This week the state Department of Education released the results of the 2016-2017 LEAP tests for students in grades 3-8. Overall, they show that Louisiana maintained the growth in scores that we have achieved over the last few years, but we were unable to build on them. That’s disappointing, but when looking at long-term trends in education, that occurs from time to time. But when you scratch below the surface a little bit, this year’s results reveal another picture that all of us need to pay attention to.
First, it’s important to note that over the last few years, Louisiana has seen real and measurable increases in student performance on several indicators, from graduation rates, to ACT scores, to improvements in our national standing.
At the same time, we have been raising the bar for our students by adopting more rigorous academic standards and raising our expectations of what we consider “proficient.” All of that has made our reporting of information more transparent. We now have standards that are comparable to those in other states and our expectations for student achievement are now where they should be.
All of this is good and it’s the right thing to do, but with transparency comes clarity and what it reveals is the need for our local school districts to work harder to accelerate improvements in student performance. That’s not just some districts, but even the ones we consider our best.
Until relatively recently we considered a score of “Basic” on the LEAP tests to be the level that a student was deemed “proficient” and prepared to move to the next grade. It made some of our schools look really good, but most in the public didn’t realize it was a low bar. Now, in line with other states, we’ve raised that bar to the next level which is called “Mastery.” What our scores tell us now is that in every school district in the state our students are woefully behind in reaching that expectation of mastery.
Yes every district. Even in the school districts we consider the top performers in our state, the majority of students are not yet prepared to move on to the next grade. Only Zachary Community School District has more than 50-percent of its students at mastery. Every other district, no matter how much they are heralded, falls short.
If nothing else, that should be a wake-up call to every one of us that the need to improve our schools is universal. Every school district in Louisiana must do better. In many ways that starts at the state level with strong policies to support our schools and students. By almost any measure we have them and we continue to build on that foundation.
But ground zero in education is with our local school districts and the schools they oversee. And while school boards and superintendents need to pay attention to finance issues, transportation, buildings and all the things that go into running a school district, they can’t be distracted from their number one priority which is educating our students and providing them the opportunity to succeed.
There tends to be a lot of focus on education issues when the Legislature is in session, thinking that lawmakers in Baton Rouge hold all the keys. But real change happens at the local level and usually with strong community engagement and accountability. Our local schools get better when local people get involved and demand more of their school boards and superintendents.
One piece of good news out of all of this is that Louisiana continues to make the right moves when it comes to our education policies. The state recently submitted its required education improvement plan to the federal government and it’s gotten a host of strong reviews. It sets ambitious but achievable goals, raises expectations, strengthens teacher preparation, and better targets financial resources to the schools that need them most.
It’s a solid plan and if we stick to it there’s every reason to believe our kids – in every school district – will be better prepared for college or a career.