Formally known as the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP), this current round of testing has several far-reaching implications for the future of education in Orleans Parish. The viability of the state's takeover of 107 of 128 schools -- including 31 charter schools and 20 schools currently operated by the Recovery School District (RSD) -- ultimately will be judged by the scores on this year's LEAP tests. A tug of war over the consequences of these tests is already under way.
The RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) recently made a joint proposal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) seeking a waiver of final accountability for students taking the LEAP exam over the next two years. The test, administered to fourth and eighth graders, normally determines whether or not a student moves on to the next grade. The iLEAP is administered to grades three, five, six, seven and nine, but students don't have to score a certain grade on it to advance in school. In making the waiver request, both governing authorities were responding in part to community pressure from the Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association Education Committee and the Fyre youth squad -- a group of students advocating improvements in public education -- that initially spawned the proposal. There will be no decision on the waiver proposal until the next BESE meeting in April -- after students have taken the test.
There are indications that some state legislators will introduce bills to cede control of Orleans Parish schools back to the local board during the upcoming legislative session. The OPSB currently operates only five schools. During the state takeover, it lost control of 107 schools that had collective LEAP and iLEAP scores below minimum state standards. Under current legislation, state control of Orleans schools would come up for review in five years, while charter schools must show measurable academic growth over the next three years.
For Olga Waters, principal at the RSD-operated Habans Elementary, school board politics are not on her radar screen. She's busy getting her students ready for the test. "I want my kids to pass, that's what I want," says Waters. "Because it is a measure that's being used, I want all of them to be successful."
With a student population hovering around 350 in grades pre-K through eighth, Waters says she's getting new kids every single day, which causes her to have mixed expectations for her students' test results. "This year will be our baseline score," she says. "I'll bet we'll have a clear picture for where we need to be for next year. For this year, we've just given it our best effort."
The same is true for the rest of the RSD, which as a whole averages anywhere from 200 to 250 students a week. "We recognize that this is still a transition time for students whose lives were disrupted after Hurricane Katrina," says RSD Superintendent Robin Jarvis. "I don't think final opinions about the quality of RSD schools can be made on the results of this year's tests. I think the success of the RSD will have to be judged over time, which is why the legislation provided for a minimum of five years for improving the schools placed in the RSD." Jarvis says a combination of community requests and the transition status of the district prompted the RSD and OPSB to request the waiver.
"It wouldn't be fair to hold children accountable who haven't had a full year of school," says Phyllis Landrieu, president of the Orleans board.
BESE Vice President Leslie Jacobs disagrees: "The students need these skills to succeed in life, and pushing them to the next grade if they don't have these skills is not going to help them."
Landrieu and OPSB Superintendent Darryl Kibert insisted during a joint interview that they are proposing not the lowering of standards but the use of an alternative method of assessment because of the extreme circumstances many students have faced.
"My feeling is they should take the test and have remediation until they are able to pass the test, which is what we did last year," Landrieu says of the one-time statewide waiver issued after Katrina. "Although we weren't held accountable (by the state), we still held ourselves accountable and provided remediation until the kids passed it."
Jacobs counters that the high-stakes testing the state put in place in 2000 serves a purpose. "I'm a strong supporter of high-stakes testing," she says. "Some opponents think that it's trying to penalize the students. The penalty to the students is to continue to promote them from one grade to the next and not give them the skills that they need and schooling that they need to be successful for the next level. The bottom line is if you've lost all this time of schooling, the only way you catch it up is with more time."
Jacobs adds that she thinks remediation is most effective when it counts for something. She says she would be very surprised if BESE passed the waiver in April. "Orleans has asked for this for years, and BESE has not given it," she says.
In addition to individual students' academic futures being at stake, schools themselves are evaluated based on their pupils' collective LEAP and iLEAP scores. The current waiver request does not include a waiver for schools' obligations to meet those state standards.
While the state provides guidelines and preparation materials for the LEAP, several schools like Habans approach the test in their own way. Waters has had her students preparing for the test since the first day of school.
"This is not just for LEAP," she says. "This is going to help you later on in life to be successful and prepared. The skills that you need for LEAP are the skills that you need for life."
Waters remembers the challenges in preparing kids for the LEAP test as an English teacher in Orleans Parish before she rose in the ranks to become a principal. "It puts a lot of pressure on young people, when they think, 'Although I've worked very hard in my classes, it's not the determining factor for my passing or failing.' It would be a wonderful thing if they could include that as part of the composition of the high stakes," she says, noting that she still thinks the test is fair.
In addition to the academic challenges, Waters is keenly aware of the social pressure the tests puts on fourth- and eighth-grade students. "Some kids come nauseated the day of the test because they are afraid that they're going to fail," she says. "No one wants to experience failure." The pressure can often be the toughest for the eighth-grade students. "If you've taken it in fourth grade and you've seen your peers fail, then when you get to eighth grade, you know that this is a reality if you're not prepared."
Waters says she's done her best to not only prepare her students for the test but put some fun back into learning by offering rewards like pizza parties for those who do well on practice tests. To those who are frustrated, she offers extra hours of support and tutoring to get them over the hump.
"We are hoping that will help push those that are kind of borderline over the top," says Waters.