The percentage of elementary and middle school students scoring at grade level or better on standardized exams in New Orleans stalled this year for the first time since Hurricane Katrina — a pause in otherwise briskly rising test scores that may be due in part to new tests aligned with the controversial Common Core academic standards.
Scores in New Orleans mirrored those around the metro area and the rest of Louisiana. Statewide, the percentage of students at “basic” or better was 69 percent, the same as last year.
But New Orleans has generally outpaced other parishes — an example, many argue, of dramatic reform ideas producing tangible results. Test scores are up sharply since the Recovery School District took over most of the city’s public schools and independent charter schools began to multiply.
Yet this year, 57 percent of New Orleans students in the Recovery District hit basic or better, no better than in 2013. And few would argue that 57 percent is good enough in the long term.
“I don’t think it’s cause for alarm. We didn’t go backwards, but we stalled,” said Leslie Jacobs, one of the architects of the Recovery District and typically one of its most reliable defenders. “There are any number of factors, and I don’t know enough to tell you what they are. Some of it is just the variability of how schools adapted to the Common Core standards.”
Jacobs added that test scores in New Orleans schools under the Recovery District have still climbed further than any other school system in the state over the past five years, and that some type of pause was inevitable. “I’ve been waiting for the ‘stall year’ every year,” she said.
It is difficult to know exactly why test scores rise or fall from one year to another. In line with the Common Core, the tests themselves have shifted to focus more on analysis and problem-solving instead of rote memorization. But the state hasn’t yet raised the bar for how well students are expected to perform on those tests.
Other school systems did not see any dramatic shift in performance. In the New Orleans metro area, school districts went up or down just a percentage point or two in terms of students scoring at basic or better.
In schools under the Orleans Parish School Board, which held onto a small number of relatively high-performing schools after the Recovery District took over most campuses, the proportion of students at basic or better slipped two points to 82 percent.
Jefferson Parish inched up a percentage point to 67 percent. St. Tammany also climbed a percentage point, hitting 82 percent. St. Bernard Parish slipped one point to 78 percent. And Plaquemines Parish rose two points to 85 percent.
St. John the Baptist Parish climbed two points to 64 percent, and St. Charles Parish rose two points to 84 percent.
The fact that proficiency rates did not take a dive — as they did in Kentucky and New York when those states shifted to the Common Core standards — reflects attempts by Louisiana policy makers to make a smooth transition to the new standards. Discussing the transition Tuesday, state Superintendent of Education John White said he was committed to raising expectations without “denigrating schools, humiliating educators or punishing students.”
“That has happened in some states,” White said. “It is not going to happen here.”
Still, the figures released Tuesday gave some indication of how steep a climb schools will have over the next decade or so. While 69 percent of Louisiana students scored at basic or better, just 24 percent scored at “mastery” or better.
And mastery — the equivalent of level 4 on a 5-point scale — will be the new “bedrock” standard by 2025. Right now, a school where the average student scores at basic can earn an A from the state. Beginning in 2016, that same school will need to start getting more of its students up to mastery to earn the same grade. And by 2025, an A school will need to have about two-thirds of its students at mastery or better.
Officials in Louisiana decided to build in that glide path after demoralizing results in states where the new bar went into effect all at once.
For complete test results by school and parish, visit www.louisianabelieves.com.