to take a wider look at applicants, rather than summarily reject those who fail to meet set-in-stone test scores or grade-point averages.

One of the key reasons supporting the "holistic admissions" argument is that a student may have dealt with a family crisis, a divorce, or a death that may have affected grades. Access to family information is restricted by the law. And the college board tests — ACT and SAT — have been widely criticized for framing questions with a cultural perspective not shared by students who weren’t raised in the white middle class. Racial and religious information about the students also is not allowed.

Almost from the minute Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the student privacy act in June 2014 and boarded a plane to give a speech about it in St. Louis, lawmakers realized some adjustments were necessary. For instance, the sacrosanct Taylor Opportunity Program for Students needed some way to determine which high schoolers reached the modest academic achievements necessary to have their college tuition paid for by TOPS grants.

Subsequent laws were passed to allow some agencies some access to lower school records.

Legislation passed earlier this year put the Board of Regents on that list. But only with considerable restrictions.

“We have the data in pieces and parts,” Tremblay said, adding that it was largely dependent on how many parents agreed to release the information. If too few agree, the findings would be skewed.

“Something needs to change for us to do our job,” Regent Markle said. “We’ve lost the big picture here.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.