Louisiana changing its student testing standards

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's public schools are starting a three-year shift to more rigorous testing of public school students, using a set of uniform standards that education officials say are designed to better prepare students for college and careers.

The transition will change what items are included in the standardized tests given each spring to students in third through eighth grades and in the end-of-course exams given to high school students. It also changes how teachers instruct their students to account for the new types of assessments used in the tests.

"We're not talking about more tests. We're talking about tests that are going to be a little more difficult. They're going to call our students to a higher level of rigor, and they're going to call our teachers to a different type of teaching," said Superintendent of Education John White.

Changes, for example, include questions that are more open-ended and require written responses, rather than just multiple choice answers. Math questions will call for students to justify their conclusions, while English questions will seek short essays to analyze reading passages.

Louisiana is joining 47 other states around the nation in moving to the "Common Core" standards, which were developed in a joint process among states seeking to have a set of uninform benchmarks for what students should learn in English and math classes by the time they graduate.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the new standards in 2010, and White said they will be fully phased into Louisiana's curriculum and testing by the 2014-15 school year, replacing testing standards developed more than 15 years ago. Questions also have been revamped for science and social studies testing.

The implications are widespread, since student performance on standardized tests is used to judge school performance, to determine the letter grade awarded to a school and to evaluate teachers and determine if they reach and maintain the job protection status of tenure.

"This is a major reform initiative that will affect every child in the state of Louisiana in every school system," said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

This spring, standardized tests will have a small number of English questions that match the new, tougher standards, with other questions "field-tested" but not counting toward a student's score. A year later, all the harder questions will count, but will remain only a small portion of the test. By the 2014-15 school year, White said the more rigorous questions will make up the whole test.

"It's a big shift to fundamentally recalibrate what is expected of students," White said.

But the change to Common Core standards also will compel an adjustment in teaching strategies and techniques, and local school leaders have expressed worry about how they'll pay for the technology upgrades and training time that they say are needed to make the switch.

"We support increased rigor, but with attention to detail and proper funding to make it happen," Richard said. "Districts are having to find funding in an already tight budget climate to make sure it's implemented with effectiveness."

State spending on the public school financing formula has remained flat for several years, increasing only to account for new students added to the formula and to school districts. Richard said the education department hasn't been providing the intensive, direct assistance and guidance to local school districts that was expected with such a substantive shift in testing standards.

White said small teams from each school district have been trained on the Common Core standards, who will then train others in their districts. He said his department is giving those district leaders instructional tools to help them with the shift to the new standards.