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

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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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