University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

A Few Additions to the 2015 Legislative Summary…

In AR Legislature on April 22, 2015 at 10:28 am

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Here are highlights of several new laws not mentioned in the 2015 Legislative Summary policy brief published last week on the OEP website.

School board elections. SB968 (Act 1281) gives school districts the choice of holding annual school elections on the third Tuesday in September or on the day of the general election in November. While some legislators expressed concern that board members could use the law to steer the outcome of elections, proponents said the bill gives school districts the flexibility they have requested for several years. Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) sponsored the bill.

Union membership. HB1957 (Act 964) gives public school employees the flexibility to join or leave labor organizations at any time. Labor organizations and employers may not place any restrictions on a term for membership. Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers) sponsored the legislation.

Academic distress. SB858 (Act 1272) sponsored by Sen. Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett) allows certain schools to be exempt from academic distress classification, including public schools designated as alternative learning environments (ALE) and charter schools focused on students at risk of dropping out of school. Act 1272 gives authority to the state education board to develop criteria for granting the exemption.

Special education. HB1485 (Act 839) establishes a legislative task force on best practices in special education. While members of the Senate Committee on Education lamented the overuse of task forces in recent years, they agreed with bill sponsor and former special education teacher Rep. Sheilla Lampkin (D-Monticello) on the significance of this work. Act 839 outlines the work of the task force, member selection, and reporting requirements.

Concealed carry. HB1505 (Act 1078) removes some restrictions on possessing a handgun on public property, including public school parking lots and drop-off zones. The new law allows the holder of a “concealed carry” license to have a handgun in their vehicle as they drop off or pick up children at school, and to leave the handgun in their locked, unattended vehicle in a school parking lot. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) and heard by the House and Senate judiciary committees rather than the education committees.

The House and Senate education committees will begin their monthly joint meetings on June 8 and 9.

Legislative Summary: Education Policy in the 2015 General Session

In AR Legislature, The View from the OEP on April 17, 2015 at 2:43 pm

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The 2015 legislative session will formally adjourn next week, but most of the hard work wrapped up on April 9. The policy brief that OEP published today highlights the major pieces of K-12 legislation that passed through the House and Senate education committees in the past few weeks. In reflecting on the conversations from these meetings and the issues described in the brief, we thought about at least three dynamics working beneath the surface of education policy: its personal nature, its connection between our past and future, and its role in the larger scheme.

Personal nature. The formalities of policymaking can seem cold and impersonal. Bills are written according to strict standards to pass legal muster. Floor debates and committee discussions follow formal, orderly procedures. Sitting (or standing) in the audience, though, brings to mind that education policy is intensely personal.

Education policy is about us and the people we love. We remember learning to write our names in cursive, memorizing important dates in history, and penciling in the bubble sheet of a standardized test. Our lives revolve around our children’s daily achievements and struggles, sometimes taking place in the same classrooms where we sat back in the day. Education policy is personal to the legislator who recalls her mother teaching 3rd grade and taking tickets at ballgames, her father coaching and driving the bus. It’s personal to the parent who goes to the school each day to personally give medication to his child.

Connecting past and future. Education policy ties together where we’ve been and where we’re going. Students today need to be able to read the original Declaration of Independence penned in cursive and have proficient keyboarding skills to take tests electronically. School nurses still put Band-Aids® on scraped knees, but they also administer life-saving medications, suction feeding tubes, and monitor students with eating disorders. Students who learn to weld in shop class may well put the skill to use in a high-paying job that’s part of the global economy. These examples and more came up in recent education committee meetings.

The larger scheme. Like many parts of our lives, policy content is divided into categories and examined in isolation. We couldn’t help but notice in the policy brief, though, how many education bills pertain to health, community prosperity, and job creation and preparation. Education, economic development, and public health are interwoven systems that we tend to address separately and expect to work in synchrony.

As you read the 2015 Legislative Summary, consider education policy for its personal nature, its connection of past to future, and its place in the larger scheme, along with your own observations.

School Grades Are In!

In The View from the OEP on April 15, 2015 at 2:06 pm

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Today the School Performance Reports for 2014 were released by the Arkansas Department of Education.  For the first time schools received A-F letter grades just like their students.  How did our schools do?

As it turns out, most Arkansas schools are doing pretty well! The chart below shows the number of schools receiving each letter grade.

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Fifteen percent of Arkansas schools received an “A”, but the majority of Arkansas schools (66%) received a grade of  “B”  or  “C”.  Only fifteen percent of schools received a “D” and four percent received an “F.”

Similarly to the letter grades that a student receives from their teacher, school letter grades are an overview of several different performance measures.  Letter grades for schools represent four main indicators of school performance, and each component is explained in today’s policy brief.

Unlike ESEA accountability measures, letter grades represent a broader spectrum of information and are more equitable to schools. The information is also a lot more helpful to parents.  Compare the two pie charts: on the left is letter grades and on the right is ESEA labels.  When 94% of Arkansas schools are identified as Needs Improvement, the label becomes relatively meaningless.

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Although more meaningful than Needs Improvement, interpreting the letter grades can still be challenging to stakeholders. What kind of grade should parents expect?  We all know that an “A” is better than an “F”, but what about all the grades in between?

We at the OEP find it helpful to think about school grades just like we think about student grades.  We (try to) always interpret our own kids’ grades by asking three questions:

  • Is the grade better or worse than we expected given what we know about our kid and the context of the grade? Maybe science just isn’t his strength- but he is doing great in reading.
  • If it is worse- what exactly is the problem area? Not turning in homework is different than not understanding the material on a test.
  • What can we do to help?

Got an “A”: The High Achievers!

The highest performing schools in the state received an “A” grade, even though they may have missed some points for achivement gap or not meeting all performance tagets. This can be likened to a high performing student who may get “A”s even without completing all homework or being awarded extra credit. “A” schools are doing very well but should stay motivated, so their students continue to improve.

“B”s and “C”s: On Track but could improve…

Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement. Each component of the letter grade system can significantly raise or lower the overall score for schools where students are performing well but are not in the “A” range.  Just like “B” and “C” students, every score is important to maintain passing grades for these schools.  Meeting performance targets is very important and the achievement gap/ graduation gap adjustments can have a substantial impact on the overall grade. Schools receiving “B”s or “C”s should carefully examine their data to identify specific areas for improvement.  Communicating successes and growth areas will help the community support the continued improvement for the school.

“D”s and “F”s: Time for A Parent/Teacher Conference

Schools receiving “D”s or “F”s are facing many challenges in terms of student performance.  These schools are in the bottom 20% of schools in the state.  Schools should take immediate measures to ensure improvement. Collaboration with supporters based on identified areas of need and continuous evaluation of progress are critical interventions.

Policy Recommendations

While we applaud the intent of Act 696 to make school performance easier for parents to understand, the OEP has several recommendations to improve its use.

Make it easier to access letter grades and the data. The letter grades are buried deep in the Arkansas School Performance Report Cards, which are anything but user-friendly. We appreciate the parent handout and video, but without easy access to letter grades and the detailed values used in their determination, parents will continue to be left wondering what the label means about their school’s performance.

Move toward national comparisons. Letter grades are relevant only within the state and are not comparable across the county. Arkansas needs to think more broadly about measuring student achievement, and Common Core State Standards and PARCC assessments are a step in the right direction.

Address the achievement gap. The magnitude of the average achievement gap between at-risk and not at-risk students is staggering at nearly 20 percentage points. We hope these previously unreported data serve as a wake up call to school leaders and stakeholders. Arkansas needs to focus on the success of all Arkansas students.

Most importantly, let’s not get too caught up in the grades.  Just like we do as parents we need to instead focus on the individual student in the classrooms.  Our goal is not for everyone to get an “A”, but for every student to experience the most effective learning environment every day.

 

 

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