Schools in the New Orleans area still have a long way to go before they meet the more demanding national education standards that state officials are in the process of implementing, according to performance scores and closely watched letter grades released Thursday by the Louisiana Department of Education.
Under a stricter scoring system rolled out this year that aims to boost Louisiana's standards, not a single school district in the seven-parish metro area received an A grade. More troubling, the majority of schools in each parish are in need of "urgent intervention" to better support minority and at-risk students, according to state education officials.
School districts in St. Charles, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes — which received A grades under the earlier, less rigorous standards — saw their scores drop to a B. St. Bernard Parish schools also got a B, the same grade as last year.
The 2017-2018 Louisiana school and district performance scores were released Thursday. The state as a whole maintained a B grade for a second …
New Orleans, Jefferson and St. John the Baptist schools followed with C grades. In all three districts, the grade was the same as last year. But in Jefferson, recent improvements would have raised the district's grade to a B under the old system.
Jefferson Parish Superintendent Dr. Cade Brumley said Thursday's results highlight what educators there already knew.
"We have schools and programs doing well, and we have others that need drastic improvement," Brumley said, adding that the school system has already embarked on some reforms.
State officials are gradually "raising the bar" as part of an eight-year plan approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The plan was passed last year to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which required states to better improve students' college and career readiness and aid at-risk populations.
As Louisiana school systems adjust to the changes, most either saw dips or received the same letter grades as last year on Thursday.
Suburban areas saw the biggest slips from previously high state assessments. That represents a setback for parishes that have traditionally used their higher-performing public schools as a way to draw residents, and their tax dollars, away from lower-performing urban districts.
St. Charles Parish Schools Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker, who leads one of the districts that saw its A grade replaced with a B, called the state's new report and correlating rating system "confusing," adding that it fails to "articulate a school's or school system's overall effectiveness."
"St. Charles Parish public schools remains a top-performing school system based on success indicators valued by our families and community," Gomez-Walker said.
To soften the blow for districts that are facing tougher standards, the Legislature took the unusual step of requiring the state to issue two scores and two letter grades this year. The first grade shows how schools and systems fared under the old, more generous system. The second rates their performance using the more rigorous metrics.
The differences 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 converted to the all-important letter grades, which play a large role in how public schools are viewed by parents and others. The grades are particularly important for charter schools, because failing scores can mean the loss of the charter that allows them to continue operating.
The schools are graded on a 0-150 point scale and receive letter grades of A through F.
Those grades take into account points earned by students for each subject tested during standardized tests. The tests have five possible score levels: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic and unsatisfactory.
Until this year, each student got 125 points out of 150 for scoring "mastery" on yearly LEAP tests, and 100 points for scoring "basic." Now, under the new scores, students get 100 points for mastery and 80 for basic.
This is also the first year that the state did away with curved grades, which guaranteed the same distribution of A and F schools over the last four years. State officials approved the curve in 2013 because of concern about drops in scores after the state introduced tougher academic standards known as Common Core.
And this year, the state bumped up the ACT score required to achieve mastery from 18 to 21 — a change St. Tammany Assistant Superintendent Regina Sanford said was "significant." The ACT test results count for a quarter of high school performance scores.
"When you roll out changes, you need to do a more gradual roll-out, in my opinion," Sanford said.
The state gave schools some leeway, however, by decreasing the total score needed to earn an A. Under the old system, a score ranging from 100 to 150 earned a school or district the top score. For this year, the threshold has been lowered to 90.
Finally, the scores also take into account student growth, which measures progress rather than a single test score.
Now, when students complete standardized tests, they not only get a notice of their LEAP test scores but also are being assigned a growth score, which allows for a comparison of test scores from 2017 to 2018.
Those new growth scores accounted for 25 percent of an elementary school's letter grade and 12.5 percent for high schools. The actual test scores accounted for the remaining 75 percent for elementary schools. High school performance scores were calculated using other benchmarks as well, including graduation rates and ACT scores.
While officials with the Louisiana Department of Education said the inclusion of growth metrics constituted the biggest change in school performance scores, it's the removal of the state's curve and the tougher standards that have caused the most concern among local school leaders.
Critics have said that Louisiana's scores were long inflated, which misled parents and others on how well students were actually performing when comparing them to students elsewhere.
With the change, approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last October, officials aim to make classes more rigorous and to make annual snapshots of student achievement in Louisiana comparable to other states.
To that end, the state's goal is that by 2025, a school will earn an A only if its students achieve an average performance of mastery. A score of basic was the threshold previously.
There were some bright spots in the metro area. Several schools in Jefferson and Orleans parishes ranked in the top 20 of the state's best-performing schools.
More than 170 schools in the seven-parish region, however, landed on the state's newly issued list of those struggling in one form or another.
The state now identifies schools with unusually high out-of-school discipline rates and schools that struggle to support specific student groups, such as economically disadvantaged students or students with disabilities.
Schools labeled as "Urgent Intervention Required" will be required to generate a plan for improvement, even if they demonstrate high performance in other areas or overall.
Schools can now get extra money from the state to help implement those plans. BESE will approve the funds in April 2019, according to state officials.
"Today we are identifying schools that have made great strides and those that have specific struggles," state Education Superintendent John White said Thursday. "It's a more nuanced, more comprehensive way of evaluating schools than ever before."
Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has said the stricter standards mean education leaders will have to work even harder in a district that has seen "an alarming plateau" and, in some cases, a decline in academic performance in the last few years.
St. Tammany Farmer editor Andrew Canulette contributed to this report.