This is a story about what happened in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. It relates to the new ACT college entrance test results released today for the Class of 2010 and could indicate that strong charter school programs can rapidly build a state’s education infrastructure and performance.
What does a hurricane have to do with charter schools and college test scores? Click the “Read more” link below to find out.
This story begins with a huge disaster. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “At 7:10 a.m. EDT on August 29, (2005) Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southern Plaquemines Parish Louisiana, just south of Buras, as a Category 3 hurricane. Maximum winds were estimated near 125 mph to the east of the center.”
NOAA says Katrina was the most destructive hurricane to ever strike the United States. Louisiana and its largest population center in New Orleans were near the epicenter of the damage. Schools in the city and throughout the Southern part of the state shared fully in the devastation.
Education in Louisiana was a problem even before Katrina hit. State leaders in Louisiana were so concerned about the endemic low performance of their school system that they formed a special agency, the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), in 2003 to take over and manage failing schools.
Five New Orleans schools had already been transferred to RSD control before Katrina hit.
Following the Katrina disaster, Louisiana officials quickly realized that given the traditional school system’s endemic low performance, that system would likely prove incapable of coping in a timely manner with the additional, unprecedented challenges of rebuilding the heavily damaged school infrastructure.
Thus, after Katrina control of almost all of the schools in New Orleans was transferred to the RSD. That in turn led to unprecedented numbers of charter school authorizations in the hope that the entrepreneurial spirit of charter operations would be equal to the tremendous rebuilding task required.
The RSD web site reports the agency currently controls 112 schools in New Orleans, although not all have been reopened. At the present time RSD says “70 RSD schools are open in New Orleans, including 33 traditional public schools and 37 public charter schools. The RSD also includes two charter schools in Caddo Parish, 11 charter schools in East Baton Rouge Parish and one charter school in Pointe Coupe Parish.” In addition, “The Orleans Parish School Board operates four schools directly and oversees 12 charter schools.”
Thus, a majority of the schools in New Orleans today are charter schools.
Is it working?
Flash forward to 2010.
The new results from the ACT college entrance test provide interesting evidence that something going on in Louisiana has made important contributions to the education system.
Consider the data in this table, which compares high school graduates’ participation rates and ACT Composite Scores in Kentucky to those in Louisiana. Kentucky has no charter schools, but it has been home to one of the nation’s most aggressive attempts to reform the regular public school system ever since 1990.
(Source: ACT, Incorporated)
First, notice that in 2002 and 2003, the percentage of graduates tested in Louisiana was fairly close to the percentage tested in Kentucky. Kentucky’s ACT scores were notably higher, however.
The situation started to change in 2004 as ACT participation of high school graduates in Louisiana started to rise above the participation rate in Kentucky. At the same time, Louisiana not only managed to maintain scores, but actually improved them a little.
However, throughout the period from 2002 to 2005, Kentucky consistently outperformed Louisiana on the ACT Composite Score.
Then, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana just days after the 2005 data shown in the table was released by the ACT.
Impact on Louisiana’s participation on the ACT was quite evident. Between 2005 and 2006 participation dropped by 11 percentage points. As a consequence, for the first time since 2002, Kentucky’s ACT participation rate on the ACT jumped slightly ahead of the rate in Louisiana. At the same time, Kentucky’s ACT Composite Score continued to rise while Louisiana’s stayed generally flat.
But, recovery, including the introduction of a lot more charter schools, was kicking in down in Louisiana.
Louisiana’s ACT participation rates began to rise again, dramatically, in the post-Katrina period. Meanwhile, the state’s ACT Composite Score average stayed constant. That was very unusual.
Usually, when large rises in participation occur on the ACT, scores drop. For example, when Kentucky switched to testing all of its students with the ACT, which first impacted graduate score reports in 2009, the state’s ACT Composite Score dropped by a considerable 1.5 points. Similar drops occurred in states like Colorado and Illinois when they moved to 100 percent ACT testing. It is therefore notable that this sort of drop didn’t happen in Louisiana.
The table shows more. In 2010, the ACT reports that virtually all high school graduates took the ACT in Louisiana, 98 percent of them. This is trivially different from the 100 percent participation in Kentucky.
However, Kentucky’s ACT Composite Score stayed flat between 2009 and 2010 at 19.4. Louisiana’s score was also unchanged between those years, but the score remained notably higher than Kentucky’s at 20.1. And, Louisiana managed to maintain this score while increasing participation rate on the ACT by another 9 percentage points between 2009 and 2010.
This situation raises a lot of questions about what has been happening in post-Katrina Louisiana.
Could the dramatic post-Katrina increase in charter schools in Louisiana have impacted the 2010 ACT results?
Did all the improvement in ACT participation come from charters? From the state’s regular public schools? From private schools (note, the data above is for all Louisiana graduates, public, private and home school combined)?
Which schools helped to keep the overall average score high as participation rates rose so dramatically?
Does Louisiana provide evidence that charter schools do indeed create a “raise all boats” performance, even in the regular public schools (maybe even in private schools)?
Given Louisiana’s fairly lackluster performance before the RSD program began to have impact after 2003, what lessons can we learn from this program and its dramatic increase in importance post-Katrina?
These are important questions. Certainly, something very remarkable is happening in Louisiana’s education system, and finding out what that is could benefit school systems throughout the rest of the country.