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Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed comments on the announcement that, for the first time, Louisiana’s public High School graduation rate exceeds 80 percent — 81.4 percent. Behind Reed is, left, state Superintendent of Education John White and Iberville Parish Superintendent Arthur Joffrion Jr.

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With Louisiana starting behind many other states in educational achievement reform, getting into the game nationally was always going to be a slow and long process.

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The good news is that progress is measurable: “Louisiana students are reading and writing better, incrementally and steadily, every single year.”

That was Education Superintendent John White on the latest round of LEAP test scores, showing small gains in English.

The bad news is that mathematics is typically the harder number to crack, and the 20th year of LEAP testing continues to show that the state’s classrooms aren’t doing as well in that discipline. Only a third of students achieved the mastery level — the new and higher standard on LEAP, established by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

A student in middle school, or facing algebra in high school, needs “a teacher who really knows math,” White says. And that is more difficult for school systems to achieve in a robust job market, where prospective math teachers can often get far better salaries in industry than those typically offered in public schools.

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Social studies, too, did not show the progress White wanted to see.

What is the case for optimism? It is the higher standards that students and teachers are reaching for, and being tested against. The old scale was basic, the middle of five scores; mastery is one step higher. It is more in line with national standards for student achievement.

That rise is challenging, but it means that each bit of incremental progress toward mastery is a far better result for students on the LEAP tests.

The BESE board members and groups pushing for higher standards in Louisiana schools could not expect an overnight leap forward, no pun intended. Rather, as White noted of the new LEAP scores, it is a statewide process that pays dividends for thousands of students, even if only a percentage point going up here and there on the annual reports.

White noted that seven out of 10 Louisiana systems showed progress in the new LEAP scores, with particular gains among some traditionally lagging schools in north Baton Rouge, as well as in Calcasieu and Caddo parishes elsewhere in the state. Focused efforts on instruction and support for teachers in those areas appear to be paying off, White told reporters.

And what is the larger context of incremental gains? Well, the $1,000 pay raise pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and passed by the Legislature this year may not immediately dent the differential between the salaries math majors can get in industry, and the pay in a middle school where students need help. Local school systems are going to continue to be challenged, even as some — including Jefferson Parish, backed by voters this year — are paying more for teachers in critical areas.

Mastery is a good word for what a student needs to face a complex world with a job market that is vastly more challenging than just a generation ago. Incremental progress toward that higher goal is a good thing, not a poor report card.