Louisiana has a highly-touted school accountability system for measuring and reporting on how well public elementary and secondary students are performing. Annually, we receive national accolades for our efforts in this area. A major component of that system is high-stakes tests called LEAP that 4th and 8th graders must take to determine promotion to the next grade.

Education WatchCurrently, 4th graders must score at least “Basic” in either Math or English/Language Arts and “Approaching Basic” in the other subject to pass to the next grade. This is something 83 percent of the students who took the test were able to do in 2009.

Keep in mind that “Basic” is a rudimentary standard. It doesn’t represent mastery of grade-level skills. But the recent action by BESE changes all of that. It will now require that all students who score only “Approaching Basic” in both Math and English be promoted to a quasi-5th grade where they’ll take remedial 4th grade work in a subject along with all their regular 5th grade classes at the same time.

But that’s not all. These under-prepared 5th graders won’t be tested on their 5th grade work. They’ll be taking the 4th grade LEAP test again. What that means is that thousands of fifth graders in Louisiana will essentially be lost in the system. Our accountability system won’t accurately reflect their scores and an entire group of students who are in the 5th grade won’t show up in any of the 5th grade performance reports for their school, their district or the state.

That’s not how our accountability system was set up to operate and this significant change in academic standards leaves a number of real concerns and several unanswered questions. For example:

1. Do the students have to master two grades’ worth of material in two subjects at the same time? The 4th grade LEAP test assesses elementary grade skills. The “Basic/Approaching Basic” passing score standard for Math and English was established a number of years ago to ensure that a student is minimally prepared to go on to middle school. If the student does not possess basic academic skills in at least one major subject area in 4th grade, how can he or she be expected to be proficient in either one of them in the 5th grade?

2. How will the accountability reporting work? Under this new plan students will have to show that after completing remedial work, they can now pass the 4th grade LEAP test at the “Basic” level. That’s good but they’ll be in the 5th grade. How will we know how well they’re progressing on their 5th grade skills? Right now, every 5th grader takes the 5th grade iLEAP test near the end of the year. And while the results are not tied to promotion to the next grade, the scores are used diagnostically and are reported by school, district and statewide as one of the key measures in Louisiana’s school accountability system. So now, 1) the public won’t know how well these students did in their 5th grade classes and 2) the statewide reporting of 5th graders’ academic attainment in Louisiana will now be inaccurate because it doesn’t include any results from these 5th graders who are considered “transitional 4th graders.” How is this being accountable?

3. How does this help the students? During discussions, some supporters of this change said they didn’t want this group of under-prepared 5th graders to take the 5th grade iLEAP because it may overburden them with testing. Others said that when these kids eventually take the 6th grade iLEAP at the end of the following year, we’ll be able to figure out how well they did in the 5th grade and any “problems would show up then.” Which raises the question of whether it’s okay for the state not to know how these children fared in their 5th grade work until they’re almost out of the 6th grade? How can policymakers intervene if problems aren’t evident until a year later? These are vulnerable students who, if they fall further behind in the 5th and 6th grade, will have even more difficulty catching up in later grades.

4. Are we returning to social promotion? The passing standards for high-stakes LEAP tests in 4th and 8th grades were established using valid criteria to avoid social promotion and help students attain the minimal basic skills to move onto middle and high school. It’s not simply about moving up a grade, it’s about moving up to another critical learning phase. The students who do not pass these tests at the “Basic/Approaching Basic” standards should be getting academic help well before the point of high-stakes testing. Student data clearly show that these students have problems well before the 4th and 8th grades. So by moving unprepared students into the next grade, are we returning to the very practice we set out to avoid?

LEAP tests were designed to not only help schools identify the needs of children, but also to pinpoint instructional weaknesses so changes can be made. Throughout these discussions, no data were given to show that the current system is harmful to students. In fact, the just released “Quality Counts” report from Education Week magazine once again ranked Louisiana’s prior standards and policies for assessments and accountability very high nationally. No matter the argument or intent of some policymakers, the new message to 4th graders, parents and schools will be: We now have lower expectations for you. You don’t really have to meet the minimal 4th grade standards to move to the next grade and the public won’t even know if you’re succeeding at your 5th grade work or not.

There is legitimate concern that these lower expectations for 4th graders are in response to pressure being applied by politicians, not necessarily what is best for the long-term learning success of the students. That’s unfortunate. The more exceptions, waivers, loopholes and lower expectations we have, the more we fail our children. And why would we want to do even more of that?

 


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