The national news media has been reporting for several years now that the “portfolio” of charter schools created to run the state takeover schools in New Orleans have produced an amazing turnaround of those schools in the ten years since hurricane Katrina demolished the public schools in New Orleans. We see claims that most of the takeover schools are no longer failing and that the graduation rate has improved dramatically, and that the improved performance of the RSD students has greatly exceeded that of more traditional schools across Louisiana and across the nation. The charter school proponents seem to be claiming that poverty can no longer be used as an excuse for poor academic performance. They believe, or would have us believe, that the New Orleans RSD has found the secret to closing the achievement gap between impoverished, at-risk minority students and more advantaged middle class students.
This report is an attempt to simply examine the relevant data that can be used to measure academic success of the New Orleans Recovery District. It will attempt to measure how the RSD compares to traditional public schools. What does the data tell us? Is it Reform Success or Reform Hype?
Is the Comparison Really Complicated?
Unfortunately for comparison of student performance, the state test results in Louisiana have been manipulated so that they no longer measure the same level of proficiency as they did ten years ago. There appears to have been significant grade inflation of test results over the past ten years that have nothing to do with improvement in student achievement. Some of the grade inflation has come from familiarity of educators and students with the state test, so that students can score higher without significantly improving their math and reading skills. The rest of the grade inflation comes from a general lowering of the raw cut scores documented in this blog for the rating of “Basic” which in Louisiana is considered to be grade level performance. Not only have the state test results been manipulated by lowering many of the raw cut scores, the ratio of difficult to easy questions on the test can be changed from year to year also changing apparent performance.
So how much inflation has occurred in the state testing? The testing inflation can be estimated by comparing the average test results of Louisiana students as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) with the results of the state designed LEAP and iLEAP tests. In the last ten years, analysis shows that according to state tests, approximately 11 percent more students statewide were deemed to be on grade level (scored basic or above) than ten years ago. But at the same time, the NAEP test shows that only 3 percent more students advanced to basic. That difference and the simultaneous softening in the Louisiana formula for assigning grades to schools (bonus points for subgroups) have resulted in more and more schools appearing to have made dramatic progress in the last ten years. That dramatic “faux progress” includes the New Orleans RSD charter schools.
Graduation rates have improved statewide, and ACT scores are up slightly across the state. So how can we use these statistics to compare the RSD to the rest of the state and to schools nationwide?
There are three simple criteria that may be used to compare student performance between the RSD, state traditional schools, and schools in other states.
The answer to comparison of student performance in Louisiana is really quite simple and does not require complex calculations. First a little history:
The narrative by the charter school proponents is that prior to Hurricane Katrina, the school system in New Orleans was failing miserably. There was graft and corruption by school managers, and most students were getting such a substandard education that the schools deserved to be taken over and drastically overhauled. Some of that narrative is correct, but in the few years leading up to Katrina, the school system in New Orleans, just like all other systems in the state, was in the process of improving its student test scores. Even so, the destruction of Katrina was used as an opportunity for the State to take over schools and put them under new management. Independent charter management organizations were invited to come in and set up new schools chartered by the RSD and operated independently of the Orleans Parish School Board.
As some schools were taken over and some were closed, it became more difficult to trace the progress of individual schools. There is however, one very important statistic on student performance that we will use as a basis for our most critical comparison: Just prior to 2005, there was a special law (Act 35) passed by the Louisiana Legislature that allowed all public schools in New Orleans that had received a state calculated school performance score below the state average to be taken over by the state. This means that every school in Orleans rated below the 50th percentile in the ranking of schools across the state was taken over. So that’s the starting point for our comparison with student performance today.
It would require complex formulas and analysis to trace and compare individual school performance scores of the schools in New Orleans with the rest of the state because the formula for rating schools has changed and the tests and the grading system have changed. Also, the Orleans Parish school board has retained the management of a significant number of schools, which are operated as a separate school system from the RSD. But there is one simple statistic that can compare the takeover schools to the original schools that were taken over in 2005. That is the percentile ranking of the composite RSD student performance on the state tests compared to all the other students in the state.
With the reopening of schools in New Orleans following Katrina, the special law applying only to New Orleans required that all schools ranked below the 50th percentile in New Orleans compared to all schools in the state, would be taken over by the RSD. Therefore it can be roughly concluded that the new district started with school performance on average ranking near the 25th percentile. Since school performance scores are based primarily on student test performance, the schools taken over and managed by the New Orleans Recovery District were producing student-testing results in the bottom quartile of all school systems in Louisiana at the time of takeover.
The Latest Academic Ranking Based on State Testing Places the New Orleans RSD at the 17th percentile
The fairest and most accurate academic comparison of the New Orleans Recovery District with all other districts in the state is the percentile ranking of student performance. The Louisiana Department of Education calculated this ranking at the end of the 2013-14 school year and listed all school system rankings in a table on the LDOE website. The latest calculated percentile ranking of the New Orleans RSD district is at the 17th percentile (see item #3 under State + District reports) compared to all other districts in the state based upon the percentage of students in the district achieving the rating of “Basic” on state testing. This means that at the present time, 83 percent of the school districts in the state outperform the New Orleans RSD in educating students to the level of “Basic”.
Therefore if schools in the RSD are compared using student test performance, there is no indication of improvement compared to all the public schools in the state. The ranking of takeover schools started in the bottom quartile compared to all schools in the state, and remains in the bottom quartile.
So if at the time of takeover, the New Orleans RSD ranked near the 25th percentile in student performance, then the present ranking of 17th percentile shows no improvement in relation to other school systems.
Also based on the NAEP tests, the Louisiana ranking compared to the 50 states and the District of Columbia stands at approximately 48th. That’s approximately the same ranking Louisiana had right before Katrina. So the New Orleans RSD ranks near the bottom of a state that still ranks near the bottom nationwide in student performance. Since schools in Louisiana today are rated primarily on their student performance on state tests, the RSD is far from achieving parity with the more traditionally operated school systems. The new all charter school system is unique both in its structure and also in its extremely low performance.
What About the Graduation Rate?
Another way to measure school success is the use the high school graduation rate. The latest official graduation rate for the New Orleans RSD now stands at 61.1%, which is dead last compared to all other Louisiana school districts. In addition, enrollment figures indicate that there are a huge number of students in the RSD that drop out before they ever get to high school.
Students who drop out before they reach 9th grade are never figured into the graduation rate. There is a huge difference in 6th grade student enrollment (2495) compared to 9th grade (1685) in the New Orleans RSD. If we were to calculate the RSD graduation rate starting with 7th grade, it would be significantly less than 50%. That’s an awful lot of students walking the streets in New Orleans without a diploma. This early loss of students does not exist in two other school systems (St Bernard and Plaquemines) that were also similarly affected by hurricane Katrina.
What About Preparing Students for College?
Most of the schools in the New Orleans RSD are designed and advertised as college prep schools. There is a major emphasis on preparing and motivating students to enroll in four-year universities. Again there is one simple extremely relevant statistic that can be used to measure potential success in this area. All students in Louisiana are now required by the state to take the ACT test. The average ACT scores for RSD New Orleans students is now at 16.2 which is at the 7th percentile ranking in comparison to all other school districts in the state.
Most graduates from the RSD score too low on the ACT to be accepted to most state colleges without remediation. The average ACT score would be even lower if all students in the RSD were taking the ACT as is mandated by the State Department of education. The enrollment of students in the 12th grade for the RSD in the 2013-2014 school year was 1380, according to the February student count. But the number of students with an ACT score for that year was only 1178. That’s only 85% of the 12th grade students enrolled. The two other school systems closest to the New Orleans RSD are the Orleans Parish School Board and the Jefferson Parish systems. They had a testing rate of 98% and 99% respectively. Removing 15% of the seniors from the testing can significantly raise the average score. But even with that advantage, the RSD still scores near the bottom compared to all other public school systems.
Expansion of the RSD System
Since the formation of the New Orleans RSD, there has been an attempt to extend the takeover concept to low performing schools in other parts of the state also using the charter “portfolio” method. There is now an RSD Baton Rouge and an RSD Louisiana. These schools have been in operation for 8 years. Using the same method of ranking based on percentage of students achieving “Basic” on state tests, these districts are now at the 2nd and 0 percentiles respectively. That is third to last and dead last. The graduation rates and the ACT scores for these takeover schools are also at the bottom of the state rankings. These simple statistics demonstrate that there has been absolutely no progress in Louisiana in improving student performance by taking over and converting schools to charters.
As several other independent investigators (Mercedes Schneider and Research on Reforms) have demonstrated, the so-called New Orleans Miracle is simply a hoax perpetrated upon a gullible and trusting public and news media by the charter promoters. Just like the rainmakers and con men of long ago, charter promoters have preyed upon a new group of willing rubes.
And now unfortunately, the false propaganda of the faux success of the Louisiana Recovery District is being used to justify the creation of similar takeover districts in many other states. All the data available so far for those new recovery districts shows a similarly disastrous result.
Michael Deshotels is a retired Louisiana educator who taught science at the secondary level. He also served in various positions with the Louisiana Association of Educators culminating in the position of Executive Director prior to his retirement. More recently Michael Deshotels has done research on the dropout problem in Louisiana and as a result helped to draft and pass legislation providing for a career diploma designed primarily for non-college bound students. With Louisiana Educator Michael attempts to inform educators, parents and school board members on the current issues in education from the point of view of an experienced educator.
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with the kind permission of the Author, Michael Deshotels. We are grateful for the research and for what we believe invites an important discussion.