Passing the Test
More students are attending better schools.
Public schools are among our most important civic resources. They are one of the foundations of our collective effort toward developing a competitive and sustainable workforce and to nurturing informed, capable and versatile citizens. Education, as Horace Mann once said, is “the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
The past several years, however, have seen an incredible amount of conspicuous and controversial changes to public education in our region. Most notable, of course, is the wholesale restructuring of public schools in Orleans Parish, with some schools—traditionally the highest-performing—governed by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), and the remaining schools managed by the state-run Recovery School District (RSD). Setting New Orleans apart among nearly every other school district in the nation, over 90 percent of our local students are enrolled in charter schools. Additionally, the performance of schools throughout the state and across the nation has been measured by increasingly quantifiable and oft-changing yardsticks, including the standardized testing of nearly all students.
Whatever your feeling about these changes, it’s undeniable that our public school systems have made substantial strides, at least according to data published annually by the Louisiana Department of Education. A comparison of data from the 2010-2011 and 2014-2015 school years reveals some significant progress.
First, throughout the metropolitan area, every school district has demonstrated improvement on either an absolute or relative basis over the past five years. All eight districts have either improved or maintained their District Letter Grade, a composite assessment of their students’ academic performance, graduation rates, attendance levels and other key measures of success. Four districts—Plaquemines, St. Charles, St. Tammany, and OPSB—have increased their grade from Bs to As, while Jefferson and St. John the Baptist have improved from D ratings in 2010-2011 to B ratings in 2014-2015. St. Bernard retained its B rating through this period, and the RSD improved from a D to a C.*
Additionally, most area districts ascended the rankings of others around the state based on their District Performance Scores. Most dramatically, Jefferson Parish, which was ranked 51st out of over 70 districts after the 2010-2011 school year, ranked 33rd by the end of last year. Three other districts—St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and the RSD—climbed by at least five places. Impressively, four of our region’s eight districts rank in the top 10 statewide based on 2014-2015 data: OPSB (2nd), St. Tammany (6th), St. Charles (7th), and Plaquemines (10th).
Secondly, more students are attending better schools. Overall enrollment has increased from approximately 147,000 to over 159,000 over this time period, and the changes in the quality of schools as assessed by the Department of Education have improved dramatically. In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 80 schools whose letter grade was A or B; by the end of the most recent school year, that number had increased to 127. Conversely, the number of schools labeled D or F dropped from 124 to 55 during this period. There were, of course, some school closures, which account for some portion of that decrease, but the overall number of schools in metro-area districts only declined by 17.
Finally, graduation rates are typically higher in our region than the statewide average. Throughout Louisiana, approximately 75 percent of the most recent graduating cohort completed high school within four years, a percentage which has been increasing steadily in recent years. Six of the eight New Orleans-area districts exceeded that figure: OPSB (89 percent), St. Charles (84 percent), Plaquemines (83 percent), St. Tammany (80 percent), St. Bernard (79 percent), and St. John the Baptist (77 percent).
There are, of course, many nuances to this data that reveal ongoing difficulties. There are still many students, particularly in urban and predominantly poor areas, struggling to receive a high-quality education; this struggle remains one of the pressing challenges of our time. But as someone who has been a teacher (briefly) and who works closely with a local charter school, I can attest to the complete dedication of the educational leaders in this region who, in their own distinct and diverse ways, are up to meeting it.
Robert Edgecombe is an urban planner and consultant at GCR Inc. He advises a wide range of clients on market conditions, recovery strategies, and demographic and economic trends.