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In the only state where students must pass tests to graduate, short-lived appeals policy gave hope

Student Lissy Alonzo looks to Holly Boffy, then president of Louisiana’s school board, while trying to deliver a statement during a press conference on Dec. 4, 2023 at the Claiborne Building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Michael Johnson
The Advocate
Student Lissy Alonzo looks to Holly Boffy, then president of Louisiana’s school board, while trying to deliver a statement during a press conference on Dec. 4, 2023 at the Claiborne Building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The night before the big test, Lissy Alonzo couldn’t sleep.

“I was very tired,” she says. “And I was like, very negative because of the language.”

Alonzo, a high school senior in New Orleans, came to the U.S. from Honduras six years ago. She didn’t speak any English when she arrived and is now proficient — but she isn’t fluent.

“That was one of the reasons I fail.”

Aside from math, Louisiana’s so-called “exit exams,” which students must pass to get their high school diplomas, are only offered in English.

The 18-year-old has good grades, all As, and wants to go to college. Her goal is to become a cardiologist so she can help people like her sister, who has a heart defect, she says.

But a few months ago, Alonzo’s future was uncertain. She failed Louisiana’s mandatory tests in history and biology, and until she passed one of them, she couldn’t graduate. Louisiana is one of just nine states that still require students to pass tests in order to get their diploma — and the only one without an appeals process.

Late last year, that briefly changed when the state’s school board established a new policy that was widely supported by educators. Republican lawmakers disapproved, though, and Gov. Jeff Landry vetoed the policy as soon as he took office — less than three weeks after it took effect.

While half of all states required exit exams as recently as 2014, most have repealed them — with opponents arguing standardized tests aren't a foolproof way to measure whether students have mastered material.

"Standardized tests are important in our education system. But to pretend that they are perfect is misguided,” says Holly Boffy, a high school principal in Lafayette who served as president of Louisiana’s school board until January when she reached her term limit. “We’ve overused them by creating these high stakes for graduation and the legislature can help us change that.”

Boffy fiercely advocated for appeals and pushed back on opponents’ claims that the process, which gave local superintendents the power to grant requests, lacked oversight and was too subjective.

She says the policy had accountability baked in, including detailed requirements for students and a provision that would have triggered an automatic audit if a single school system issued appeals to more than 3% of graduating seniors in a single year.

Boffy says lawmakers who opposed the policy should reconsider their hard stance.

“If objectivity is the goal then there’s different ways to achieve that. It just takes coming together and figuring out how to make that possible.”

Translating the test

Advocates say the kids most likely to miss out on appeals are recent immigrants, like Alonzo.

Alonzo has a round face and wears ribbons in her hair. She’s diligent about her schoolwork, occasionally clicking her pen nervously. And she tends to bite her lower lip when she’s thinking.

The language barrier is a challenge for her, especially on wordy, vocabulary-dense tests, like biology.

She picks up a stack of papers and reads a multiple choice question from a practice test aloud.

“Weather conditions such as heavy rains,” she says, translating each word from English to Spanish in her head as she goes, until she gets to a word she doesn’t know.

“Reed grasses,” Alonzo reads carefully, stretching out “reed.”

She stares at the word for a minute. Then calmly says, “I just go to the dictionary,” picking up a small English-to-Spanish text, which she’s allowed to use on the test.

A student uses a dictionary to translate quiz questions from Spanish to English at Las Sierras Academy on Nov. 16, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
A student uses a dictionary to translate quiz questions from English to Spanish at Las Sierras Academy on Nov. 16, 2021.

She flips through the r-words from front to back once, then twice. The word “r-e-a-d” is there, she knows that one, but not “r-e-ed.”

The word isn’t essential to the question, but Alonzo doesn’t know that because she doesn’t know what it means.

At this point, she’s already wasted several minutes and while she gets extra time on the test, it isn’t unlimited.

“If you don’t finish it, like, for sure you’re not gonna pass it,” she says. “So it’s better to take a guess instead of getting stuck in one question.”

Advocates say the state’s short-lived appeals process was meant for students like Alonzo, who know course material, but struggle to pass exit exams because they weren’t made for them.

And they argue it isn’t just English learners who would benefit. There are students with reading difficulties who don’t qualify for accommodations. Students who are chronically ill and can’t sit for exams. Not to mention those with test anxiety.

They all deserve the opportunity to appeal, they say, and earn the same diploma as their peers since they’ve done the work.

Alonzo took the state’s biology test again in December. She says there was less pressure because the appeal was about to take effect — and this time she passed.

All the hard work, stress and multiple attempts? “It was worth it,” she says.

Plus, her mom was proud of her.

“She knows what she did to bring me to United States was for a good reason. That makes me happy because my mom is happy.”

Appeals granted

During the short window the appeals policy was in effect, seven appeals were granted, according to Louisiana’s Department of Education.

One went to a 19-year-old student in Lafayette who failed the state’s English exit exam four times by a single point. Each time, his teachers say he attended remedial classes and did everything he could to pass the test.

We aren’t using the student’s name at his request since the appeals issue has become controversial and he’s worried people will question whether he deserved to graduate.

He came to the U.S. from Yemen and only spoke Arabic when he arrived five years ago. When he failed the state’s English exit exam for the fourth time last May, the teenager says he kept it a secret. He gets As and Bs, but he worried his family would think he wasn’t a good student.

“It’s a bad feeling,” he recalls. “You want to tell your mom but you can’t because… I don’t know.”

Jennifer Luquette, his counselor, says she jumped into action to put together his appeal as soon as the policy passed. Given the political climate, she had to move quickly.

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.

School was out of session, so Luquette and other counselors rushed to compile students' portfolios and submit appeals before Landry, a Republican, took office on Jan. 8.

She says the student was a strong candidate because he had good grades and could demonstrate employability, through an industry-based credential in Adobe Photoshop, one of the policy's requirements.

“We’re starting to realize that standardized tests are just a part of a student,” Luquette says. “It doesn’t tell the whole story. By having this be the be-all-end-all of a student’s story is tragic.”

She remembers a student who was barely passing his classes with a 1.9 GPA, but scored high enough on the state’s exit exams to graduate. Then she thinks of the one who failed the state’s English exam by one point four times.

He would still be stuck without an appeal. “It’s so frustrating,” she says.

Now, with a diploma in reach, the student has his sights set on college and a career in digital marketing.

“You know, the American dream,” he says.

Students stuck

While the student in Lafayette will walk across the stage in his cap and gown a year late this spring, other students’ dreams are again out of reach.

Like Alonzo, Dalexy Gutierrez came to the U.S. from Honduras a few years ago. He has one more chance to pass the state’s history exam in May if he wants to graduate on time.

“He has a really great grade in his history class because he understands the content which made him surprised that he didn’t understand the test,” says his teacher Emma Merrill.

Merrill is the director of Las Sierras, a school for newcomers in New Orleans where the focus is on teaching students to learn English fast, in part so they can pass required tests.

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.

Changing that has long been Merrill and her colleague Cheruba Chavez’s crusade. They’ve worked for years to build support for graduation appeals and crafted the now-defunct policy with students like Gutierrez in mind.

Chavez says many English learners end up dropping out or take the state’s equivalency exam which doesn’t unlock the same opportunities as a diploma, including access to Louisiana’s college scholarship program.

Gutierrez wants to get a degree in engineering. He believes in himself, but sometimes wants to give up, he says. He thinks about his cousin who dropped out of high school after she failed the state’s mandatory exams.

“A lot of our kids who don’t get a diploma drop out and they join the workforce at low paying jobs and that’s not their dream,” says Merrill.

Gutierrez makes a plea to Gov. Jeff Landry in Spanish and Merrill jumps in to translate.

“He asked the governor to repeal his veto,” she says. “Because the appeals process opens doors and opportunities for kids like him who have been through a lot.”

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.