SADOW: Changing Louisiana’s Public School Grade Formula Is A Bad Idea

Louisiana should tread carefully, if at all, down a path of deemphasizing actual knowledge and thinking ability imparted by its public schools when assessing their performances.

Next week, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will debate whether to change the calculation of school performance scores, which provide a method for comparison and assessment that could affect whether schools continue to operate as well as a way for families to evaluate them. The formula varies for the level of schooling involved:

  • Kindergarten through Grade 3 – 75 percent from aggregate student statewide assessments, 25 percent from student progress from testing prior to the school year
  • Grades 4 through 8 – 70 percent from assessments, 25 percent from progress, and 5 percent from how many course credits the past year’s eighth graders earned in Grade 9
  • Grades 9 through 12 – 25 percent from assessments (although a sixth of this actually come from language and math progress), 25 percent from standardized higher education testing or its equivalent, 25 percent from the rolling four-year graduation rate, and 25 percent from how past students have fared in accumulating college credit or certifications (a measure of the quality of the secondary education)

Department of Education officials argue that other states typically place a much higher proportion of score calculation on progress. The practical impact of this would raise the scores of about half of the lowest-performing ones, which would make Louisiana public schools on aggregate appear better.

While some thought should go towards best practices, if defined as what other states do, at the same time this assumes equivalence with other states in terms of educational delivery. Yet clearly this isn’t the case, for the stark fact that, according to the latest (2019) National Assessment of Educational Progress, in the aggregate of subjects and grade levels Louisiana has the lowest-achieving students in the country.

When children enter school, only two things separate their ability to achieve: natural intelligence and background – the former randomly distributed throughout the states, the latter which leads to variation in preparation not so. Per capita personal income can stand in for the latter, because it reflects not only monetary resources available to deploy in preparing children for education, as well as to supplement it over the next dozen or so years, but also indicates for the most part the degree to which a family prizes and encourages education, as people with that value set tend to earn higher incomes.

By this metric, Louisiana shouldn’t score at the bottom of achievement. While by 2020 it had sunk to 40th position among the states, that’s still not near the bottom. It appears schools aren’t doing as well as they should to translate available resources into results.

Because of this gap, special attention must remain on achievement as, in the final analysis, that’s what matters. You can make a lot of progress, but if elsewhere along the line that gets interrupted, end-of-the-line achievement suffers. Further, degree of progress has much more powerful iterative effects earlier in the process, as those effects accumulate.

These considerations argue that, as policy-makers need to keep their eyes on the ball that is achievement which is relatively abysmally low, any weighing away from achievement and towards progress should be minimal and targeted to the lower grades. Thus, a small adjustment – not as much as the 38 percent suggested by education officials – might work for K-3. Probably no adjustment should be made for 4-8.

As Louisiana schools underperform in student achievement, the focus needs to remain on that metric in assessing schools. Diversion from tackling that reality doesn’t serve the best interests of children.

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