Louisiana and the Promise and Pitfalls of Accountability Systems

Louisiana recently released A-to-F school grades for the 2012–13 school year. These are the first results from the state’s new accountability system.

I take away three big things from the release. First, states are getting increasingly sophisticated about accountability systems. Second, the changes made by Louisiana’s leaders show that there’s no such thing as a perfect system—to have an accountability system is to make subjective, and therefore debatable, decisions. Third, the early indications are that, as was the case in Massachusetts and Florida over the last decade plus, Louisiana’s strong accountability system is contributing to improved student results.

Here are the facts. Schools are now scored on a 150-point scale (down from the previous 200-point scale), and several changes were made to the measures comprising the rankings. Attendance no longer counts toward scores at elementary schools, and high school scores take into account student performance on the ACT—Louisiana recently became the 10th state to have all high school students take the ACT. The education department no longer gives schools points for students who score below grade level, and schools can qualify for bonus points for improving the performance among their lowest-performing students.

For comparison purposes, the state released letter grades based on the old system in addition to the new ratings. The former criteria would have resulted in both more A-ranked schools and more F-ranked schools. The Times-Picayune released a side-by-side comparison of district scores from this year and what they would have been under the previous scoring system. Of the 74 school systems listed, nearly three-quarters would have earned the same score under either system. Fifteen districts received higher scores, and four received lower scores, under the new system than they would have under the old.

The new scoring system also depressed high school scores slightly. Forty-two percent earned an A or B this year, compared to 53 percent from last year. However, given that in 2011 only about 30 percent of high schools earned an A or B, State Superintendent John White sees this as an important correction to a formula that had resulted in inflated high school scores.

But there are tricky issues as well. Orleans Parish, which has had nearly all of its schools taken by the Recovery School District (RSD) for their persistent low performance, is now ranked second in the state. The local district now runs few schools, and this batch includes selective-admissions programs. When the other New Orleans schools, those now overseen by RSD, are factored in, New Orleans falls to 39th place (without this additional piece of information, an observer might mistakenly think Orleans Parish is a higher-performing district).

This drop to 39th, however, is by no means evidence that the RSD isn’t working; quite the contrary. Pre-Katrina, Orleans Parish ranked second-to-last in the state with 65 percent of its students attending failing schools. Today, only five percent of New Orleans students attend failing schools.

Another challenge faced by the new system is how it assesses schools purposely designed to serve the very most disadvantaged students. For instance, over half of the failing schools in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes serve students who are over age, have dropped out, have been expelled, or are incarcerated. Perhaps these schools are very low performing…or maybe they’re doing right by a good number of tough-to-educate kids.

Worth mentioning is one last challenge on the horizon: What happens when Louisiana has Common Core fully implemented? Both New York and Kentucky have begun testing on the new standards, and both saw substantial declines in student scores. Given the significant consequences for Louisiana schools deemed to be performing poorly (eligibility for state takeover, charters losing their right to operate), trouble could lie ahead. White, however, seems to have gotten ahead of this one, stating in mid-September that no matter how students perform this year, schools’ letter grades would drop one level at the most. He plans to take a formal proposal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this December.

All of these concerns should be taken seriously by Louisiana policymakers. But I do hope that they and leaders in other states don’t overreact, view these challenges as dispositive, and decide that tough accountability systems (especially A-to-F systems) are unworkable. Making tough calls on what metrics to include, how to weight them, how to manage consequences, and more is the stuff of policymaking.

We should all bear in mind that the new system is part of an overall reform plan, several years in the making, that appears to be working. The state has seen impressive gains in recent years: Nearly 20 percent more Louisiana seniors are eligible to attend college or technical school than were in 2012; 25 percent more college credits were eared on AP exams; and the state’s 2012 cohort graduation rate increased to an all-time high.

Unfortunately, the recent Tony Bennett A-to-F-accountability kerfuffle was a lot of education observers’ introduction to these new state systems. For many of these folks, the takeaway from that saga was that these systems are all art and no science, prone to political manipulation, and, on balance, not worth the hassle.

For these people, I hope the recent Louisiana release serves as the counterargument. Yes, there are complications with A-to-F systems, but sharp public servants can manage them, and they just might prove to be good for kids.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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