(The Center Square) — The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is moving ahead with plans to create waivers for high school graduation requirements critics believe will hurt students that need help the most.

BESE will publish a proposed rule in the Louisiana Register next month to allow students not meeting the current graduation standard to complete a project or portfolio that would be graded by their teacher. If the students receive a passing grade on the assignment, they would receive a diploma that would count toward their school’s accountability rating score.

BESE voted to adopt the policy earlier this month following a presentation by Boffy and Belinda Davis, an at-large member appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The move followed discussions that date back to last year that was initially aimed at finding a solution to help middle and high school students with limited English proficiency.

“Somehow that has morphed into this universal policy for all kids, who are … proficient in English,” said Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute.

Louisiana’s longstanding academic standard for public school graduation requires students to score at the “approaching basic” level or above on high school end-of-course LEAP tests in English, math, and either biology or U.S. History. The LEAP test consists of five levels, with approaching basic one level above failing.

Critics argue the relatively low bar for graduation is a significant factor in thousands of graduates who require remediation as freshmen in college and employers struggling to find graduates with basic skills.

Louisiana’s high school graduation rates increased by double-digits when the LEAP requirement was waived for all students during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, compared to pre-pandemic rates. An emergency waiver issued for seniors last year is expected to have a similar result.

Bendily contends the recent BESE proposal would further distort the school accountability system and ultimately result in less focus on helping students achieve basic proficiency.

“This is going to further inflate already inflated high school scores in our state,” she said. “I worry if this actually gets implemented there’s going to be even less of a demand to help these kids.”

“I just feel like the focus of the conversation is not recognizing the problem and how schools could do better. We know which kids are not on track. Why aren’t they getting … the interventions necessary to meet this very meager standard?”

Brigitte Nieland, government affairs director for Stand for Children Louisiana, expressed similar concerns.

“I think this is going to lead to … even fewer services to students who have more needs,” she said, adding that the change will “create a false sense of success where there isn’t one.”

“The portfolios are going to be judged by the teachers, who will be pressured to have more graduates,” Nieland said. “There are so many issues at play that have nothing to do with education of students.”

The proposal is slated to be published in the Louisiana Register on July 20, after which the public will have 30 days to weigh in.