Students in New Orleans’ Recovery School District produced gains on Louisiana’s high-stakes exam this spring, with 4th graders posting scores that showed across-the-board growth in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.
Eighth graders taking the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, and high school students taking the state’s graduation exit exam for the first time also posted mostly higher scores over last year, though the growth was more modest. For the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and devastated most of the city’s schools, New Orleans’ public schools are returning to the state’s accountability system.
Despite encouraging progress, students in the state-run Recovery School District remain academically troubled, especially in high school, where 60 percent of sophomores taking the exit exams in both English and math failed. And while 4th graders produced the most promising signs of improvement, 32 percent still failed the language arts test and 35 percent failed math. In the 8th grade, 34 percent failed in language arts and 41 percent in math.
For Paul G. Vallas, the hard-charging urban superintendent hired nearly a year ago to run the district of low-performing schools, the LEAP results were also a measure of his leadership and the multiple, fast-paced reforms he ordered across the 33 schools in the district.
He credited smaller class sizes and hundreds of new teachers for the gains, and called the scores “very good, considering where we started.”
Roughly 85 percent of the district’s 12,500 students started the school year at least two years below grade level in reading.
To be promoted to the next grade in Louisiana, students in 4th and 8th grades must earn certain scores on language arts and mathematics tests. For both grades, students in the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans passed at far lower rates than the statewide average.
SOURCE: Louisiana Department of Education
Mr. Vallas predicted that the RSD’s increased scores, which significantly outpaced statewide gains in some categories, should help him attract more resources for the struggling district.
“It really gives me momentum now to take our reforms to scale and to get the financial support that we are going to need,” he said.
The state exams are high-stakes for 4th and 8th graders, who are not promoted to the next grade if they fail. Students must score a “basic” on either the language arts or math portion of the test, and at least an “approaching basic” in the other subject in order to pass. High school students must pass the exit exams to receive a diploma, but have multiple chances to take the exams.
The scores, released May 6, did not separate the results from the 33 traditional schools run by the RSD and the 26 independent charter schools that it oversees, making comparisons impossible. The large influx of new students into the RSD this academic year—hundreds of whom enrolled after November—also make comparisons between 2007 and 2008 results difficult. School-by-school results will be released in a few months.
‘Worried All Year’
At the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, an RSD charter in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, eight of the school’s 24 8th graders did not pass.
In 4th grade, four out of 49 students fell short, although the passing scores in that grade were some of the strongest King has seen, with several students reaching “mastery” and “advanced” levels in language arts and math. Those who didn’t pass will receive intensive instruction and test preparation next month and retake the exam, said King’s principal, Doris R. Hicks.
“We’d been worried all year about some of our 8th graders because we knew from their scores on exams last year as 7th graders that they had weaknesses in math,” Ms. Hicks said. “Our track record in summer school is very good, so we will get them through this so they can move on to high school next year.”
In Joseph Recasner’s 4th grade class, all but one student passed. All morning, Mr. Recasner kept the students in suspense about their results, but delivered the news to the anxious, wiggling group after lunch. Ortega Roberts covered his face with his hands, peeking between his fingers when Mr. Recasner finally called his name. He passed. D’Angelo Sumlin, who scored “mastery” in both language arts and math, jumped from his seat and pumped his fists as his classmates applauded.
To comfort their classmate who didn’t pass, Mr. Recasner’s students lined up to hug her and deliver words of encouragement.
“And remember,” said Mr. Recasner, “sometimes some of us might have problems keeping up, but the object is to always finish the game. How you do on the LEAP test doesn’t make you any less. We sink or swim as a class.”
Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.