The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education failed to approve a measure that would have temporarily waived a statewide requirement that high school students pass state standardized tests in order to graduate. 

Had it passed, this would have been the third year the requirement was waived. The state waived testing requirements during extended COVID-related school closures in 2020 and again last year. Proponents argued high school seniors — who are generally required to take and pass LEAP tests in a number of core subject areas in order to graduate — deserved the same break as some of their classmates when the pandemic struck in 2020 and the following spring.

Members voted 5-3 in favor of the waiver, but the board requires six of its 11 members to approve in order to pass anything. Three BESE members, including New Orleans representative Kira Orange Jones — were absent on Thursday. 

The measure was introduced by BESE member Holly Boffy, whose district includes Lafayette and several cities that have been severely impacted by hurricanes over the past two years in addition to the pandemic. 

“What I can’t do is look these kids in the eye and say, ‘We’d rather you take a LEAP test than go to work,’” Boffy said. “Their opportunity to test, in the year they received some really important instruction, was interrupted.” 

High school seniors must pass three state LEAP exams to graduate: English I or English II, algebra or geometry, and U.S. history or biology. Discussion at Thursday’s special meeting focused on history and biology, which students generally take either sophomore or senior year.

Seniors who took both classes their sophomore year — when the pandemic waiver was in effect — don’t have to pass either exam, because it was waived in the spring of 2020. Seniors who still need to complete one or both courses must test. School officials say the history test has a noticeably higher fail rate than biology. They argued graduation shouldn’t come down to happenstance scheduling.

Irma Trosclair, superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System, said the proposed waiver would help 24 students in her district graduate. She also reassured members that it would not allow all students to graduate, but argued that all seniors should have these exams waived, not just those with “luck of the draw scheduling their sophomore year.”

“What message will this send to these kids?” she asked.

Louisiana Department of Education officials said roughly 2,400 seniors still need to pass a LEAP exam to qualify for graduation. That’s about 5 percent of the state’s 43,957 seniors, according to department enrollment data collected in October. They also acknowledged that the number could go down if students pass a summer exam or qualify for a special education waiver. 

But the pressing issue is graduation ceremonies, which begin this month, and whether students are allowed to dawn a cap and gown and walk across the stage to receive their diploma in front of family and friends. A waiver could ensure that for some students — otherwise it is up to the local district.

Five members argued students deserved a fair shake after three years of pandemic interruptions and similar waivers granted the last two years while the others argued such a measure would undermine the value of a Louisiana diploma. 

“This is the last class (of students) we’re talking about. They’ve had three years of disruptions. Next year it should not be an issue,” BESE member Doris Voiter said. “This is a kid issue. We are not lessening or destroying the integrity of the system.”

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make sure you err on the side of the child,” she said. 

But other leaders questioned what they considered already low standards. A student must receive an “approaching basic” on the exam to pass. That’s the second lowest of five possible scores.

“We’re not being truthful. We are lying to them, their parents and their colleges saying they are college and career ready. And they’re not,” one public commenter said. 

Brigitte Nieland, the government affairs director for non-profit Stand for Children, said the meeting was “hastily called” and lacked data to support the waiver.

“School districts have had two years to remediate these students to approaching basic,” she said, noting that graduations, which start as early as this weekend, have been scheduled for months. 

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...