University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

High-Achieving Elementary Schools By Grade Level and Region

In The View from the OEP on September 17, 2014 at 11:58 am

imgresToday we are releasing the second installment of our Outstanding Education Performance Awards: High-Achieving Elementary Schools By Grade Level and Region. These awards are based on the April 2014 Benchmark exam scores for students in grades 3-5.

This particular report is divided into two main sections:

  • The first section identifies the top 10 elementary schools in Arkansas by achievement in mathematics and literacy for grades 3, 4, and 5. (The top schools in grades 6, 7, and 8 will be released in our next installment.)
  • The second section of the report identifies the top 5 elementary schools by Benchmark performance in mathematics and literacy in each region of the state (Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southwest, and Southeast). It also includes the top 3 elementary schools for grades 3, 4, and 5 in each region of the state.

The high-achieving elementary schools were recognized based on the GPA of the school in each subject. The OEP calculates a GPA on the basis of the percentage of students that perform at each performance level on the Benchmark exam (advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic).  You can read more about our GPA measure here.

In this report, there are many schools that are full of hard-working students, teachers, and administrators. We would like to highlight just a few of these schools here:

If you want to see how your school performed, check out the OEP databases on our website. Every year, we release searchable databases by school and district overall and at each grade level (the databases go as far back as 2004-05). In the databases, there are demographic indicators for schools and districts, and you also can search and filter schools and districts by region.

We would like to extend congratulations to all of the high-achieving elementary schools in Arkansas based on performance on the Benchmark Exams! Stay tuned for our next installment of the OEP Awards, where we will highlight high-achieving middle schools by grade level (grades 6, 7, and 8) and by region!

Guest Blog Post: A-F School Letter Grades

In The View from the OEP on September 17, 2014 at 11:56 am

Guest Blog Post by Jeff Dean, Office of Innovation for Education


In April 2013, the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 696 (Ark. Code Ann. § 6-15-2105), which requires the use of A-F school letter grades on the state’s annual school report cards it issues for schools. The subtitle of the law states that letter grades are intended “to clarify for parents the public school rating system on annual school report cards.” Letter grades will replace the two-category school rating system established by Act 35 of the 2nd Extraordinary Session in 2003 (Ark. Code Ann. § 6-15-2012-2013).

Precisely because letter grades are easily understood by everyone, they are potent. A-F letter grades aren’t inherently good or bad. They greatly increase the public visibility of the ratings placed on schools. If the underlying rating system is deeply flawed, then letter grades make things worse by increasing the impact of bad ratings. The inverse is also true: a good system can make a greater positive impact by the use of highly visible letter grades in place of more ambiguous labels.

Arkansas joins fourteen other states that have developed letter grading systems for schools. These letter grading systems have met with varying degrees of success over the past fifteen years. Those that have succeeded have had to strike an acceptable balance of simplicity, fairness, and meaning. They need to be simple, in order to be explained and understood by the public. They should be fair, so that schools are not penalized or rewarded for factors beyond their control. They also should be meaningful, so that leaders, educators, and communities can use them to guide and motivate improvement. No single priority can be satisfied perfectly. Given this tension, finding the right balance may seem like “Mission: Impossible”, but this need not be the case.

What’s simplest is not always best. Act 696 charged the State Board of Education with adopting “rules necessary to implement” an A-F system, giving the Board latitude to hear and approve a new model for school ratings. If the Board failed to adopt a new model, the letter grades assigned to schools would default to align with the labels given schools under federal accountability (ESEA Flexibility). This is the simplest possibility of all, given current accountability. Exemplary schools would earn an “A”, Achieving schools would earn a “B”, Needs Improvement schools would earn a “C”, Focus schools would earn a “D”, and Priority schools would earn an “F”. Hypothetically, if schools earned the same Flexibility labels in 2014 as they did in 2013, then only eight schools in Arkansas (out of over 1,000 schools total) would earn an “A”. The state would have 137 “B” schools, and 75% of all schools in the state (790 schools) would earn a “C”.

This distribution, although compliant with state and federal law, does not meaningfully describe and differentiate among Arkansas’ public schools. There are also problems of alignment. Focus schools, for instance, were identified by a different set of criteria (achievement gaps) than schools with other labels. To put those five labels on a continuum (which letter grading implicitly does) is misleading. Assigning a “D” to Focus schools implies that they are somehow less effective than “C” and more effective than “F” schools, when the issue at question for Focus schools is not effectiveness but equity. Simple, perhaps, but hardly fair or meaningful.

Given the possibility of these outcomes, the state decided to develop a grading model that would replace the repealed rating system, as well as provide more appropriate differentiation among schools as compared to ESEA Flexibility labels. Beginning in September 2013, policymakers and stakeholders were brought together by the Department of Education to discuss concerns and possibilities for school letter grades. School leaders stated a preference for a model that was intelligible to the public and that offered schools multiple ways to earn their grades. Veteran stakeholders of student testing and school accountability were anxious to improve upon past models yet not create a model that would be so different as to cause confusion. All parties realized an overriding need to balance simplicity with fairness, two factors which are in tension in any sort of rating system.

The end result of this process was a grading system consisting of up to four components:

  • Weighted Performance. Proficiency rates only consider whether a student scores above or below the proficiency cut point. Weighted performance gives additional consideration to other cut points. Schools earn points for students scoring Basic rather than Below Basic, as well as Advanced rather than Proficient.
  • ESEA Improvement. Schools earn points by meeting ESEA Flexibility targets (AMOs) in up to six categories, depending on size and grades served: Literacy – All Students, Literacy – TAGG Students, Math – All Students, Math – TAGG Students, Graduation – All Students, and Graduation – TAGG Students.
  • Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (where applicable).
  • Gap Adjustments (where applicable). Schools with above-average gaps between TAGG and non-TAGG students on achievement and/or graduation receive a penalty. Schools with smaller-than-average gaps receive a bonus. Schools with average gaps receive no adjustment.

By drawing upon measures and concepts that should be familiar to Arkansas leaders and educators, the grading system aims to be meaningful; a complete reinvention of school accountability would perhaps be so different that it would be less meaningful to those familiar with accountability in Arkansas. But the model also represents a refinement of measures that are familiar to Arkansas leaders and educators. It differentiates meaningfully among schools. And ultimately, it translates into a letter grade that has meaning for the public, for whom the law was intended to provide clearer information. It seeks to give a fair chance to all schools regardless of the challenges they may face. While people may fairly disagree on the merits of the model, it nonetheless represents the best efforts and input of a wide variety of stakeholders and policymakers around the state.

Perhaps the most important test of fairness for any grading model is its relationship to student poverty, a disadvantage over which schools have very little control. If school grades are highly correlated with poverty, then those grades say far more about the challenges schools face than they do about schools’ effectiveness in educating the students that walk in the door. In the model proposed by the Department of Education to the State Board, the correlation between schools’ grades and poverty levels is -0.36, which as a rule of thumb is considered modest. This modestly negative correlation tells us that schools with higher poverty rates sometimes tend to receive lower grades. Yet among all models considered, the one that was chosen exhibited the lowest correlation with poverty. Using some basic statistics, one can show that a correlation of -0.36 implies that only 13% of the differences in school grades can be accounted for by school poverty levels. The remaining 87% of variation arises from factors other than poverty. When the Office of Innovation examined these sources of variation, we found that school letter grades explained about 40% of the variation in student achievement (math and literacy) between schools after accounting for demographics including poverty.  While this doesn’t show that the grading system is perfect, it does show that it clears a fundamental hurdle in terms of fairness.


One of the concerns raised frequently by educators and policymakers is what to expect with letter grades given the arrival of the new PARCC tests this school year. A new test certainly presents challenges, and no one will know what effect the tests will have on letter grades until students actually take the test. But the A-F law, as well as the proposed model, gives full freedom to the State Board and the ADE to make adjustments as necessary to ensure a fair distribution of grades. The transition may require a “pause” in letter grades during 2015 to establish baselines for future improvement targets. To ensure schools have an opportunity to improve upon their 2014 letter grade, other methods could be used during the transition year to identify improvements in schools, and where appropriate, assign a higher grade for the pause year.

Looking beyond the first year of PARCC tests, the state will have the opportunity to use a more refined model of student learning growth which, if given greater emphasis, could compare schools with advantaged and disadvantaged populations in a way that improves upon the current model. As with any transition, uncertainty lies ahead, but the hope is that with a new test the state will be able to refine the proposed method for letter grades as well as the method for determining federal accountability. The transition will allow the state to integrate new possibilities while drawing upon the lessons learned from past models.

The goal of the process for determining letter grades remains the same: to balance simplicity with fairness while providing meaningful differentiation among schools. The goal of the letter grades which result from this process also remains the same: to clarify to parents the public school rating system. Whatever course our state chooses to pursue, giving attention and weight to the priorities exampled here will make our mission far more possible than we previously thought.

September Joint House and Senate Ed. Committee Meeting Recap

In The View from the OEP on September 10, 2014 at 12:09 pm

The Arkansas House and Senate Education Committees met jointly this week to discuss a range of topics, including broadband access, best practices in charter schools, teacher salaries, education funding, the new dyslexia law, and the state of health care workers in schools.

Small Rural School Experience with Broadband

internet accessJulie Johnson, Technology Coordinator for Cave City School District, presented the benefits and challenges of obtaining and using increased bandwidth as a small rural school. The Cave City School District has 1275 students, 72% of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Johnson described their efforts to obtain broadband access that began in 2002, and the obstacles they faced at every turn with their local provider or their out-of-state executives. Though the schools now have the bandwidth they need, the school district still struggles to maximize efficiency. Johnson also highlighted the benefits of faster Internet access and new devices, saying “it has opened up a whole new world for our kids.” Now all the K-2 students have iPads and “no longer have to fight over one book in the library. Students are more interested, and teachers can monitor progress more easily. Johnson said most of the students’ families do not have Internet at home, and the school has been creative in how to allow time for homework during and after school.

Access to Broadband

Arkansas is committed to providing high-speed internet access to every child in every classroom, but determining how to reach the goal and how much it will cost is complicated. Dr. Scott Price of Picus Odden & Associates presented to the committees a consolidated version of several reports on schools’ current internet capacity and expenditures, along with an overview of the information that will be available before the next legislative session in January 2015. This pending, in-depth study will examine schools’ capacity and local availability and the costs of bringing schools up to standards, including one-time and ongoing costs.

Best Practices in Charter Schools

best-practicesThe legislature requested an examination of best practices of public charter schools, both in Arkansas and across the nation, that may help to improve all public schools, and the joint committees approved a proposal by OEP’s Dr. Gary Ritter to conduct the study. OEP researchers will document best practices in existing literature for the forty states that have public charter schools. Specific to Arkansas, OEP will determine where charter schools are located and whom they serve, their unique characteristics, how they seek to involve parents, and the effectiveness of charter schools as measured by academic achievement. The study will be completed by January 2015.

Cost of Increasing Teacher Salaries

Noting that the statutory minimum for teacher salaries has not changed since the 2008-09 school year, the education committees requested in their June meeting that the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) provide more information about the cost of increasing the minimum salary. This week, BLR administrator Nell Smith presented several approaches to how increases could be calculated and distributed, with costs ranging from $2.7 to $6.9 million. The cost depends on a number of factors, including whether the payment would be one-time or ongoing, the amount of the salary increase, and whether the funding would be restricted to teacher salaries.

Arkansas School Funding Matrix

How can states be reasonably sure they are allocating funds among school districts adequately and equitably to improve student performance? Since 2004, the Arkansas legislature has worked with the national consulting firm of Picus Odden & Associates to apply the best research-based evidence to allocating school funding. In Tuesday’s meeting, the firm reported the most recent evidence and compared those recommendations to Arkansas funding levels, information that legislators will use to prepare for the upcoming session.

New Law on Dyslexia

A principal, a grandmother, and a child struggling to learn prompted the Flippin school district to decide “there is no point in waiting another year” to comply with legislation requiring screening and intervention for dyslexia. School representatives described for legislators their experience in training all K-12 teachers to recognize the warning signs of dyslexia, screening the identified students, and restructuring intervention time in adopting the Susan Barton approach. Since implementing the changes, Flippin students are showing documented growth on assessments, teachers are noting students’ new attitudes about school, and counselors are observing social and emotional improvements in students receiving the intervention.

Health Care Workers in Public Schools

school nurseSchool nurses treat students who have one or more of 37 chronic conditions, require one or more of 25 medical procedures daily, need medication at school, and sustain injuries or contract illnesses that require EMS or physician care immediately…all in addition to the routine screenings for hearing, vision, scoliosis, and body mass. Representatives of the 19-member Public School Health Services Committee reported these and other findings of a study requested by the legislature to determine the adequacy of health care staffing to meet the needs of public school students. In offering 12 recommendations for staffing and education levels, facilities, and reporting mandates, the committee expressed particular concern about the current law that makes health care staffing requirements dependent upon availability of state funds.


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