Louisiana officials felt they had much to celebrate when test results were released this spring. But at least one statistic seemed especially disquieting: Some 4,600 students retaking the state’s 8th grade math exam had failed yet again.
This was their third chance at the test in a year.
Despite having to repeat 8th grade, or attend high school as part of a transitional program, about two- thirds of those “retesters” still couldn’t score above the “unsatisfactory” level on this spring’s exam.
They are a small slice of the approximately 57,000 students who took the 8th grade math test in May. But in the age of accountability—with the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 expecting a lot from states and districts—their persistently poor performance is a nagging reminder of the challenges in helping all children succeed.
The stakes are especially high in Louisiana and in states such as Florida and Texas, where standardized testing gets pretty personal, determining at certain grade levels whether individual students can proceed to the next grade.
Because Louisiana is a little further along, it is a bellwether for the accountability movement in general, suggests Craig T. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
“This is, I think, a really key plot point in the story of accountability,” he said. “Now, we’re at the point where, in some states, a [relatively] small group of kids has failed multiple times.”
“The key here,” he added, “is whether those states or districts will give up on those kids, or whether they will find new approaches to teaching what has traditionally been considered a group of unteachables.”
‘The Real Issue’
Under Louisiana’s high-stakes policy, 4th and 8th graders generally must pass standardized tests in English and mathematics to advance to the next grade. Students who fail have a second chance to take the test in late summer. Districts, meanwhile, are required to offer intensive help in summer school.
Fourth graders who score “unsatisfactory” on either the English or math exam must repeat the 4th grade—though, in exceptional cases, they may apply for waivers. Eighth graders who fail both exams must repeat the grade. Those who fail only one portion may proceed to high school with remediation as part of a transitional program—a status known as grade 8.5. Louisiana’s state policy requires a one-year retention for these 4th and 8th graders.
Louisiana students also must pass a high school exit exam to receive their diplomas. The promotion policy is just one part of a multi-tiered state accountability system that also imposes demands on schools, districts, and even colleges of education.
Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the Louisiana state board of education and an architect of the accountability system, argues that the high-stakes system—fully implemented three years ago—is working well.
“I think it’s going fabulously,” she said recently. “We have more kids passing in the spring, more kids passing in the summer, ... and a reduced dropout rate.”
For example, 75 percent of first- time test-takers in the 4th and 8th grades passed this past spring, up 10 percentage points from just three years ago, according to state education department data.
So far, the retention policy appears to be more helpful to 4th than to 8th graders. For example, 64 percent of 8th grade retesters this spring failed the math exam, and 46 percent failed the English test. The numbers look considerably better in the 4th grade; where 29 percent of those retesters failed in math, and 25 percent failed in English. (See chart.)
Ms. Jacobs offers some explanations for the contrast.
She pointed out that 8th graders can move on to high school even if they fail one portion of the test. That policy, she argues, lowers the incentive for those young people to perform well on both tests. Older students are tougher to reach through remedial programs, she added.
She also said that this spring’s 8th graders were caught in the midst of the accountability revolution in Louisiana, and she predicts that pupils who grew up under the new system will do better as 8th graders.
At the same time, Ms. Jacobs acknowledged that the state and districts need “to do a better job in 8th grade remediation.”
Glimpsing the Louisiana data, Mr. Jerald of the Education Trust finds reason for optimism, as well as a lesson for other states.
Beyond the better success rate in English, and for 4th grade retesters, he noticed something else: the contrasts behind the statewide averages even for 8th grade math. That is, some districts apparently beat the odds, by a long shot.
Take the St. Tammany Parish public schools, a 34,000-student district near New Orleans. Sixty-seven percent of 8th grade retesters passed the math test this past spring, and 96 percent passed the English exam. In fact, many students didn’t just pass, they advanced two levels to “basic,” which is considered higher in Louisiana than it is in most states. The district had about 75 retesters for each 8th grade exam.
That success is no accident, according to a local administrator.
“We have a process in place as soon as we get our [test] scores,” said Maria C. Guilott, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “All of the schools deliberate about each of the children.”
The district offers special programs for students in summer school, and for those who fail again at the end of the summer, she said.
“Our goal is to do something different,” Ms. Guilott said. “We don’t want to repeat for the student the experiences that were not successful.”
Those students who are held back are invited to take part—with their parents’ approval—in “safety net” programs, she said.
“The idea is that it’s a safety net for one year. ... We narrow our focus and concentrate our efforts on language arts and math,” Ms. Guilott said. The students are in small classes with an emphasis on individualized instruction.
“The whole point,” the assistant superintendent said, “is to close the gap.”
Many education experts in Louisiana were not surprised that a disproportionate number of retesters who failed are from the New Orleans public schools, a district long plagued with academic struggles and a high poverty rate. In the 77,000-student school system, 79 percent of 8th grade retesters—nearly 1,400 students—failed in math, and 72 percent in English. A handful of other districts weren’t far behind in their failure rates for students who had been held back.
Such figures are especially upsetting to some critics of high- stakes testing, such as Willie M. Zanders, a New Orleans lawyer who represents a group of parents who have sought to halt the retention policy.
Mr. Zanders could not be reached for this story, but he was recently quoted as telling The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans: “If the failure rate for retesters in [New Orleans] was 25 percent, I would probably not be fighting.”
He said, “We will fight this test as long as those kids are being failed unfairly.” He added, “As adults, we have not put in the resources ... to get these kids ready for educational reform.”
The state does provide some extra assistance to help students with high-stakes testing.
For the current fiscal year, it provided $20 million for summer school and tutoring. It also provided about $14 million for a reading and math initiative, though that money is targeted at grades K-3, not at students taking the 8th grade exam.
Brian Riedlinger, the chief executive officer of the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans and a member of the state’s accountability commission, said that he has mixed feelings about tying students’ academic fates to standardized tests, but believes the state policy is ultimately worthwhile.
“I understand that some kids are paying a significant price for the [high-stakes] movement in Louisiana,” he said. “But I’d also tell you that, to a large degree, teaching and learning was not the number-one priority in at least the school districts I’m familiar with, and it is now.”
He added, “It took something drastic for that to happen.”