NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

After a year of newly implemented high school student records reviews, NOLA Public Schools officials said schools are improving and announced this month that the next round of reviews could carry consequences. 

“This next round will have accountability obligations,” Chief Schools Accountability Officer Kevin George said at a September meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board. “We had a baseline. We followed up. And now we have a path moving forward.”

The student transcript audits, which started in response to a graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School in 2019, are completed twice a year and a part of a series of reforms the decentralized, nearly all-charter district instituted over the last year. As a result of poor recordkeeping and alleged grade inflation, about half of Kennedy’s 2019 senior class was not eligible for graduation that year — something students and families learned after their commencement ceremony. (George, the district accountability officer, worked for a year as the CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which ran Kennedy at the time. His time there began after the events that led to the scandal had occurred.)

The audits began last fall, and a second round started in January. Then there was a problem.

“Spring 2020, right in the middle of conducting audits, COVID happens but again that did not stop the work,” George said, explaining that the district moved to virtual reviews in response. 

“The audit process falls into three different buckets: what the school knows, what the state knows and what do parents know,” George said. “We want to combine all those — they should work together — to ensure the kid has everything they need in order to matriculate through high school.”

Orleans Parish School Board members commended the progress and one suggested the district keep a centralized electronic record of all students. But NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said some of the records are intended to be kept at school sites. 

“I just want to commend you all on this process because it’s really embarrassing … when we find out students don’t have what they need and parents aren’t informed on that process,” board member John Brown Sr. said, appearing to allude to Kennedy. He then asked what schools’ greatest challenges were in complying with recordkeeping policies. 

George said the two biggest challenges educators face are collecting parent signatures on required graduation plans and ensuring students don’t have duplicate ID numbers — a problem for students who transfer from one school to another and are mistakenly given a new student ID number. That can make it difficult to find previous test scores and course credit history. That’s a problem students in New Orleans are more likely to face than students across Louisiana, state officials confirmed.

George reviewed a number of metrics and said school leaders had shown “demonstrable growth” between the fall and spring reviews. He said “high schools are compliant with rules and regulations.”

“We feel, and I feel, that our high schools and their transcripts and the process are the most scrutinized in this state,” George said. “No one is doing the level of scrutinizing high schoolers’ information like we are in this city.”

“Our bar is high — if you do not have it all we do not give you credit for it. And that bar is high because the stakes are high,” George said. “You’re talking about students being able to go to college or go on to work and we want to make sure they have everything.”

Graduation Plans

The individual graduation plan is a key document in each student file. It lays out the requirements for a high school diploma, based on the type of diploma the student is seeking, and must be signed by the student, parent and counselor. George said it’s easy to get signatures from students and counselors but can be tricky to nail down parents. He said schools try to get creative, seeking signatures from parents at sporting events and some are working toward making electronic signatures an option. 

Board member John Brown Sr. asked him to elaborate on the reviews. 

“I’ve served as a high school principal, I know the complexities of that. What has been the greatest challenge as far as getting schools to comply?” Brown asked.

“The biggest roadblock that we see moving forward is those individual growth plans and getting all those required signatures,” George said. 

But he said data was improving. 

“We had 10 schools that had less than 20 percent of all their IGPs signed and now that’s down to five,” George said. “You can see the progress that we’re making.”

Another item tracked on graduation plans is students’ state-required tests. George said the district identified a problem with the state’s system that tracks them. 

“Actually we helped the state on this one. When we went in the first time, we found it strange that our kids did not have all of their testing assessments in this system,” George said. “Come to find out we helped the state identify a problem with their system and they since have adjusted it to make sure they capture all of the kids’ assessment reports.”

Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ted Beasley and district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo confirmed that the district helped identify the problem. He said the issue, which caused the U.S. History test not to show up on printed reports, was resolved at the end of July. 

In the first round of observations at 24 high schools, George’s team found seven where fewer than 20 percent of students had all their assessments in their student file. That dropped to three in the second round of audits. 

Schools similarly had an issue ensuring the assessment information was on the graduation plan document. Tracking assessments and timely review of which assessments students lacked was a problem at Kennedy

George also said there’s been “incremental growth” when it comes to students’ credit total and course history being up-to-date in the state transcript system. The Louisiana Department of Education uses that system to determine whether or not a student is eligible for a high school diploma.

Multiple Student ID Numbers

During its first year of reviews, the district released a standardized way to maintain student records, which are housed within the city’s independent charter schools. (Charter schools are in charge of student records, which is the district’s chief defense in a family’s lawsuit filed against Kennedy and the district.)

“Having the decentralized school district, we realized schools were tracking information in very different ways,” Lewis said. 

Lewis said the initial year of audits was to help schools understand what the district expected of record-keeping before it became part of the accountability system. 

Asked to explain the challenges schools faced, George said tracking down a student’s assessment history was difficult when educators ran into a new problem. 

“That was difficult to track down. It sounds simple but it’s not,” George said. “You had several instances of where if a kid was at one school and transferred to a different school sometimes they had a different student ID. So when they were trying to pull up the information from the state department it would just pull down whatever that school had as their ID number. Not knowing that there was also a second and sometimes a third student ID. Those are just little glitches in the system we are finding out.”

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. pondered whether a centralized system could help. 

“Are we looking at how we can get all of this data directly from the schools electronically? So that we have that data and we are eliminating the idea of a student having one, two, three student ID numbers, by having that number submitted by the school to the district,” he said.

Lewis said all students have a state-generated ID number.

“The important thing for our schools is to use the state identified number for that student,” Lewis said. 

“When the kid goes to a new school, where do they get that number from?” Marshall asked. 

Lewis said the “unique identification number” is provided by the state.

Beasley, the state spokesman, said those numbers are called Louisiana Secure ID, or LASID for short.

“Assignment of state student IDs (LASID) is done in eScholar by school systems,” Beasley explained. “School systems submit their currently enrolled students to eScholar. If a student already has a LASID, the school system continues to report the student under that LASID.  If the student is newly enrolled in the state, school systems are prompted to assign a new LASID for that student.”

But the program can’t handle everything. If personally identifiable information, or characteristics, of a student is very similar to another student’s, the software doesn’t always work. Then the school system must decide which  ID number to use, or assign a new one.

“They review a set of potential matches to their student and make a decision on the correct student & LASID. If they do not believe any of these potential matches are their student, they have the ability to assign a new LASID,” Beasley said. “Most often, this decision step is where multiple IDs are assigned for the same student.”

Department staff audit the numbers five times a year in an attempt to weed out duplicate and old numbers, Beasley said. They ask districts to keep an eye out for duplicates too.

“Each year this results in the clean-up of approx. 1,000 retired IDs, which is only 0.03% of all active LASIDs,” Beasley wrote. “Although the scope of duplicate IDs is small across the state, students in Orleans parish are at risk of having duplicate IDs due to frequent movement between schools.”

Additionally, Lewis acknowledged that a transfer of physical records is also necessary when a student switches schools. That’s necessary if a student transfers within NOLA Public Schools to a new charter school or to a new parish. 

“What we instituted here … is we have a records day, a transfer day, where we are able to have schools come together and drop the information off,” Lewis said. 

In November, the audits will begin again, George said, noting he was proud of schools’ growth. “I want to be clear — schools are really on board.”

“Now, the notices of non-compliance will come into effect.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...