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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley has led the charge to overhaul school accountability, arguing that the current system is confusing and sets a low bar for student achievement.

Louisiana is set to adopt a tougher rating system for K-12 schools in an effort to raise standards and spur improvements that could leave many schools with lower grades.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley and members of the state board of education have led the charge, arguing that the current school-accountability system is confusing and sets a low bar for student achievement. They note that two-thirds of high schools earn As or Bs under the current system while only 1 in 5 students are ready for college-level math.

“We need a system that will improve student performance,” Brumley said in a recent interview, adding that the grading system should be “simple and transparent.”

Brumley attempted a similar overhaul in 2022, but the board rejected it after outcry from school superintendents. He faces better odds this year with a right-leaning board that passed a resolution in March calling for a more rigorous rating system. Board members on Tuesday voted in favor of the new system, which is expected to get final board approval on Wednesday.

But just as before, school district leaders oppose the revamp. While some say they welcome clarity and greater emphasis on student growth, they argue it sets unrealistic goals, such as a minimum ACT score of 20 when the state’s average is 18. Only about one in four students would meet the new system’s college-readiness target.

The changes would take effect in 2026 and apply to all schools and districts, but high school grades could take the biggest hit. Last year, 67% of high schools earned As or Bs, but only about 30% are expected to do so under the new system.

A group of local superintendents who weigh in on state policies voted unanimously last week to urge the board of education to postpone the overhaul.

“We know today that there are flaws, so why can't we correct the flaws before we adopt the policy?” asked Iberville Parish Schools Superintendent Louis Voiron Jr. “Slow it down and fix it.”

New system aims for simplicity, rewards progress

Accountability is meant to drive school improvement.

Under federal law, states set student-achievement goals, rate school performance and identify struggling schools. In Louisiana, schools earn scores and A-F letter grades based on student test scores, graduation rates and other factors.

But critics say the ratings reflect school demographics more than quality, unfairly assigning lower scores to schools serving needier students. And how the state comes up with those scores is largely a mystery, critics add. Brumley tends to agree.

“Very few people can even explain our current accountability system because it is so complex,” he said.

The proposed overhaul tries to address those concerns. It replaces an elaborate point system with easier-to-understand percentages. Instead of awarding varying amounts of points according to each student’s performance, it calculates the percentage of students who met each goal.

The new system also emphasizes student improvement on state tests over proficiency, or meeting grade-level targets. Academic growth will count for 54% of the grade that elementary and middle schools receive, double its current weight. Proficiency, which now counts for up to 70% of the rating, will shrink to 46%.

Growth is considered a fairer measure because it gives schools credit for helping students make progress even if they fall short of state benchmarks.

“We heard from schools that serve a population of students who are economically disadvantaged that they're growing kids year after year,” Brumley said. But because of the limited weight given to growth, those schools “weren't necessarily being recognized for their work.”

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Ronnie Morris, president of the state board of education, said the current accountability system puts too little emphasis on basic academic skills.

High schools will face the most dramatic changes. Under the current system, about 70% of a high school’s rating is based on its graduation rate and different measures of college and career readiness, while 25% is based on students’ scores on end-of-course exams needed to graduate. (Another 5% is based on course offerings.)

The new system flips the script. Now, end-of-course tests will count for 75% of a high school’s rating and just 25% will be based on graduation rates and readiness measures, such as the ACT, Advanced Placement courses or job training.

Ronnie Morris, president of the state board of education, said the current system puts too little emphasis on foundational skills in reading and math. Last year, only about four in ten high schoolers met the state’s target in algebra and less than a third met the mark in geometry.

“If you've got those low proficiency rates in those core classes,” he said, “how do you convince yourself the kid is prepared for a career or college?”

Overhaul sparks concern from district leaders

As word of the proposed overhaul has spread, so has the pushback.

School and district leaders have raised the most concerns. Under the revised formula, the bulk of a high school’s grade will depend on six tests — algebra, biology, English I and II, geometry and U.S. history — that students typically take in 9th or 10th grade. Some superintendents fear the huge impact of test scores will overtax educators who teach those courses, making it harder to recruit and retain those positions.

Meanwhile, critics say the steep reduction in weight given to college-and-career measures undercuts years of investment in career education and dual-enrollment programs, which let high schoolers earn college credits. Such programs would count for just over 8% of a high school’s rating in the revised formula, down from 25% now.

“It disincentivizes everything we have put into place over the last decade,” said Janet Pope, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. Now, “school systems will be forced to move resources into students making high scores” on the state tests.

Another concern is the equal weight given to 12 metrics for high schools. For example, English learners’ test scores and the school’s graduation rate each account for about 8% of the overall grade. In districts with few English-language learners, the scores of a small number of students would carry as much weight as dozens or even hundreds of students in the graduating class.

In Iberville Parish, only 1.5% of students are learning to speak English. Using the new formula, their scores would pull down the entire district’s score from a B to a C, said Superintendent Voiron.

“This might be simple and transparent,” he said at last week’s superintendents’ meeting, “but it's far from logical and equitable.”

More 'rigorous' rating system could lead to lower grades

The way the state plans to roll out the new system also has stirred controversy. The education department will set the grading scale by ranking schools and districts by their 2024 data. The top 10% would determine the cutoff score for an A, the next 20% would establish the B score range, and the following 40% would set the bar for a C.

If school performance stays consistent, about 30% of schools and districts would be expected to earn As or Bs when the system takes effect in 2026 — well below the 50% that earned those grades last year.

“The public perception would be that schools got tremendously worse when in reality schools have gotten better,” Lafourche Parish Schools Superintendent Jarod Martin said at the meeting.

Brumley said more schools could earn high grades if they make improvements before the new system goes into effect. However, he acknowledged that the bar will be higher.

“This is a more rigorous model,” he said.

Update: This story was updated Tuesday to reflect state board members' vote in favor of the new accountability system.

Email Patrick Wall at patrick.wall@theadvocate.com.