Fact-check: Landrieu’s account of improving New Orleans schools mostly accurate

In Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s inaugural speech earlier this month, he listed a number of ways that life in New Orleans has improved. Among them: “Graduation rates are up, test scores are up and dropout rates are down.”

That’s a pretty impressive summary of accomplishments for New Orleans, where just 10 years ago, a valedictorian from one of the city’s high schools couldn’t pass the state graduation exam and half of the city’s seniors didn’t graduate at all.

But is it true? For the most part, yes.

Throughout his speech, Landrieu framed the improvements in the city against his time in office. In checking his statements about schools, we tracked progress from when he took office — the end of the 2009-10 school year — and from the 2004-05 school year. After Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District took over most of the schools in the city.

Let’s take the statements one at at time.

‘Graduation rates are up’

In the 2009-10 school year, the Louisiana Department of Education began compiling cohort graduation rates — how many students graduate within four years — in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

That year, the Recovery School District, which manages most of the city’s schools, graduated about half of its seniors within four years.

In 2011-12, the most recent year for which The Lens found similar data, the RSD graduated almost 70 percent of seniors.

The graduation rate for the approximately 20 schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board is higher, but it declined slightly. In 2009-10, OPSB schools had a 90 percent graduation rate; in 2011-12 it was 89 percent.

Graduation rates for the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board have risen well above what they were before Katrina. In 2004-05, about half of seniors graduated.

Conclusion: Graduation rates have risen at RSD schools, which educate the bulk of New Orleans students — and have dropped slightly at OPSB schools.

‘Test scores are up’

According to figures from the state, an average of 43 percent of RSD’s third- through-eighth graders passed the state’s standardized tests in 2010. In 2013, an average of 57 percent did so.

At OPSB, an average of 80 percent of third- through eighth-graders passed in 2010. That was 84 percent in 2013.

For high school: In 2010, an average of 15 percent of RSD’s high schoolers scored “excellent” or “good” on the state’s end-of-course test. In 2013, it was 38 percent.

OPSB’s high-schoolers also did better: an average of 48 percent scored “excellent” or “good” in 2010. In 2013, that rose to 68 percent.

It’s harder to measure progress since Katrina because the state measured and grouped data differently and because different tests were used in some grades.

Conclusion: However you slice it, test scores have risen since 2010. We didn’t reach a conclusion compared to pre-Katrina.

‘Dropout rates are down’

In 2009-10, the annual dropout rate at the RSD’s schools was 9 percent. By 2010-11, it had dropped to 7 percent.

The state hasn’t released an overall dropout rate for the RSD since.

The dropout rate at OPSB schools has risen from about 1 percent in the 2009-10 school year to about 2 percent in the 2012-13 school year.

Pre-Katrina, the city’s annual dropout rate was 11 percent.

Conclusion: The dropout rate has decreased at RSD schools — at least for two years. At OPSB schools, the rate has doubled.

Mayor calls for further improvement

The mayor’s statement on test scores is accurate when compared to 2010. As for graduation and dropout rates, he’s right when you look at Recovery School District schools, which account for about two-thirds of New Orleans students.

RSD schools are the ones that were the worst before the storm — the schools Landrieu was talking about when he said, “For too long, New Orleans public schools were considered some of the worst in the country.”

That said, these improvements have taken place outside the mayor’s control. The Recovery School District is overseen by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; the Orleans Parish School Board is an independently elected body.

In his speech, Landrieu called on the city to improve schools further: “In the next four years, let’s make a commitment that New Orleans will become the first urban school system in America with no failing schools.”

We’ll come back to that in four years.

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About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • nickelndime

    LANDRIEU’S ACCOUNT OF NEW ORLEANS SCHOOLS: Individual (school) inaccuracies (money and academics) get lost in statistical meltdowns. For example, in 2009, John White stood on the newly renovated (no cost to the RSD either!) gym floor of John McDonogh Senior High School on Esplanade Ave. and said he/they/RSD/State would create a state-of-the-art culinary high school at McDonogh that would be a model for schools around the country. Instead, New Orleanians are left with a still-fantastically-located school that has a 9.3 SPS out of 150 (that was last year – gawd knows what it will be this year). Steve Barr was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start his own educational business (a public high school) with millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and Arne Duncan’s, the USDOE’s, and Louisiana’s help. And then we have Patrick Dobard, the RSD Superintendent, who conveniently will close the school for renovations until the current charter expires, and nobody can get in touch with him?!? O, Dobard is in touch with people alright – just not those people. What happened to the 35 million FEMA $$$ that John White spoke about in November 2009, just 2 months after that crocodilian Paul Pastorek had to step down and Paul Vallas fled to Haiti. Landrieu’s schools record (well, its not really his record because he hasn’t directly done anything – i.e., no cause and effect) is on par with the NOPD (too busy looking for expired brake tags and licenses, lack of insurance, undercover cops in three cars track down some poor guy in a broken-down truck – o yeah – that’s the new drug bust vehicle – I forgot) – which reminds me – “Who wants their property taxes increased?” Wait another 4 to 5 years down the line? (Is time really on our side?); rewind to 2009 – you say it’s too far back to remember. A fantastic recipe for ongoing, systemic corruption: Easy access to millions and billions of public money combined with the following ingredients: public memory loss, apathy, ignorance, inattention, lack of historical perspective, too busy trying to make a living, stuck in traffic jams, stuck in lines, too busy trying to get the child in the right public school, too busy paying tuition, too busy to read, too busy to write, mixing part fact/part fiction… Landrieu’s account, like the state’s, the RSD’s, and the OPSB’s, etc. sound too good to be true (guess what! it ayn’t).

  • NOLA_Darling

    The inputs and analysis used to come to these conclusions are flawed because 1) charters aren’t really following up to see if students who leave have actually enrolled in another school or have actually dropped out, 2) open admission doesn’t equal irrevocable enrollment, and charters have an ability to purge underperforming students that OPSD never had, and 3) the state doesn’t report first year scores for “transitioning” which are always the lowest performing schools that are become new chartered or gotten new operators.

    All these variables remove a sizable number of students from the reported test taking and measurement pool that would likely bring down school and district averages.