St. Charles Herald-Guide

State board of education sends mixed messages

By Dan Juneau - February 27, 2008

Recently, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) took steps to take over 10 public schools that were deemed “failed” by Louisiana’s public education accountability program.

These schools had very poor academic performance for years (in one case, nine years) prior to BESE’s action, and the local school districts in which they are located had numerous opportunities to make changes to improve the schools. For many reasons, local school officials have been unable to effect the kind of systemic change required to bring these schools up, and BESE determined that, as of July 1, they will be moved into the state’s Recovery School District. There are currently 66 academically unacceptable schools in the District, all located in Orleans Parish.

When a school is moved into the District, the state board has a number of options to drive improved student achievement, including entering into a contract with a charter school operator. Not being tied to traditional, “one-size-fits-all” education gives BESE the flexibility to seek alternative strategies.

By taking this action, BESE demonstrated that the continued failure of any school, no matter where in the state it is located, will not be tolerated. Louisiana’s long history of poor public education still haunts our state. Some businesses refuse to locate here, because they cannot find educated, trained workers—a critical detriment to economic development efforts.

Ironically, that same week BESE took steps to weaken the state’s high stakes testing policy by furthering consideration of additional “waivers” for 8th grade students who cannot pass the LEAP test so they can be promoted to the next grade. LEAP measures basic skills in math and English, and the grade for passing it (answering about 40 percent of test questions correctly) is not particularly high.

Education officials admit that implementing the new waivers would allow a student who has not mastered a basic standard to move on. Nowhere in the debate was there discussion of how to educate over-age, under-educated students.

Apparently, making these children the 9th grade teacher’s “problem” was solution enough.

How BESE can move decisively and progressively on one hand, while throwing in the towel on the other, is puzzling, and it sends a mixed message. There was considerable pressure from local school districts to create a new waiver policy, because local education officials are challenged as to how to reach the approximately 25 percent of students who cannot pass LEAP. Lowering the failure rate by lowering the standard appears to be the solution. In fact, the state superintendent of education says that, in the fall, state education officials will take a “broad look at LEAP passage rules.”

BESE will soon take a final vote on the waiver issue.  Let us hope that, when this happens, the same sense of urgency that spurred the school takeovers will resurface and the focus will be on how to help children learn rather than how to help them “pass.”

(Brigitte Nieland, Vice President and Council Director for LABI’s Education Council, contributed to this column.