John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

One year after the COVID-19 crisis led the state to cancel annual standardized tests for Louisiana schools, testing season is once again approaching. Though state LEAP tests are going forward this year, things will once again be different for students and school staff. 

Last spring, Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools through the end of the academic year. The closure order, and the chaos of quickly setting up remote school for students across the state, made state testing virtually impossible. Edwards agreed to cancel the tests and relax attendance requirements.

A year later, schools are largely back to in-person classes. And though the normally high-stakes tests are back on, whether New Orleans school officials use the results as they traditionally have remains unclear. 

In a typical year, standardized tests results make up the majority of the state’s calculation of a school’s A-F performance score. Those scores are especially important in New Orleans, a nearly all-charter district. Here, the scores are the largest driver in the NOLA Public Schools district’s annual deliberations on whether to keep certain charter schools open under their current operators or to close them and hand them over to new operators. 

With testing cancelled last year, the state did not calculate school performance scores this year. When it determined whether or not to renew charter school contracts in the fall, NOLA Public Schools officials used previous years letter grades. They also allowed a handful of schools at risk of closing to instead undergo a comprehensive review that included family and staff surveys.

Though grades from upcoming tests are still slated to be calculated, the Louisiana Department of Education will not necessarily list low-performing schools as requiring “comprehensive intervention,” as it usually does, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley wrote in a recent letter to district superintendents. 

The state board could decide to waive letter grades as it did last year, but at this point in time no changes have been announced for this school year. What also isn’t yet clear is what will happen with charter renewal decisions at the district level and whether the district’s more flexible evaluation system will carry over to this fall. The district did not immediately respond to questions about this fall’s renewal process.

Making room for socially distant testing

State tests are required to be taken in-person, Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ted Beasley told The Lens. And NOLA Public Schools spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo told The Lens that students who do not wish to participate due to COVID-19 will not be given waivers.

With a portion of city students still opting to learn from home, schools are working to safely facilitate in-person testing while social distancing guidelines and classroom size caps remain in place. That will mean fewer students will be able to take their tests in the same place at the same time. 

“While tests are required in-person in order to maintain the integrity of the assessments, we have provided a number of flexibilities to assist with test administration to virtual students that include minimal contact with others,” Beasley wrote. “These options include testing after school hours, testing on weekend days, testing students individually, testing offsite, multiple testing windows and extended testing windows.”

While rhetoric around standardized testing is often controversial — some argue high-stakes tests have become the sole focus of education while others believe the tests are needed to monitor student progress — annual testing has become commonplace since the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law in early 2002. In a letter late last month, State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education leaders made clear they believe testing should proceed on the heels of the pandemic because understanding where students are at in their learning is “critical; not to do so would be nothing short of gross negligence.”

“In a year of a sustained global pandemic, impactful hurricane season, and recent winter storms unlike anything we have seen in decades, the lost learning for students was inevitable,” they wrote. “Assessing all students not only helps us understand what learning gaps have been created or widened, but also what we must do to close them.”

At Encore Academy on Arts Street in the St. Roch neighborhood, where roughly two-thirds of students attend school in-person four or five days a week, CEO Terri Smith is working out a testing schedule to balance in-person and virtual learners. 

“We are finalizing a schedule where our 3-8 [grade] virtual students will come in on five consecutive Fridays to test, as all of our 5-8 students are virtual on Friday to participate in their exploratory arts classes, such as theater, band, percussion, voice, visual arts and dance,” she wrote in an email. “This will make much of our building available for the testing of virtual students- remember we cannot group virtual kids with on-site cohorts of students. 

Those third through eighth grade students will test throughout the month of May, she wrote. “When the virtual students come in to test, we will need to socially distance them.”

“Still working out the kinks and hoping more of our students return for on-site learning in early April,” she wrote, noting the school is making a special allowance to let students return to campus full time mid-trimester after spring break ends April 12.

Encore Academy students who remain virtual will test on Fridays, beginning April 30.

At Crescent City Schools, a three school charter network in New Orleans Chief Operating Officer Chris Hines said the health and safety protocols will require testing to be spread out for a longer period of time, but it won’t result in individual students having more testing days.

“Each individual student will still have the same number of days of testing as in previous years – there will just be more total days when testing is happening in the school,” Hines wrote in an email. 

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...