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

Three-quarters of New Orleans public schools saw a decrease in academic performance this year compared to 2019, the last year scores were produced prior to the pandemic, according to a presentation by Louisiana Department of Education officials, who presented so-called “simulated scores” at a Monday meeting of its Accountability Commission. According to the department’s calculations, two-thirds of city schools would have received a D or F letter grade had the state issued them.

But they won’t be. The department is using the term “simulated” performance scores because it is not issuing formal school letter grades this year, as it has not since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schools and standardized test-taking across the state. 

The 2021 simulated scores issued in the last week show a similar trend throughout the state following a second year of periodic closures and frequent student and teacher quarantines caused by the pandemic. 

Officials said high-poverty schools with high minority populations were the most likely to be affected. Elementary schools would have seen greater declines than high schools and schools that spent more time in virtual learning would have seen greater declines than schools that spent more time in-person.

More than one-third of city schools received a score that would be equivalent to an F. Another third had scores equivalent to a D. Six schools would have received an A, five a B and 16 a C. (Some newly opened schools do not receive grades.)

Louisiana Department of Education officials say the so-called ‘simulated’ scores are “not official results” and won’t be used to evaluate schools. 

“2020-2021 was a year unlike any other, and results cannot be accurately compared; however, the department is committed to ensuring these data are available for informational purposes and has simulated the school performance scores,” officials wrote in a press release. 

As a whole, The NOLA Public Schools district, which oversees all but a handful of public schools in the city, saw a drop of four performance points, from 67.8 in 2019 — a C letter grade — to 63.8 in its simulated score, which would also be a C under the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s scale set in policy. District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo acknowledged the scores in an email following their release. 

“As stated by LDOE, this year was unlike any other, and therefore these data cannot be compared with great accuracy to pre-pandemic school years. They represent a new baseline from which schools can improve student performance,” Alfonzo wrote. “Nonetheless, these latest data show that students in the NOLA-PS community endured similar declines in progress and performance seen throughout the state.”

State officials said the scores were calculated as closely as possible to the 2019 methodology as possible, but the pandemic created a few differences. In calculating scores, officials said the pandemic may have directly affected ACT participation – which has been part of the calculation along with state standardized tests, graduation rates and other factors — and noted that many students were able to use graduation waivers in the 2020 school year, which factors into 2021 high school scores.

Officials also had to use two-year-old data instead of one-year-old data for student growth calculations. The state broke down these differences in a three-page FAQ

The department did a rather quiet release of the scores on Friday — sending them to school leaders and posting them on its website. But they did not send out a press release or hold a press conference as they typically do with such data releases.

The 2021 scores are the first look at the state’s traditional grading of student achievement in the  two years since the pandemic canceled state testing in 2020. Testing was back on last spring, but officials received federal waivers from required accountability measures in 2021 as well. 

The state release did not include an A-F letter grade — the state’s traditional way of grading and ranking its schools and one that is more easily understood by members of the public.

The Lens calculated equivalent letter grades based on the scale in state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education policy, provided by Department spokesman Matt Johnson.

The district’s largest charter school operator, KIPP New Orleans Schools, saw its elementary decline between 10 and 13 points on the 75 point scale. 

“The scores, as expected, are not nearly close to what we would aspire for our students, which is disappointing, but not surprising given the year we’ve had,” KIPP New Orleans CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said. 

“What I don’t want to happen is our teachers and educators to feel that the grades demonstrate the hard work they poured into their work last year.”

She and other school leaders said they appreciate the state putting out the calculations.

“I think it’s always helpful for educators to have data that tells us where our students are,” she said Monday. “I’m never going to say we shouldn’t be calculating data to have the best understanding of where every student is.”

Statewide drop

The department’s simulated score run revealed what would have been a statewide performance score drop of an average of 1.8 points. Seventy-one percent of districts and 70 percent of schools statewide had a simulated score that was lower than their 2019 score. 

State and local education officials attribute those drops to difficulties amid the pandemic. In March 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards closed all in-person education, forcing an abrupt move to virtual schooling across the state. Once brick-and-mortar school reopened last school year, many students continued to bounce back and forth between in-person and virtual schooling due to outbreak-related closures.  In addition to the ways the pandemic directly affected K-12 education, students faced the stress of an economic downturn, mental and physical health concerns and general uncertainty. 

Thomas Lambert, the Assistant Superintendent in LDOE’s Office of Assessment, Accountability, and Analytics, told the commission that younger elementary school students saw the largest drops in academic performance. The pandemic clearly affected certain subgroups of students more than others, he said. 

“High-poverty, high-minority schools saw a more significant decline than lower-poverty lower-minority schools,” he said. “And schools where virtual learning was more common would have seen more of a decline.”

“If 50-100 percent of your students were in virtual for more than half the year, you would have seen a 5.9 point decline,” he said.

That drop is slightly more than the NOLA Public Schools district experienced. The district returned to in-person school relatively early last school year. After beginning remotely in August 2020, the district opened classrooms to students in September and October. After that, the district only experienced one district-wide building closure due to a spike of COVID-19 cases and high positivity rates in the city after the 2020 holiday break. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. was quoted in the release as saying the scores represent a “snapshot” of last year’s performance and have helped inform school leaders’ education plans this fall and moving forward. 

“COVID-19 has impacted student learning across Louisiana, and NOLA-PS was no different as we navigated a challenging year last year,” Lewis said. “Our educators received the data that informed these scores for students at their individual schools over the summer and have done a tremendous job engaging their most vulnerable students, building lesson plans, and implementing intervention strategies to put them back on track to find success in their educational journeys.”

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...