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Progess will continue if BESE keeps up standards

It’s hard to find relative bad news in the latest release of accountability scores for Louisiana’s elementary and secondary education systems. But it would be a mistake to think it’s downhill from here in improving educational quality in the state, and to ease up just when goals are looking more realistic in their achievement than ever.

Accountability scores, which weigh in factors such as standardized test scores, attendance, and pupil progression, generally speaking for both specific schools and entire districts were higher and significantly so in the 2009 round of results. In a broader perspective viewing matters from the late 1990s when this effort started until now, the progress has been impressive: accountability scores for schools are up about 30 percent, the number of schools scoring 100 (deemed the minimal acceptable target) or more has increased from 152 in 1999 to 366 this year, and the number of academically unacceptable schools shrank to 55, down from 388 in 1999.

However, things must be kept in perspective. At best, Louisiana still ranks average among students in their achievement (according to the Iowa Test as of 2008) if not much closer to the bottom (on 4th and 8th grade levels, as of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress test on math and reading the state ranked last in one category and no better than 43rd in any, with maximum scoring at least “proficient” in any being 24 percent). There is way too much to be made up before any real sense of satisfaction should be entertained.

This means the state’s educational establishment cannot relax in any way, yet one temptation to do so rapidly approaches. This year, politicians wearying of the sustained effort to improve education and wanting to create a situation for which they could take credit, passed into law an alternative set of high school graduation criteria that is less demanding to prepare students for the demands of jobs that are disappearing as technology advances. This so-called “dummy diploma” is intended to boost graduation rates by devaluing the achievement, to allow legislators to claim they had boosted these rates even as this kind of curriculum is becoming less useful.

But despite the relaxed requirements, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education still has the ability to ensure that standards can be maintained. Presently, to earn a high school diploma a student must pass the Graduate Exit Exam, but the legislation did not specify this. It has been left up to BESE whether to promulgate this as a standard, a decision expected at its meeting next month.

As anyone who has taught students who have choices in their coursework knows, if something easier is offered, especially for those compelled to be in school many students will take that route. Thus, by keeping passage of the GEE mandatory for recipients of this diploma, incentives will continue to ensure students strive for maximal grades, knowing if they try to slide by these less-demanding courses that will comprise the new curriculum, it might endanger their graduation abilities. The state cannot claim strides forward if, at the end of the educational process, it lets up on rigor, wasting the efforts of the early years of students and their schools.

The recent results reinforce the need of BESE to counteract this loss of nerve by politicians. It would be a shame to start backtracking when the foundation for great success seems firmly in place.

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