The latest Louisiana public school performance scores, released Oct. 26, show continued — and dramatic — improvements in local public schools. Those improvements have occurred in schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) as well as the Recovery School District (RSD). That's significant for a lot of reasons.
Institutionally, it means that the RSD and the OPSB are doing their jobs. Overall, the OPSB scores are significantly higher, but there's a reason for that. After Hurricane Katrina, the RSD took over the worst public schools in the state — more than 100 of them — and left the OPSB with only the best schools in town (about a dozen now).
To its credit, the current OPSB took the city's best schools and made them even better. OPSB schools now rank second highest in the state. Their overall letter grade is an "A" and their 2012 district performance score of 133.8 is less than one point behind the tiny (and relatively wealthy) Zachary Community School District, which scored a 134.7.
Jefferson Parish Schools, by comparison, earned an overall grade of "C" and a score of 99.2. That's still a significant improvement over the 2011 score of 88.2 and a dramatic improvement over its 2008 score of 73.5.
St. Tammany, which has long had high-performing public schools, continues to excel. Its system posted a letter grade of "A" and a 2012 score of 122.8 — 11 points behind New Orleans' schools but still up more than 11 points from its 2011 score.
The RSD-run schools in New Orleans continue to trail in letter grades and overall scores, but these were some of the worst schools in the country in 2005. The good news is they continue to improve. The reality is they were so far down the scale that even dramatic improvement only moves them from "F" to "D."
The numbers tell the tale of improvement for local RSD schools:
• The 2012 score of 76.7 is up almost 11 percent from the 2011 score of 69.2 — and up more than 49 percent from the 2008 score of 51.4.
• Thirteen local RSD-run schools are eligible to return to local governance by the OPSB.
• Local RSD schools continue to show the most dramatic growth in scores in the state. Those improvements allowed New Orleans' public schools to pass up Baton Rouge and Shreveport in statewide rankings.
Opponents of school reform love to harp on the fact that many RSD-run schools are still failing. What they often omit from their analysis is that those schools, overall, are trending in the right direction and improving by leaps and bounds.
Transforming the lowest-performing schools into even "average" schools is the toughest assignment of all. That's the RSD's task. That task is far from finished, but the RSD is on the right track.
Politically, the scores are important because the city is in the final stretches of some hotly contested school board elections. No doubt incumbents will point to the improvements as evidence that they all deserve to be re-elected.
In one contest in particular — the race for District 3 — challenger Sarah Usdin has been attacked for backing schools that failed. The latest scores actually tell a story of dramatic improvement. Of the 13 RSD schools that are eligible for return to OPSB governance, Usdin started two and helped start eight others. (Disclosure: Usdin is endorsed by Gambit.)
Voters should pay close attention to the six contested school board seats, because not all incumbents have been big supporters of the RSD, charter schools, or the reforms that made the improved test scores possible — although they will all claim to be reformers at election time.