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Landry kills state's short-lived graduation appeals process on day one

Students at Las Sierras, a newcomer academy in New Orleans, prepare for Louisiana's LEAP biology exam on Nov. 16, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Students at Las Sierras, a newcomer academy in New Orleans, prepare for Louisiana's LEAP biology exam on Nov. 16, 2021.

Gov. Jeff Landry vetoed Louisiana's new graduation pathway this week, closing a door that had only just opened for high schoolers who repeatedly struggle to pass mandatory tests.

The state is one of just nine that still require students to pass exit exams to graduate — and the lone one without an appeals process.

In his first executive order as governor, Landry said allowing students to appeal introduced “subjective criteria into the graduation process” and lowered standards.

The policy allowed seniors to graduate even if they failed to pass required LEAP exams. To appeal, they had to complete a portfolio project, demonstrate employability and meet all of the state’s other standards.

Louisiana’s board of education narrowly approved the policy over the summer. A state House oversight committee voted in October to nullify it, but was overruled by then-Gov. John Bel Edwards, who allowed the appeals process to take effect on Dec. 20.

At least seven students were granted appeals during the less than three weeks it was in effect, according to Louisiana’s Department of Education.

Landry was a vocal opponent of the policy before he took office, submitting testimony against it and writing an op-ed, which advocates say is riddled with inaccuracies.

“I think they are scared of the power of a high school diploma in the hands of immigrant children,” said Cheruba Chavez, referring to Landry and other lawmakers.

Chavez is an educator in New Orleans and helped craft the policy, initially with English learners in mind. LEAP exams are only given in English, though non-native speakers can use a dictionary and get extra time.

Advocates, including Chavez, argue those accommodations aren’t enough to level the playing field, since exams are written for people who have been speaking English their entire lives.

More importantly, they believe a high school diploma shouldn’t hinge on testing — and for many students, often a single exam — when they’ve met all other requirements.

Some students, like those who are chronically ill, may be unable to sit for exams, she said. While students who arrive in the country after sixth grade don’t have the five to seven years necessary to achieve fluency.

English learners have the lowest graduation rate of any subgroup in the state. In 2022, 46% percent graduated on time, compared to 80% of all students.

Many English learners end up dropping out, Chavez said, or take the state’s equivalency exam.

“It might be high school equivalency, but it doesn’t unlock the same opportunities as a diploma,” Chavez said, pointing to the state’s college scholarship program, which isn’t available to students who earn their GED.

An appeals process is widely supported by teachers and was — and still is — endorsed by the state’s association of public school superintendents.

Formal opposition mainly came from Republican officials and some in the business community, who said the appeals process would compromise the value of a diploma and make it harder for them to judge graduates.

Cade Brumley, the state’s superintendent of education, also opposed the policy.

“We should continue the exploration and expansion of academic support options for students, not impose a government-sanctioned excuse for mediocrity,” Brumley said in October.

This week, Brumley wrote to school leaders applauding Landry’s veto, describing it as “decisive action,” to eliminate “bad public policy.”

With the appeal no longer an option, Chavez said she wants students to know they’re more than just a test score.

“We know you have talents,” she said. “We know you have such a bright future ahead of you and we are not going to let anyone take that away from you.”

She plans to keep advocating for the policy and said she sees Landry’s veto as evidence that she’s doing the right thing.

“The governor’s action was not done to hold high educational standards,” she said. “It was done out of fear.”

Louisiana’s board of education is unlikely to reconsider the policy now that new members have been seated, including three Landry appointees, shifting the board’s composition to a conservative majority.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.