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State ratings for New Orleans schools are on a three-year slide

State rankings for most New Orleans schools are on a three-year slide, with 65 percent dropping from 2014 to 2017.

The drop in School Performance Scores from 2016 to 2017 caused hand-wringing among the city’s education leaders. The Lens’ analysis of state data shows it’s part of a worrisome trend.

“We have to acknowledge and confront the brutal facts of where we are,” said Orleans Parish school board member Ben Kleban. However, he said he has faith in the district’s commitment to improve.

Scores at some schools tumbled. Mahalia Jackson Elementary School dropped almost 30 points to a score of 50 on the state’s 150-point scale. That’s a D.

Sylvanie Williams College Prep fell about 22 points to 32.4, an F. It was the second-lowest elementary school score; the one with the lowest score, McDonogh 42, has been turned over to another charter operator.

Charter networks KIPP New Orleans Schools, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, ReNEW Schools and Algiers Charter operate a combined 23 schools. Only one of them improved its School Performance Score from 2016 to 2017.

Overall, New Orleans schools slid 14.2 points, from a B to a C.

The three-year drop appears to confirm education leaders’ fears about what would happen when tests aligned with tougher standards were introduced in 2015. Those tests are the primary factor in elementary School Performance Scores.

Some school leaders say those standards have caught up with the city’s schools, which have generally have gotten better since the state took over, closed and doled out schools to charter management organizations after Hurricane Katrina.

Others think charters were slower than traditional school districts to adopt curriculum aligned with the more rigorous standards. District-wide School Performance Scores dropped for 34 percent of traditional school districts in the state from 2014 to 2017, compared to 65 percent of New Orleans schools.

This year, 34 of the city’s 84 schools with School Performance Scores (not all schools have grades that take state tests) were rated a D or an F. Eighteen of them, including three alternative high schools, have had a D or an F three years in a row.

The scores raise questions about what will happen next year when all schools in the city are overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said he met with school leaders after the scores were released earlier this month. “This is an opportunity for us to do a reset,” Lewis told Orleans Parish School Board members at a meeting soon after.

New standards and new tests

Louisiana adopted Common Core standards in 2010. In the spring of 2015, the state introduced a test, called PARCC, aligned to those standards.

The PARCC test was meant to measure Louisiana’s achievement relative to other states. But  the state pulled the exam a year later in response to political backlash from Common Core opponents, including then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. In its place was a new test that could be no more than 49.9 percent PARCC.

This spring, the test changed again and was unique to the state.

Firstline Schools CEO Jay Altman said this year’s results may show that charters were slower to respond to the tougher standards than parishwide school districts.

Charter schools, especially single-site charters, don’t have the buying power that a large district does. And it’s expensive to revamp a school’s curriculum.

“The resources to develop a comprehensive curriculum that aligns with those [new standards] exceeds the capacity of a single charter or group,” Altman said.

That challenges one of the core arguments for publicly-funded charter schools: autonomy. Charter advocates say autonomy cuts down on red tape, allowing schools to hire the best teachers and create curriculum catered to their students.

Since Katrina, traditional schools in New Orleans have been closed or handed over to charter operators. This year, all but four of New Orleans’ 86 public schools are charters, and one of them will close in the spring.

“It’s interesting that one of things that helped the schools — autonomy — can work against us if we’re not also open to adopting things that are more standardized when it’s helpful,” Altman said.

A new social studies test was introduced last year, but the state allowed schools to count the results from one of the two prior years — whichever was higher — for their 2016 school ratings. This year, that exam was factored into School Performance Scores.

“Everybody took a hit on that,” Altman said. “Not only is it a decline, but it’s a decline relative to the rest of the state.”

To deal with Common Core standards, Altman said, it’s helpful for schools to adopt what’s called a “Tier 1” curriculum, which the state Department of Education considers the highest quality.

The state also lists instructional materials it calls Tier 2, “approaching quality,” and Tier 3, “not representing quality.”

Traditional school districts often change curriculum system-wide to deal with new standards. But charter schools are allowed to select or build their own curricula. That’s part of the independence they get in exchange for meeting academic and other benchmarks.

The state was prepared for a dip in scores when the tests changed. For the last four years, school letter grades have been curved to ensure the statewide distribution didn’t get worse than in 2013.

The curve was supposed to be in place for two years after the tougher tests were introduced, but it was extended two more years. Unless the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decides otherwise, letter grades won’t be curved starting next year.

The state will also make another change in its scoring, increasing the importance of students who achieve “mastery” in a subject and decreasing the importance of those who achieve “basic.”

“The state is raising the bar and increasing the standard of what is considered proficient,” Lewis said in a written statement to The Lens.

How are schools held accountable for performance?

The School Performance Scores and accompanying letter grades are part of a statewide accountability system. The state and local school boards use this information to determine if publicly funded, privately run charter schools can stay open.

Louisiana has been praised for holding its charter schools accountable.

But charter contracts aren’t evaluated every year. A charter school is evaluated three years after getting its first contract and again after the fourth year. Subsequent charter agreements often extend the renewal period to five years — sometimes longer for schools with a good track record.

For example, the Orleans Parish School Board just issued a three-year charter renewal for Homer A. Plessy Community School, which has a D. It gave A-rated Edna Karr High School a 10-year charter.

This year, Bricolage Academy got its first grade from the state, a B, and a seven-year contract renewal.

It is rare for a school’s charter to be revoked in the middle of its contract.

Two Recovery School District elementary schools, Medard Nelson and William Fischer, have received F’s three years in a row. Both are in the middle of their contracts.

In response to a question about those schools, RSD Superintendent Kunjan Narechania said federal law requires persistently struggling schools like them to submit improvement plans.

“New Orleans is better equipped than any district in the nation to address struggling schools, having closed or transformed more than 30 schools due to low performance in the past seven years,” she wrote in an email.

Next summer, those schools will transfer from the RSD to the Orleans Parish School Board.

“How can a school be failing for several years?” asked Nahliah Webber, executive director of OPEN NOLA, which aims to improve education in the city through parental leadership. “Particularly in a system that is supposed to be all about accountability?”

When the scores were announced earlier this month, Webber said she and her staff noticed the same schools were still at the top of the list. “That list looks the same every year,” she said. “That’s just insufficient.”

There are 12 A-rated schools in the city; each has been an A school for at least three years.

The same number of schools earned an F this year. And without the curve in place, 15 would have.

This year, about 40 percent of the city’s schools got a D or an F, up from about 36 percent last year.

“This system is supposed to be all about accountability and provide more high-quality options than the system did before Hurricane Katrina,” Webber said.

‘Grades that aren’t real grades’

At a recent Orleans Parish School Board meeting, district staff analyzed results and explained how the state’s tests have changed in the past several years.

School board members were concerned not only by the drop in School Performance Scores, but with the curved grades.

“Do we have this information without the curve?” board member Sarah Usdin asked.

“We’re forced, sort of, into grades that aren’t real grades, and as the mother of a kid, I want to know what your real grade was,” Usdin said. “I want to know where we fall without the curve — so that we as a board, and others, can be planning as we look around the corner.”

Kleban had similar concerns.

“Check me on my analysis, but my calculation shows that over half of the schools would have been D’s and F’s,” he said.

The local school district has bolstered its accountability office in preparation for taking over struggling schools. Earlier this year, it started to use a system of warning letters similar to those sent by the state Department of Education to hold charter schools accountable for breaking education law and their charter contracts.

Kleban told Lewis the district must carefully examine what it will do differently in the upcoming years.

“It can’t be only shutting down schools and starting new ones,” Kleban said. “That may be part of the strategy, but what else are we going to do that’s going to actually suggest we can do better for kids collectively?”

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