La. Set To Retain 4th, 8th Graders Based on State Exams

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Louisiana is poised to become what appears to be the first state to hold back elementary and middle school students based on so-called high-stakes tests.

Nearly one-third of Louisiana's 4th and 8th graders, about 38,000 students, failed new tests administered this spring. Those students will be offered summer school and a second chance at taking the tests in July. Those who cannot lift their scores to at least the "approaching basic" level face the prospect of repeating a grade next fall.The state's roughly 7,600 special education students who took the exams will be exempt from that consequence. The state also has an appeals process under which students who failed the tests but meet certain other criteria may request permission to continue to the next grade.

When scores were announced this month, state officials were quick to emphasize that students had demonstrated improvement over last year, when about 44,000 students failed the tests. Still, the officials acknowledged, Louisiana has a long way to go in educating its students. This is the second year the high-stakes tests have been administered, but the first in which the results will decide students' academic fates.

"I'm very excited. The results came in better than expected," said Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state board of education. She noted that overall performance had climbed in mathematics and 8th grade reading; English scores for 4th grade were about the same.

The accountability program "has changed the entire conversation across the state," placing much more emphasis on teaching and learning, Ms. Jacobs said.

Although some states have high school exit exams that students must pass to graduate, Louisiana appears to be the first state to have in place an accountability system for earlier grades that makes passing a certain test the minimum benchmark for advancement to the next grade.

Matthew Gandal

Individual districts, including the Chicago school system, have policies that hold back students based on an assessment. "That's the first [state] we know of," said Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit, Cambridge, Mass., group formed by state and business leaders to help promote improved student achievement. "I'm sure people are going to be watching closely outside of the state."

Several other states are moving in a similar direction, including Delaware, Ohio, and South Carolina. Ohio already has a high school exit exam and is planning to tie promotion for 4th graders to a reading test in 2002, though efforts are afoot in the legislature to modify that plan. High-stakes policies for multiple grade levels in both Delaware and South Carolina have been delayed, following a backlash from parents and educators.

Test Critics

Many critics have argued against using a standardized test as the deciding factor in whether to hold a student back.

"When a third [of students] fail to pass, you have to ask yourself, did all those kids miss school . . . or did the system fail to provide an adequate education?" said Lorrie A. Shepard, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She added, "every leading body has said you shouldn't make those decisions on the basis of a test alone," pointing to findings of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Educational Research Association, and others.

But Cecil J. Picard, Louisiana's schools superintendent, said his state wanted to catch students earlier than high school if they are not succeeding academically. "Now, at 4th and 8th grade, there's a check point," he said. "We're going to diagnose what the problem is, and we're going to prescribe."

State officials estimate that 10 percent to 15 percent of 4th and 8th grade students will be held back this school year because they failed the tests.

The Louisiana system ranks students according to five categories: "advanced," "proficient," "basic," "approaching basic," and "unsatisfactory." A student's performance is deemed unsatisfactory if he or she is unable to answer at least 40 percent of the questions correctly, and such students will be held back. The Louisiana assessment, aligned with revised state standards, is part of a broad accountability program that also ranks schools on the basis of test scores and other measures and requires a series of graduated interventions for failing schools.

Scores across the state varied widely on the test, which was administered in March. In a handful of districts, 15 percent of students or fewer failed. But students in other districts performed more poorly; in the 84,000-student New Orleans public schools, 55 percent of 4th graders and 63 percent of 8th graders scored "unsatisfactory" on the math section.

Parental Challenge

A New Orleans-based group called Parents for Educational Justice earlier this spring sought to block the state from using the exam to decide whether students would be promoted to the next grade. But the group's legal challenge has so far been rejected, and a lawyer for the group said the next step was unclear.

"[The judge] was pretty skeptical about our claims," William P. Quigley acknowledged, though he said parents would continue to resist what he maintains are unfair consequences for students.

Brigitte T. Nieland, the senior vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit organization, said that "though the results are not what they should be or could be, there are mechanisms in place" to help students, such as free summer school and other assistance during the school year. The state also has a K-3 reading and math initiative, currently funded at $20 million.

In one recent adjustment to the accountability system, the state board decided earlier this spring that students could not be held back twice for failing the exam.

In addition to an appeal, students in 8th grade who fail the exam may have another avenue open. Districts can either require such students to repeat the 8th grade, or they can allow them to advance to high school and take remedial 8th grade courses while also taking 9th grade classes.

Frederick F. Skelton, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said he was concerned that, because of a budget deficit in Louisiana, the legislature may not fully fund the state's $30 million request for school accountability for next year.

He added that the union would be watching the test-appeals process closely. Some students may have extenuating circumstances to explain a poor score, he said, or may have strong grades that merit consideration.

"We want to be assured that there is an appeals process that legitimately works," Mr. Skelton said.

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 24

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as La. Set To Retain 4th, 8th Graders Based on State Exams
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