University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Schools of Innovation Update

In The View from the OEP on August 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

Our latest policy brief addresses a topic that has aroused a lot of curiosity among Arkansas educators and school leaders: schools of innovation. Schools of innovation receive waivers from certain regulations in order to facilitate the use of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  Despite a short application period (February to May 2014), the Arkansas Department of Education received 129 applications for schools of innovation for the 2014-15 schools of innovation. In the end, the Commissioner of Education approved 11 schools to become “schools of innovation.”

Difference between Schools of Innovation and District Conversion Charters

One of the first questions we had when we learned about Senator Elliot’s bill to establish “schools of innovation” was how this model was different from district conversion charters. Both allow school districts to apply for waivers from certain rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools in order to achieve specified goals and in exchange for greater accountability.

Schools of innovation and district conversion charters vary in their application process, approval process, funding, and waivers (see page 2 of our policy brief for a full description of the differences between the two types of schools). One of the key substantive differences between schools of innovation and district conversion charter schools is that district conversion charters can waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act (which allows schools to dismiss teachers without going through the remediation and 60 day dismissal processes), while schools of innovation cannot.

According to Denise Airola of the Office of Innovation for Education (OIE), the school of innovation status allows schools to make changes on a smaller scale as opposed to district conversion charter model, which implies changing an entire school model. In contrast, schools of innovation may ask for a waiver from requirements that only affect part of the school or student body instead of requiring changes for everyone.

One possible reason for the greater interest among schools in becoming  “schools of innovation” than district conversion charter schools is that many may view the “school of innovation” label as politically safer than the “charter school” label.  It’s possible that “schools of innovation” do not have the same negative connotation to many districts as “charter schools,” which many districts see as competition. Perhaps “a rose by any other name” does not smell as sweet in the case of schools…

Characteristics of Successful Application for Schools of Innovation

With an acceptance rate of only 8.5%, becoming a school of innovation for the 2014-15 school year was about as competitive as getting to Harvard. What do the 11 approved schools of innovation look like, and what may have made their applications successful? Many of the selected schools are integrating STEM subjects into the curriculum, and several offer new opportunities to students, such as the opportunity to learn a foreign language at the elementary level or the change to gain college credit through concurrent enrollment at the high school level.

Arkansas Schools of Innovation for 2014-15 School Year

schools of innovation


Another explanation for the relatively small number of approved applications is that several of the 129 applications asked for waivers from the 180 day school calendar, largely as a way to gain more flexibility in how to make up snow days. While the school calendar may be a legitimate area in which schools should have more autonomy, it does not quite fit with the intent of the bill, which is to use flexibility from regulations to boost student engagement and achievement.

Schools that are interested in applying to become “schools of innovation” for the 2015-16 school year will benefit from more planning time and the lessons learned from the inaugural class of schools of innovation. A great place to start would be the Office of Innovation for Education (OIE), which offers support to schools interested in applying to become a school of innovation. In a March blog post, the OIE lists and explain four questions all schools should ask themselves while developing their “Innovation Plan”:

  • What needs are you trying to meet?
  • Which innovative programs or practices may help you meet those needs?
  • Which students, teachers, and leaders are the best fit for this innovation?
  • How will you improve if you are making progress and improving student success





Schools of innovation have the potential to be an exciting addition to public education in Arkansas We wish all 11 new schools of innovation luck in their inaugural year and look forward to seeing what new ideas the next crop of applications will bring!



2013-14 Benchmark, EOC, and ITBS Score Database Release

In The View from the OEP on August 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Monday marked the beginning of a new school year with many changes in store for educators and students. Perhaps most notable will be the changes to testing. After one to three years of implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at different grade levels, Arkansas schools will finally take the full version of the  Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments for the first time this year. Under PARCC, students will take English Language Arts (ELA)/Literacy exams in grades 3-11, Math exams in grades 3-8, and end-of-course exams in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Some tests will stay the same; Arkansas will continue to administer the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in grades 1 and 2, Benchmark Science exams in grades 5 and 7, and the ACTAAP Biology end-of-course exam.

In our first policy brief of the 2014-15 school year, we take a look back on the final year of ACTAAP exams to see how Arkansas students fared in the 2013-14 school year and over time.

Benchmark Exams: Two Years of Declining Scores

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, Arkansas has seen declines in Benchmark test scores, with a one percentage point drop in literacy and a three percentage point decline in math from the 2012-13 administration. As can be seen in Figure 1, Arkansas enjoyed years of steady improvement on the Benchmark through the 2011-12 school year.

 Figure 1: Percent Proficient And Advanced on the Benchmark Exam, 2005-2014


It’s hard to say what caused the decline over the last two years, but we have a few theories. The first is that there is a potential ceiling effect with the Benchmarks; as scores approach the score ceiling (100%), it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain gains. Another potential reason for the decline is that students were being taught based on Common Core State Standards but were tested on the Arkansas Curriculum Frameworks. Finally, for the 2013-14 school year alone, the inclement weather that led to 10-plus snow days in over 70 districts may have had a “chilling” effect on scores.

You can view your school or district’s Benchmark test scores here:

End-of-Course Exams: Growth in All Tests But Algebra I

On the End-of-Course exams, we see a much more positive story. On the Geometry and Biology EOC and 11th Grade Literacy exams, Arkansas students made improvements in the 2013-14 school year, with the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced growing 2 to 3 points. Only in Algebra I did the percentage of proficient or advanced students decline, from 77% in 2012-13 to 75% in 2013-14.

 Figure 2: EOC Exams, Percent Scoring Proficient or Advanced, 2007-2014


For the OEP’s school- and district-level End-of-Course exam databases, click here:

Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS): Recent Declines, Arkansas Performs at the Middle

Figure 3: National Percentile Rank on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills on Grades 3-8, 2010-14


On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills exam, we have also seen declines over the last year, with Arkansas’ percentile ranking dropping 1 point in Reading, Language and Math. For all three subjects, Arkansas’ national percentile ranking hovers around 50, meaning that on average Arkansas students are performing right in the middle of the pack–better on the ITBS than approximately 50% of the other students taking the test. Whether or not you think that Arkansas performing in the middle is good news depends on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full.

To access the ITBS test score databases, click here:

With the exception of the few tests that will remain the same, the 2013-14 school year marks the last year that we will be able to look at growth on tests until the 2015-16 test scores are released. We encourage you to dig into our policy brief to learn more about statewide trends at the region and grade levels and to our databases to compare and contrast individual schools and districts.

Recap of Last Week’s Joint House and Senate Education Committee Meeting

In The View from the OEP on August 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm

On Monday, August 11th and Tuesday, August 12th, the Joint House and Senate Education Committees met to discuss a range of topics, including school safety, science standards, and broadband access to schools. Here’s a quick recap of what was discussed.

Distributed Leadership

crossleyJonathan Crossley, an English Language Arts teacher at Palestine-Wheatley High School and the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, spoke passionately to the joint committees about encouraging Arkansas teachers to stay in the profession. He discussed “distributed leadership” as one approach to preventing the feelings of lack of respect and influence that lead to the classroom exit within the first five years. Distributed leadership involves teachers in such key initiatives as leading professional development, coaching other teachers and mentoring staff, and participating in data analysis. According to Crossley, the approach is linked to teacher satisfaction and retention and student achievement.

School Violence Report

Mandy Gillip of the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) presented a preliminary report of Arkansas public schools’ readiness and capacity to prevent and respond to school violence. Among the report’s key features are resources available to schools for developing anti-bullying policies and emergency preparedness plans, data comparing Arkansas to national rates of violence and bullying, and trends in school disciplinary infractions.  Several legislators complained about the study’s heavy focus on bullying, having expected the study to focus more on preventing violence and outside attacks. The reports’ authors said that the final version of the report, which will be released in late October or early November, will include more information on school violence preparedness, such as emergency plans and positive discipline models.

Next Generation Science Standardsngss

For Arkansas students to graduate high school prepared to succeed in college and careers in STEM fields, we must approach science education in a new way, according to Dr. Debbie Jones of the Arkansas Department of Education. Arkansas is a lead state in developing and implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that integrate science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts at all grade levels. The standards focus on students’ abilities to apply knowledge in practical contexts, rather than on memorizing facts. The State Board of Education has not yet officially adopted the standards, but has endorsed the NGSS implementation plan. Keep an eye out for the OEP’s policy brief on the Next Generation Science Standards, which we will be releasing later this Fall.

E-Rate and Broadband                          

Arkansas is one of two states selected by the national non-profit EducationSuperHighway to pilot an in-depth project to increase schools’ access to broadband and Wi-Fi networks, achieving cost savings in the process. The organization’s founder and CEO, Evan Marwell, told legislators he selected Arkansas because of leaders’ commitment to the issue and his impression that the state’s schools are in the worst shape for Internet connectivity. Marwell was surprised to learn that 51% of Arkansas school districts meet current standards for broadband capacity compared to 37% nationally. EducationSuperHighway is assessing the current state of schools’ Internet access and plans to share findings ahead of the next cycle of Internet service procurement.

One of the most newsworthy findings that Marwell shared is that the state is currently spending $15 million (including E-Rate reimbursement) providing internet to schools through outdated copper wires, funds that can be reallocated to supporting the building of or use of a much more effective fiber-optic network. Marwell believes a strategy to improve efficiency in current expenditures spending and to take advantage of new funding recently announced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have every Arkansas classroom connected to Wi-Fi in less than five years. For more information on Arkansas’ broadband landscape, see this story from Education Week.

education super highway

Time on the Bus

On school days in Arkansas, 5,360 route buses each carry an average of 48 students to and from school, about a 49-minute ride each way. These data were among the findings of the “Time on the Bus” study required by Act 1228 of 2013 and reported by Richard Wilson of BLR. School districts reported that limiting student time on the bus would impose a financial burden, including the need to purchase more buses and hire additional personnel.

Wilson also reported on the bureau’s work to develop an evidence-based funding model that aligns more closely with actual expenditures than the current model based on Average Daily Membership (ADM). Testing a variety of factors, BLS found that a weighted formula of ADM, actual riders, and daily route miles explained 98% of transportation costs, compared to ADM alone which explained 79% of costs.

Isolated Funding

Nell Smith (BLS) presented a review of isolated funding, which is provided to school districts that have higher costs because of such geographic challenges as rugged bus routes or low student density. Originally, isolated funding was limited to those districts that met specific criteria and had fewer than 350 students. With school consolidation, “special needs isolated funding” was created to address higher costs for those schools districts that consolidated or were annexed but for which operating from one campus was not feasible. Along with the review of how the two types of isolated funding are distributed and spent, BLS reported that students from the 44 isolated schools scored slightly lower in literacy and math proficiency, but the 15 isolated high schools had a higher graduation rate compared to an all school average.


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