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Growth over grades: Key panel agrees on changes in public school rating system

February 8, 2017
By Will Sentell
Originally Posted on The Advocate

After months of arguments, a key state panel Wednesday agreed on a plan to revamp the way letter grades are assigned to public schools.

Under the change, school performance scores that make up the grades will include a first-ever academic growth factor – 25 percent – for all students.

The new rules would triple the value of yearly gains in the classroom, which is 7 percent now and only applies to struggling students.

The change was approved by the Louisiana Accountability Commission, which advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

BESE is expected to include the new letter grade rules when it meets on March 29 to finalize a plan to overhaul public school policies.

It will then be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The blueprint is required by a federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, and top officials plan for the new rules to be in place for the 2017-18 school year.

The commission has discussed the topic since June of 2016, and the meeting Wednesday triggered one more round of arguments.

Backers said allowing academic growth to account for 25 percent of the grade recognizes yearly improvements in a way that is long overdue.

Under current rules, the grades are based mostly on test scores.

The change means schools can get a boost on their marks if students show academic gains, regardless of exact scores.

Some panel members argued that growth should account for 35 percent or more of letter grade scores.

Others said even 25 percent is too high, and risks distorting how schools are performing.

"This is a value judgment," said Jessica Baghian,  assistant superintendent for assessments and accountability for the state Department of Education. "There is no right answer."

The department, which proposed 25 percent, said the new standards will mean that an "A" school is one that not only has high-performing schools but shows yearly growth as well.

Another school rated "F" can move up to a "D" if students show "remarkable" academic growth, according to the department.

Mickey Landry, a member of the commission, urged the 16-member panel to back 35 percent as the growth factor.

That motion failed.

Debbie Meaux, a commission member and president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said allowing growth to count for 25 percent of school performance scores would have an uneven impact.

Meaux said schools rated "C," "D"and "F" stand to benefit the most.

"The "A" and "B" schools are going to have a big problem when they have to go out into the community and explain why they dropped," she said.

Brigitte Nieland, another member of the commission, said making growth one-fourth of the grade will make the results less transparent to taxpayers.

Nieland monitors education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

The topic has sparked heated arguments because letter grades have sparked controversy since they began in 2011 at the urging of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Backers say the grades offer parents and others an easy way to see how public schools are performing.

Opponents contend the system is misleading and that there are too many variables to rely on exam results for the bulk of the grade.

A panel named by Gov. John Bel Edwards said in December that the state should consider dropping the grading system.

That would require a change in state law.

Academic growth will be measured under a two-prong system.

Gains will be recorded if students show certain progress toward meeting the state's long-range academic goals for proficiency.

Students can also aid school scores by showing academic improvements compared to their peers.

The commission includes teachers, representatives of education groups and business officials.