Louisiana state school board approves controversial alternate graduation measure

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(The Center Square) — A new policy to allow students who failed state tests to graduate by other means appears headed to a legislative oversight hearing following approval by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s vote followed nearly four hours of testimony before the Academic Goals and Instructional Improvement Committee from both sides of the issue on Tuesday that resulted in a 6-5 vote to approve.

The policy aims to allow students not meeting the current graduation requirement of 10-38% of available points on state tests to complete a project or portfolio their teacher would grade. With a passing grade, students would receive a diploma that would count toward their school’s accountability rating score. Statewide, just over a third of Louisiana public high school students perform on grade level, yet 70% of schools are rated A or B.

“I am asking you today to postpone this,” House Education Committee Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, told the academic committee.

Harris cited a widespread lack of support for the policy, as well as upcoming elections that will result in a new governor, many new lawmakers, and new members for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Harris, who is term-limited, is among the candidates running for the board of education.

“I think it’s because of such a thin margin of support on your board, and also hearing the groundswell of angst against this proposal in the public, I believe it would be prudent to postpone this, then look at the evidence in the next board and the next administration,” he said. “What are we doing, and what message are we sending to the students we’re trying to help?”

Other concerns highlighted include the potential to further distort the state’s school accountability system and a lack of appropriated funds to carry out the policy, which some complained would be expensive for both the state school board and individual districts.

Still others focused on how the policy evolved. What was initiated to help students struggling with English was later expanded to all students, one of many issues highlighted in Superintendent Cade Brumley’s call for the board to “abandon the rulemaking process.”

“For me, that’s a very serious concern,” District 4 BESE member Michael Melerine said Tuesday. “It went from a very small subset of individuals which we all agree we need to serve better, to all of a sudden now it’s carte blanche, every single student can apply for this. There’s no guardrails on it, the only guardrails is there’s going to be an audit if a certain threshold (of students using the exemptions) is met.”

Proponents of the plan, crafted by elected District 7 board President Holly Boffy and board member Belinda Davis, appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, argue some students simply struggle with tests but understand the content. Others argued the tests are unfair for minorities, and an alternative assessment could prevent some from dropping out.

It’s necessary “for those kids who come crying to me because when don’t pass the standardized test, because maybe that day somebody died in their family, or something happened at their house before they came to school, or they broke up with their girlfriend or boyfriend,” D’Shay Oaks, vice president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, told the academic committee. “All of that comes into play when these kids take these standardized tests.”

Erin Bendily, vice president of policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute, said she’s “extremely disappointed” with the policy approval, which she believes will ultimately hurt students who need help the most.

“We have to send a strong message to these kids that we believe in them,” she said. “Now is not the time to advance a proposal to water down our standards. That’s not going to help our students and it’s not going to help our state prosper.”

The policy, which faced widespread opposition over the summer from education reform groups, business leaders, and the vast majority of public comments submitted, is now set to become official in 90 days without legislative intervention.

Harris has repeatedly signaled the House Education Committee he chairs will likely hold an oversight hearing on the policy in the near future.

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