Louisiana legislative committee strikes down alternate graduation proposal

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(The Center Square) — A policy approved by Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to allow students who failed state tests to graduate by other means was nixed by lawmakers on Thursday.

The House Education Committee on Thursday voted 8-3 to reject a policy approved by the state board in a 6-5 vote earlier this month that would have allowed students not meeting the current graduation requirement of 10-38% of available points on state tests to complete a project or portfolio instead.

The policy would have given students with a passing grade from their teacher a diploma that would have counted 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.

BESE President Holly Boffy told the committee the intent behind the policy is to “increase opportunities for student success,” pointing to students who have repeatedly failed the state’s LEAP test for various reasons.

“Life in 2023 is hard enough without these artificial barriers,” she said. “They face so many obstacles in life.”

Proponents of the plan include the Louisiana Association of Educators, Educators for Quality Alternatives, state superintendents, and numerous students and teachers from multiple schools. Several testified some students master the material but cannot pass state assessments at the “approaching basic” level.

The proposal was initially targeted to English language learners but later broadened to all students. Boffy said Louisiana is one of eight states that require students to pass a standardized test to graduate and the only state that doesn’t provide an alternative pathway.

State Superintendent Cade Brumley highlighted numerous “missteps” in creating the proposed rule, from a failure to consult the Accountability Council or legislative committees that would be required to appropriate funds for the changes to inadequate input from stakeholders. Brumley suggested a better approach would be high-dosage tutoring and other interventions for struggling students and outlined efforts currently underway to help them.

“Now is not the time, in my opinion, to think about lowering the bar,” he said. “I just don’t think this is the right approach.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who was elected to the BESE board last week, urged the board before it voted to approve to delay the decision, pointing to opposition from Governor-elect Jeff Landry, parents, education advocates, numerous lawmakers, and new and existing BESE members.

Harris on Thursday also noted that a retroactive component with the plan may violate state statute. Harris and others suggested that approving the policy now, only to have it reversed when lawmakers and BESE members take office in January, would sow confusion among students and schools statewide.

“We are going to create confusion in schools for two to three months,” he said, noting the policy, if approved, would be “on the pathway to being overturned.”

Opponents who testified on Thursday included the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Pelican Institute, Louisiana Kids Matter, Council for a Better Louisiana, multiple BESE members, and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, among others.

“It signals to our students that we don’t believe in them, or they’re not worth our time and energy,” said Erin Bendily, vice president of policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute.

“I think it’s watering down our standards, and I think it’s an admission that we’ve failed,” Kennedy said of the policy in a recorded video.

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