May 20, 2024

After passionate arguments, Louisiana’s top school board Thursday rejected a bid to allow high school seniors statewide who have failed to reach graduation requirements to do so by meeting other standards because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote was 5-3, one short of the minimum needed on the 11-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Three BESE members missed the special meeting.

About 2,400 students statewide do not qualify for graduation because they were unable to pass end-of-course exams designed to ensure that they have a minimal understanding of U.S. history, math and other key subjects.

BESE did approve waivers for the roughly two dozen school districts affected by Hurricane Ida, which struck on Aug. 29.

Students in those districts threatened with not getting a diploma will have other ways to do so, including getting a composite score of 17 on the ACT, which measures college readiness, or a 17 on the subjects where they failed to meet the benchmarks.

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They will enjoy the same options that backers hoped to apply statewide.

Supporters of the waiver said the coronavirus pandemic, and all the classroom disruptions it caused since 2020 for the Class of 2022, more than justified an offer of academic leniency for those who missed the cut.

BESE member Holly Boffy, who lives in Lafayette, led the effort and said lots of students who would benefit from a statewide waiver are ready to enter the workforce and become contributing members of society.

“What I can’t do is look them in the eye and say we would prefer you take a LEAP test than go to work,” Boffy said, a reference to the shorthand title for the end-of-course exams in question.

Erin Bendily, vice-president for policy & strategy for the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, said Louisiana’s standard for passing end-of-course exams represents “incredibly low expectations” and pretending students are prepared for college or the workforce would be a mistake.

“We are not being truthful,” Bendily said. “We are lying to them. We are lying to their parents. That is a travesty.”

The policy under scrutiny requires high school seniors to score at least the fourth of five achievement level – approaching basic – in three subjects to earn a standard diploma. They are English I, or English II; algebra I or geometry and biology or U.S. history.

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The biggest stumbling block is U.S. history followed by biology, said Thomas Lambert, assistant superintendent for assessments, accountability and analytics.

Ronnie Morris, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge, opposed the statewide waiver request and said students need to be ready to enter the global economy. “But you have to earn it,” Morris said.

Boffy proposed that, aside from getting a 17 on the ACT, students who failed to pass critical end-of-course exams could get a standard diploma by participating in 20 hours of “extended learning” in the subject that blocked their progress, then pass the end-of-course exam.

Caleb Moore, an official of the American Federation for Children, said a 17 on the ACT does not represent academic excellence.

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ACT officials say a score of 17 is well below the benchmarks needed for success in college.

The Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and several individual superintendents backed Boffy’s proposal.

Irma Trosclair, superintendent of public schools in Lafayette Parish, said the pandemic sparked the biggest “opportunity gap” for students she has seen in her 39-year education career.

Wes Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish School District, said the waiver would affect few students in his school system but was needed.

“If we are going to err let’s err on the side of students,” Watts told BESE.

Doris Voitier, a BESE member who is also superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system, also endorsed the waiver.

“These kids have been operating under a handicap for the past three years,” Voitier said. “This year, for this class, have some humanity in here.”

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, who did not take a position on the waiver, said 4% of students failed to meet graduation requirements in 2019, 6% in 2021 and 7% in 2022.

Lambert said that, after re-tests and other steps, the list of 2,400 students not set to graduate will be trimmed and “we would be well within the normal range.”

Lauren Gleason, director of education and workforce development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, opposed Boffy’s proposal and said employers regularly cite the need for employee readiness.

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Gleason said when students who gain a high school diploma through a waiver cannot land a job “what will we tell them?”

The motion to allow high school seniors in Hurricane-Ida affected school districts to get a waiver on graduation requirements originally targeted only the Terrebonne Parish school system.

Voitier made the motion to extend it to all parishes designated as disaster areas by Gov. John Bel Edwards, which breezed through BESE.

BESE members who supported the statewide waiver were Holly Boffy, of Lafayette; Preston Castille, of Baton Rouge; Belinda Davis, of Baton Rouge; Thomas Roque, of Alexandria and Doris Voitier, of Metairie.

Those opposed were Ronnie Morris, of Baton Rouge; Sandy Holloway, of Thibodeaux and Jim Garvey, of Metairie.

BESE members who missed the meeting were Kira Orange Jones, of New Orleans; Michael Melerine, of Shreveport and Ashley Ellis, of Monroe.