University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

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Northwest Arkansas Report Card: 2014

In The View from the OEP on March 23, 2015 at 8:15 am

As testing season hits full stride in Arkansas’ public schools, we at the Office for Education Policy are summarizing the 2013-14 results for Northwest Arkansas districts and charter schools. In partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council, we are proud to release the 2014 Northwest Arkansas Report Card, our annual look into standardized test performance, graduation rates, and all things K-12 in our region.NWARC

How are Northwest Arkansas Districts Doing?

Over the past decade, the region has made significant gains on the Benchmark exam.  In 2004, only 55% of 3rd-8th grade students in Northwest Arkansas were proficient on math and literacy assessments.  In 2014, 80% of students were proficient in math, and 83% were proficient in literacy.

High school assessments show similar increases for Northwest Arkansas students.  There has been a 26 percentage point increase in 11th grade literacy proficiency, a 25% increase in biology proficiency, and double digit increases have resulted in over 83% and 84% of NWA students scoring proficient or above on Algebra and Geometry exams, respectively.Rpage

What’s in the Report Card?

This year the Report Card presents a ‘district dashboard’ format that makes it easier for educators, school administrators, parents, and state lawmakers to see how regional school district are performing.  Information includes key metrics about assessment results, graduation rates, student demographics, and financial indicators.

District Highlights:

  • Bentonville was one of the highest performing traditional school districts on all assessments, and has the lowest percentage of At Risk students.
  • Rogers had the highest proficiency rates for At Risk students.   Proficiency rates for all students in 3rd-8th grade literacy was higher than overall beat the “Big 5” average, even though Rogers serves a higher percentage of students receiving Free/Reduced Lunch and Limited English Proficiency services.
  • Gravette tied for the highest performing traditional school district in biology.
  • Elkins graduated 99% of seniors in 2012-13-  the highest traditional school graduation rate.
  • Haas Hall had near 100% proficiency and graduation rates, and reported no At Risk students.

In addition to the ‘district dashboards’, we also included spotlights about programs regional districts are implementing to better prepare students for life after high school.  Ranging from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics to the Pea Ridge Manufacturing and Business Academy, these programs and their partners deserve to be applauded for their work, and we hope you are able to learn a little bit more about them.

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What’s next?

At the moment, there is a lot of discussion about how Arkansas education should move forward.  Sometimes you need learn from the past to see how to move forward.  If districts had not been required to give the Benchmark and End-of-Course assessments over the past 10 years, we would have no way to measure and celebrate the growth our students have made.  When students began taking the Benchmark exams, there was a similar gnashing of teeth and concerns about lost instructional time, but Arkansas students are now performing much better in reading, math and science than they were 10 years ago. Examining the performance of our students allows us to celebrate, and recognize that we can still do better. For more information about current education issues, check out OEP’s Policy Briefs and Blog.  The more we can share the good news and look for ways to improve, the better Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas will be.

We invite you to share this report card with anyone who might be curious about the state of education in our region.  If you want more information on schools in Northwest Arkansas or the state as a whole, head on over to our website, where you can dive into all of the publicly-available data on school demographics, test scores, and finances.

House Bill 1733 On Hold

In The View from the OEP on March 18, 2015 at 1:26 pm

on-hold-031Last week, the OEP published a policy brief and blog post providing background on House Bill 1733.  As of yesterday, HB 1733 will be deferred and will not be considered in this legislative session.

In an article yesterday, sponsor of HB 1733, Republican Bruce Cozart, said his bill was too broad, and that he had concerns about it when he filed it. He said he wanted to help children in under-served areas but couldn’t get enough input from proponents about how the move would help them.  “Nobody would tell me it’s about the kids; it was all about teachers,” Cozart said. “We’ve got to start thinking about our kids.”

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We at the OEP observed this from afar; if you read our policy brief on this topic, you will know that we are ambivalent on whether the “Achievement District” strategy was the right move and whether or not it would have led to positive outcomes for kids. However, watching the rallies and the actions from afar, it was hard not to be left with the feeling that this “victory” for public education and local control feels a bit hollow.

While the crowd of supporters at the Capitol had a rally that turned into a victory party, we can’t help but wonder how many of those revelers were students or parents from the struggling schools in Little Rock in which around half of the students cannot meet minimum levels of proficiency. Are these families celebrating now that their schools get to remain exactly as they were before?

Moreover, after reading the comments and news coverage of the opposition to HB 1733, we found a great deal of discussion about which adults controlled which schools and how we could ensure that adult teachers remained in their preferred positions. We found very little discussion about how defeating this bill would improve school experiences, educational achievement, and life outcomes for kids.

Perhaps we can begin to talk about these issues soon??

HB 1241: The Fate of PARCC in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on March 18, 2015 at 12:09 pm

It was staar legislaturending room only today in the Senate Education Committee; many individuals were present to hear or provide testimony in support of or against House Bill 1241.  The Office for Education Policy’s Executive Director, Sarah McKenzie, attended to present prepared testimony against HB 1241.  OEP believes, as expressed in an opinion editorial earlier this year, that eliminating PARCC is premature at the current time.

The following is the prepared text for the OEP testimony:

Testimony before the Arkansas Senate Education Committee
Sarah McKenzie and Gary Ritter, University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Chairman English, Vice Chair Lindsey, committee members: Thank you for the opportunity to give testimony on HB 1241 today.

My name is Sarah McKenzie, and I will be delivering comments on behalf of myself and Professor Gary Ritter. Professor Ritter is the Faculty Director and founder of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I am the Executive Director of the Office. The objective of the Office for Education Policy (OEP) is to conduct research so as to provide evidence that can support state lawmakers and educators in thoughtful decision-making in PK-12 education in the State of Arkansas.

Prior to my work at the OEP, I spent the past ten years working with Arkansas school districts in a variety of capacities; my PhD training is in educational statistics, and I worked with student assessment in Arkansas schools.

We have developed a handout summarizing our key points that has been distributed. A litChalktle note about the picture on the handout. This chalk quote by a student “loving PARCC” does not suggest that all kids love testing … of course not. But it is a reminder that many kids may and do indeed find this type of test a better experience than the prior pencil and paper tests. And the stories of students filled with anxiety near test day are mostly overblown and sometimes made up. In my experience in schools, students have far greater anxiety about teacher developed tests that lead to actual grades and affect GPA!

Nevertheless, why am I here to discuss PARCC?

I am here today because, like you, we at the OEP believe that all of Arkansas’ students deserve a world class education. But our state cannot ensure that our students are receiving the instruction and attention they need without administering high-quality assessments that measure their learning and provide accurate information on student achievement to parents, teachers and policymakers.

Arkansas joined the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness, or PARCC, in 2010 because many in the state believed that our existing standards and tests were not rigorous enough to prepare our students for success in college and career. In those five years, our state has spent millions of dollars and tapped the talent of our best and brightest educators to design the PARCC assessments. From writing questions to reviewing the final items and standard-setting, Arkansas teachers have always had a place at the PARCC table. Their invaluable contributions – and our considerable investments – are for nothing if House Bill 1241 is passed.

PARCC tests are good tests. They may not be the perfect, but there is no doubt that these new tests are an enormous improvement over the previous Arkansas Benchmark and End-of-Course exams, which no longer match the standards being taught in our schools – standards that have been present in our classrooms since 2011. I oppose House Bill 1241 because our students should be given a chance to show what they know and can do against these higher standards, and we need to give the PARCC exams more time to prove that they can provide value to our students, parents, educators and policymakers.

The eleventh-hour changes proposed in House Bill 1241 would eliminate any hope of receiving meaningful feedback on the achievement and growth of our students this year. That might placate the Common Core opposition in the short term, but it won’t improve our schools. It won’t provide students with a learning environment that best meets their individual needs. It won’t provide accountability, and it won’t facilitate comparison with other states. The only outcome that House Bill 1241 will yield is chaos and confusion – especially for our students and teachers.

Our students, who face a great deal of uncertainty in how their learning and advancement will be measured, deserve thoughtful deliberation on this matter. And our educators, who have spent thousands of hours preparing and contributing to PARCC development, deserve a chance to see the fruits of their labor.

Indeed, many Arkansas educators have valued the professional development work related to the Common Core and do see the standards as setting higher expectations for our students. In a recent debate in Bentonville, Arkansas, school leader Michael Poore indicated that the teachers he interacted with hoped that the Common Core would be around for a while and stated: “You’re going to have to fight to take it away from them“.

A year (or not even a full year!) is simply not enough to get a full picture of the progress we’re making, and there is no reason to rush. Under the PARCC assessment, Arkansas can continue to seek input from parents, teachers and superintendents on its implementation and the use of its results. That’s all the more reason for our policymakers to engage in an unhurried evaluation of the assessments given in our schools.

For these reasons, we at the UA Office for Education Policy are convinced that eliminating the PARCC tests after this year would be a step backward for Arkansas. Our educators have been seeing progress with our students since implementing the new standards, and we need modern assessment tools to measure this progress. PARCC is the assessment that has been developed, in partnership with our state leaders, to do just that. Shouldn’t we at least wait until our students actually take the exam before we declare it a failure!!??

HB 1377: Freeing Up Traditional Schools?

In The View from the OEP on March 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm

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Who signed on to HB1377?

The House Education Committee discussed a surprisingly controversial bill last week. Why surprising? Well, House Bill 1377, sponsored by Representative Reginald Murdock (D) of Marianna, boasts a very long list of Democrat and Republican co-sponsors.  The list included: Rep. Charles Armstrong (D) Little Rock, Rep. Charles Blake (D) Little Rock, Rep. Mary Broadaway (D) Paragould, Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R) Alma, Rep. Ken Ferguson (D) Pine Bluff, Rep.  Michael John Gray (D) Augusta, Rep. Kim Hendren (R) Gravette, Rep. Greg Leding (D) Fayetteville, Rep. Fredrick Love (D) Little Rock, Rep. George McGill (D) Ft. Smith, Rep. Milton Nicks (D) Marion, Rep. Chris Richey (D) Helena, Rep. Dan Sullivan (R) Jonesboro, Rep. John Walker (D) Little Rock, Rep. David Whitaker (D) Fayetteville and Rep. Marshall Wright (D) Forrest City.

What does  HB1377 say?

As currently written, HB1377 would allow school districts the same waivers granted to open-enrollment charter schools that draw from their districts. Representative Murdock, several superintendents, and a school board president from eastern Arkansas testified that some of the same policies waived for charter schools have limited the ability of nearby traditional schools districts to successfully serve the students in their schools.

During the lengthy and often animated discussion on Wednesday, March 4, proponents and opponents agreed the depth of the public conversation was important and overdue. Indeed, some of the same lawmakers signed on as sponsors of the bill no longer seemed in favor of it!  In the end, the bill received a Do Pass recommendation in a close vote.

The key theme of Representative Murdock’s testimony was the need for flexibility for school leaders. Claiming that “one size does not fit all”, Murdock argued that “There has to be an affirmation that flexibility and innovation and ingenuity has a place“.  Essentially, he and his fellow advocates of the bill argued that the same waivers that allow charter schools to, for example, hire award winning journalist John Brummett to teach a journalism class, should be afforded to nearby traditional schools.

What can OEP’s research say about  HB1377?

As we at the OEP observed this hubbub, we thought back to our recent state-commissioned evaluation of Arkansas’ public charter schools. One of the questions we examined was: What waivers do charter schools seek?  In our view, lawmakers making a decision on this bill — that would allow traditional public schools to seek the same waivers as public charter schools — might want to know the answer to this question.  Thus, we hope that our policy brief published today adds useful information to the discussion that will soon head to the House Floor and also to the Senate.

What did we find? Well, charter schools across the state sought the following five waivers:

Top 5 Waiver Areas for Open Enrollment Charters:

  1. Teacher licensure
  2. Teacher and employee fair dismissal act, contract requirements, and hiring mandates (such as library media specialist)
  3. Gifted and talented programming
  4. Teacher salary and schedule
  5. Principal qualifications and responsibilities

Top 5 Waiver Areas for All Types of Charters (Conversion and Open Enrollment):

  1. Teacher licensure
  2. School year and school day length
  3. Gifted and talented
  4. Class size and teaching load
  5. Duty limits

Our count of waiver requests indicates that nearly all (92%) of the state’s charters requested waivers related to teacher licensure — school leaders have voiced the need to consider hiring teachers who are qualified but not traditionally licensed. While school leaders seek this flexibility, and do take advantage of it to fill many teaching needs, it is also true that the majority of teachers working at charter schools are traditionally licensed.

Most open enrollment charter school leaders also wanted waivers related to flexibility with teacher and employee contracts, teacher salary structure, and principal qualifications.  Our newest OEP Policy Brief takes a more in-depth look at the types of flexibility these school leaders want and why they want this flexibility.

Where will this discussion lead?

This bill has certainly encouraged reactions among the key stakeholders in Arkansas.  The primary teacher group in the state, the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) has referred to HB1377 as a “particularly dangerous bill”.

On the other side of the argument, the editorial board at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette has come out in favor of the proposed legislation, making the following argument:

If, say, Michael Jordan wanted to coach the basketball team at your local public school, would you want him to? Sure, you’d want him to.  But in this state, he might not be considered qualified–what with no official certificate to teach in the public schools.

The Dem Gaz supports HB1377 in that it would free up all schools, public charter or traditional public, to hire someone like Mr. Jordan.

Strangely, at first glance, it seems that Max Brantley and the folks at the Arkansas Times are thinking along the same lines as the Dem Gaz! The March 3 entry in the Arkansas Times Blog, on HB1377, ended with the following question:  But what, really, is the rationale for unleashing charter schools and not everybody else?

Representative Murdock ended his testimony on March 3 with the following hopeful sentiment and plea: “I believe that on both sides of the aisle we have compassionate people. Can we work together?”

Who knows?  If the Dem Gaz and the Ark Times agree, perhaps anything can happen!!

Examining the Achievement School District: HB 1733

In The View from the OEP on March 12, 2015 at 12:13 pm

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Today’s blog and  policy brief is about HB 1733, the proposal to create the Achievement School District.  There is a lot of controversy about this bill, so we wanted to lay out the details.

There are currently 22 Arkansas schools classified in Academic Distress by the State Board of Education. These schools were classified as Academic Distress because 49.5% or fewer of their students meet proficiency standards on state assessments in literacy and math over the past three years.

Varied methods are being implemented for turning such persistently low performing schools into successful schools, from closing schools, to state takeover, to allowing charters to have a shot. While there have been cases of success, research has not yet identified a “silver bullet”, and strategies that show promise in one school, may fail to get results in another. Meanwhile, every day, students are sitting in classrooms of underperforming schools.

The proposed legislation to create the Achievement School District (ASD) is an attempt to support Arkansas’ lowest performing schools. Based on models implemented and lessons learned in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee, the ASD presents a diversified approach to turnaround schools in academic distress. Under the proposed legislation, the Commissioner of Education would oversee the Achievement School District and be authorized to assign any public school or school district in academic distress to the ASD.

About House Bill 1733

On March 6, 2015, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, filed HB1733, which would establish the Achievement School District (ASD).

  •  The commissioner may operate the academic distressed schools or districts directly, or may contract not-for-profit entities to operate the schools.
  •  Schools or districts would be assigned to the ASD for a minimum of three years. Initial placement can be for up to five years.
  • Schools or districts that demonstrate sufficient academic growth for two consecutive years may be returned to the local school district or open-enrollment charter school. Schools or districts that fail to show sufficient academic growth may remain in the ASD.
  •  ASD schools are under the oversight of the Commissioner of Education, and the State Board of Education can make “binding recommendations concerning academic practices and staffing of the school.”
  • School or districts in the ASD may be granted waivers, like those granted to open enrollment and district conversion charter schools. These waivers may include Teacher Fair Dismissal Act of 1983 and the Public Employee Fair Hearing Act. All employees working in ASD are at-will employees.
  •  Districts with a school assigned to ASD will still provide school and student support and may be reimbursed by the ASD for those costs. The districts must provide transportation, food service, building usage, alternative learning environments, special education services and athletics to students attending ASD schools.

How might this help students?

The turnaround model is designed to improve student achievement through autonomy, flexibility and innovation.  We feel that creation of the Achievement School District could allow for flexibility at the school level to best meet student needs while leveraging the efficiency, expertise and collaboration of centralized support.  All educators know that relying on one teaching strategy is not best for students. Teachers want flexibility in their teaching methods to make sure they can reach every student. Teachers also know that collaborating and sharing resources with other teachers can improve their practice, student learning and teacher morale. Through the development of the ASD, the schools in academic distress could use the flexibility to do what is best for their students while enjoying the support of other educators and resources.

Is there a downside?

Teachers are at the center of one of the most controversial aspects of these models: staffing the turnaround schools. A large body of research confirms that teachers are the most important school-based resource for improving student performance, so staffing the lowest performing schools with highly effective teachers is a central strategy for improving these schools.  These turnaround schools receive waivers from the contract requirements between teachers and traditional public schools allowing flexibility to hire teachers they feel will best serve the students. In Michigan and Tennessee teachers at turnaround schools are guaranteed consideration for rehire and encouraged to apply, although reportedly the majority chose to transfer to other public schools.

Where did this idea come from?

In 2003, Louisiana created the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over struggling schools. RSD is run by the Louisiana department of Education and currently contains 80 schools. Originally there were several schools in the district that were run directly by the state, but now all schools in the district are run by charter organizations. All RSD schools are open access, meaning students from anywhere in the city can attend. Although there are many critical of RSD, initial research indicates New Orleans students are showing high academic growth, closing the achievement gap, and improving graduation rates.

Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (MEA) is modeled off Louisiana’s RSD, but is smaller and less focused on charters. The school system opened in Fall of 2012 with 15 of Detroit’s lowest performing schools. Schools are open access, meaning students from anywhere in the city can attend. Only 3 of the 15 schools are charters. Although very new, initial results indicate strong growth in student achievement.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District (ASD) as part of the Race to the Top grant in 2010. Modeled off Louisiana’s RSD, Tennessee’s program, is smaller (23 schools) and has some direct run schools. In contrast to the Michigan and Louisiana models, however, the ASD schools remain neighborhood schools serving children who live nearby.
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If created, the ASD schools would join an increasing number of schools in Arkansas receiving waivers– district-conversion charters, open-enrollment charters, and schools of innovation. The waiving of certain requirements for traditional schools is controversial and concerns about the loss of local control of schools and changes to teacher contract requirements are major obstacles to the passage of the proposed legislation. These changes to the organizational structure of traditional public schools can be uncomfortable, but we are optimistic that the debate about HB 1733 and the academically distressed schools in our state can focus on what will be best for Arkansas students.

Key Recommended for Education Commissioner

In The View from the OEP on March 5, 2015 at 11:42 am

 

resized_99261-key-education-commissioner7_66-19364_t630On March 2, Governor Asa Hutchinson recommended Johnny Key to the post of education commissioner.  Key graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1991 with a degree in chemical engineering.  Representing his home area, he served both in the House of Representatives and Senate for the state of Arkansas, from 2003 to 2014.  While a member of the legislature, Key was on many committees, including the Senate Education Committee, as well as a period in 2013 that committee’s chairman.  He sponsored or co-sponsored several K-12 education related bills covering adjusting provisions of school choice, studying the impact of an extended school year and implementing a new teacher evaluation system.
 
As of now, Johnny Key is “recommended” for this important post.  The State Board of Education must vote to “hire” him.  If the State Board recommends the appointment, Governor Asa Hutchinson would confirm the appointment.  Currently, the job requirements for the education commissioner is to hold a master’s degree from an accredited institution, have 10 years of experience as a teacher, five of which must be of an administrative or supervisory nature, and hold a valid state teacher’s license.  There are a couple of variations of bills being pursued to either lessen the requirements of the commissioner’s position or to change the dynamics of the commissioner/deputy commissioner collective roles to ensure one of the two meet the criteria.  The appointment has not been added to a State Board of Education’s action agenda for next week.
 
In a press release, Governor Hutchinson issued the following statement: “In the General Assembly, where he served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Johnny was noted for his leadership, consensus-building and bipartisan approach.”
 
Key responded to the appointment in a press release: “I am confident that the 475,000 students of Arkansas can lead the nation in educational growth and achievement if all stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators, communities, businesses, and state officials – hold high expectations and work in a cooperative and collaborative manner to meet those expectations.  I am excited to have the opportunity to promote that spirit of cooperation and collaboration.” 
 
Further, in the Governor’s press conference Monday, Key declared he wants to “pursue excellence in education.”  It sounds as if Key wants what every other Arkansan wants – quality education!

 

Arkansas Report Card: 2014

In The View from the OEP on February 25, 2015 at 11:28 am

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Each year, the OEP releases an annual “Report Card on Arkansas Public Schools” highlighting student performance on statewide and national standardized tests, examining the achievement gaps in Arkansas, the states that border Arkansas, and the nation.

Arkansas is entering a new phase for K-12 education. All students in Arkansas public schools are now being taught new standards, and this spring students in grade 3-11 are planning to take new assessments. Changing the standards taught and how student performance is measured is difficult, but Arkansas is committed to preparing students to leave the K-12 school system ready for college and careers.

In addition to administering new assessments, this spring schools are going to be ‘graded’ on their performance. Intended to help parents better understand how their local schools are performing, the A-F grades include a wider set of criteria than the prior school rating system and provide meaningful measures for parents and stakeholders.

As we reflect on Arkansas K-12 performance, there are several areas of success to highlight:

  • Pre-Kindergarten: In national reports, Arkansas gets high marks for access to, spending on and quality of pre-kindergarten programs.
  • High School Graduation Rates are above the national average and continuing to increase.
  • Education funding is consistently supported in the state budget, and progressive for regions in need of support.
  • ACT scores in English, reading and science are closing in on national averages, and almost all Arkansas high school graduates are taking the test.

Of course, there are also areas for improvement:

  • Math and literacy proficiency rates on state assessments have been stagnant or declining over the past three years. The declining results could be due to the mis-alignment between the new standards and the old assessment (ACTAAP), but student performance has also declined on the ITBS.
  • The achievement gap between students who participate in the Free/Reduced Lunch program and and their peers who do not, is relatively unchanged over the past several years.
  • Arkansas continues to lag behind the national average for 4th and 8th grade students as measured by the NAEP, and for high school students taking the ACT.

Pre-kindergarten and high school completion targets are examples of policies that have made a real difference to Arkansas students. The continuing financial support of the K-12 education provides Arkansas students the opportunities to learn and grow every day. While students have demonstrated increased performance on standardized assessments overall, for the past several years there has been little growth and the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students persist. Moreover, there are several schools around the state that continue to struggle to serve students year after year.  Simply put, education leaders need to do better for the students who need school the most.

New and innovative models for teaching and learning should be implemented and rigorously evaluated for their impact on student achievement. Effective school leadership and quality classroom teachers are critical to student success, and we need to continue to support the development and retention of quality educators. Changes in state assessments may make it more challenging to measure student progress and track the effectiveness of the K-12 education system, so it is important that stakeholders use a variety of methods to monitor student progress. By working together to discover the path to success for each and every student, educators and policy makers will ensure Arkansas students are ready for college and careers!

Take a look at the 2014 Report Card on Arkansas Public Schools and leave us a comment. Tell us your thoughts or suggestions for how we can continue to improve education for Arkansas students.

We Are Listening…

In The View from the OEP on February 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

listenThe OEP is thrilled that readers are paying attention to our essays and blog posts. Indeed, when one reader recently voiced the opinion that our last post indicated we are “out of touch” and suggested that we are ignoring the detrimental results of testing, we got to thinking … perhaps we should be a bit more clear and thorough in describing our views on testing … please read on and see for yourself if you share our views!

Dear [OEP Blog Follower]:

We appreciate you sharing your thoughts about the PARCC testing OpEd with us, and hear your frustration. There is a lot of discussion right now about Common Core and PARCC, standards and assessment and it can be very emotional. The best thing we can do as adults in the situation is have professional, respectful dialogue about what is best for kids. In that vein, we do not agree with your assertion that we are out of touch- I have been a public school classroom teacher for years, have children in public schools, and just left a position with a large Arkansas school district where I was Assessment Director and District Test Coordinator. As district test coordinator I was deeply involved in getting students, teachers and schools prepared for PARCC, and have gone through in-depth PARCC training and provided it to staff. I recognize that PARCC is a big change for students and teachers, but when I get frustrated with all the craziness, I remind myself that the school accountability movement sprang from a desire to ensure that ALL students were being provided excellent education opportunities. I am not convinced we have reached this goal in Arkansas, and I am sure that, like me, you advocate for those students who depend on their local public school for the opportunity to learn.

As you know, the PARCC assessments have been in development for several years, and Arkansas teachers have been very involved in the process. Arkansas decided at the outset to be a PARCC governing state, ensuring that our teachers would be at the table at every stage of the assessment development. We know several teachers who have written items, evaluated the alignment to the state adopted Common Core standards, and participated in the final approval or denial of items as well. Our state has done an admirable job of letting teacher voices be heard throughout PARCC development.

Arkansas and its teachers have invested a lot of money and time into the development of PARCC, but none of us know yet what the results will show. Comparison of ACTAAP proficiency in relation to other national assessments indicated that students scoring at around the 30th percentile nationally were proficient on ACTAAP! Given that the relative national performance for proficiency was so low, we expect proficiency rates will drop considerably on the PARCC. We see this change as beneficial for Arkansas students! Arkansas needed to raise the expectations so we can be sure students are prepared to be successful in college and careers.

While we pointed out that there are several assessments that could be used for our students, PARCC is the only one that Arkansas teachers have helped develop that measures the standards that Arkansas students have been being taught. It is also the one that the state has entered into a contract with. Other assessments, like ACT, SAT, ITBS and NWEA, can provide valuable information, but do not directly measure the grade-level standards Arkansas teachers are teaching because they are norm-referenced against a national population. Since education is a state responsibility, Arkansas chooses to administer a criterion-referenced test that measures Arkansas grade-level standards, and PARCC is the assessment that has been developed, with Arkansas teacher input, to do just that.

As we indicated in the article, we do not like to have students missing instructional time for assessment, but do feel like high quality assessment is a valuable part of the learning process because it provides feedback to students, teachers and administrators about how students are progressing. We appreciate that the PARCC means less testing time each day for students and less testing time overall than the benchmark and EOC exams. It has the potential to be a more efficient assessment than ACTAAP, and one that provides students opportunities to demonstrate their learning over time as opposed to a snapshot of one day or one week.

Like you and many others around the state, we were concerned that issues with technology equipment or experience would interfere with the measurement of actual student understanding. The field test from PARCC last spring included the administration of items in both electronic and paper-pencil format. There were not significant differences in student performance on the items based on the format, indicating that the technology interface was not having a significant impact on students’ ability to communicate what they know. We can’t be sure that the assessments will or will not measure student understanding- we will have to wait until the results come out and compare them with other information we know about the students.

We know there are significant challenges with implementing PARCC, but we support it for Arkansas students, at least for this year. We need to honor the work that Arkansas teachers have put into developing the assessment and preparing students. While still standards-based, we believe the increased difficulty of the PARCC questions are a step up for Arkansas students. We hope you have a smooth testing season and appreciate the work you do for [your] students.

Ensuring Fairness in Charter Lotteries

In The View from the OEP on February 18, 2015 at 11:35 am

cjpgSpring time is beginning to mean charter school lottery season in Arkansas.  With 40 active charter schools in the state and more slated to open next year, an increasing number of students and their parents are considering their chances of attending one of these schools.  We here at OEP are pleased to have conducted several charter lotteries this spring, and are excited about the transparency, fairness and diversity we witnessed. In hopes of ensuring equal access to these public charter schools all students and parents, we wanted to share our thoughts on best practices to ensure a fair lottery process.

As a refresher charter schools are public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Like traditional public schools, all charter schools are free to attend and are funded with essentially the same federal and local funds as traditional public schools.   Nationally, 6.2% of all schools were identified as charters in 2012-13.  Currently, Arkansas has 4% of public schools operating under charters.  The most prevalent charter areas are Washington DC (44%) and Arizona (23%).  In Arkansas, there are two types of charter schools: District conversion (22 schools) and open-enrollment (18 schools).  District conversion charter schools can draw students only from within their district boundaries, while open enrollment charter schools can draw students from any district.  For more detailed information about how the funding works, refer to our policy brief on the topic.

Students must apply to attend a charter school, and sometimes more students apply than there are spots available.  If more students apply to attend the school than there are slots available, the school must hold a lottery for available spots. There are several rules that ADE applies to charter enrollment practices.  Charter schools are allowed to grant priority enrollment for siblings of students already enrolled in the school and for children of founding members.  Charter

In Arkansas, there seems to be plenty of demand for charter school slots.  At several recent lotteries, there were nearly 4 applicants for each spot, and some charters in the state report wait lists of thousands.  While there is no way to tell if all of these students would actually enroll in the charter school given the opportunity, it seems undeniable that charters are a popular option for Arkansas parents and students.

Charter schools are public schools, and should be accessible to all students.  Some critics of charters, however, have raised questions about whether charters “cream” top students from traditional public schools.  In order to ensure charter schools are truly accessible to all students, there are several best practices OEP recommends regarding lotteries:

1) Get the Word Out:  Charter school enrollment and lotteries can only be as representative as the students who apply.  In order to have the most representative application pool, charters need to widely publicize the application process and lottery.  This means getting the information out into the communities – through word of mouth,  social media, neighborhood organizations, community meetings and even laundromats.  Translate the materials as needed to reach all communities, and be sure to include that the school is free to attend.  Parents and guardians can’t apply if they don’t know about the school, and the responsibility falls on the charters to get the word out.

2) Keep it Simple: Minimize the information required to apply for the lottery.  Offer the applications in different languages, and in paper and electronic formats.  The application for the lottery only needs to include the student’s name, grade they are applying for and parent/guardian contact information (either address, phone or email).  Additional questions regarding priority enrollment are also helpful,  but that’s it!  The less information gathered before the lottery the better – reduces intimidation for parents/guardians and eliminates any possible perception of “cherry picking” students based on information provided.

3) Be Obvious: Include specific information about the process, deadlines and lottery date on the application. Make sure there is no implication that students or parents need to visit the school or meet with school staff prior to applying. Set clear guidelines about when parents/guardians need to accept the spot or have it passed onto another student.

4) Be Transparent: Hold the lottery in a publicly accessible location at a time when the public can attend.  Use a random process to determine if students get placed.  Explain the process clearly to attendees and answer any questions before the lottery begins. OEP uses a random number generator and displays the process on a projector.

5) Be Efficient: Provide an opportunity for parents/guardians of students who are lotteried in to accept the spot immediately after the lottery.  Allowing immediate acceptance will reduce the follow up procedures for the school as well as the uncertainty of parents/guardians.

Through our work assisting charters with the lottery process, we have seen excellent examples of charter schools practicing these best practices.  At OEP, we are glad to see the ADE actively monitoring all charter lotteries and providing information to schools about that process.  Since lotteries only include applications submitted, we recommend ADE also pay careful attention to the application process and how it is communicated to the public.  Expectations regarding advertising of the lottery and availability of applications should be clarified.  Processes for handling and recording student applications is also critical to demonstrate that student applications are handled appropriately.  A centralized application system for all charters could assist schools in maintaining appropriate processes.

To determine the effectiveness of charter schools, it would be beneficial to keep careful records of students who were not selected.  This would allow researchers (like OEP) to compare apples to apples- the academic performance between accepted charter school students and those who applied but were not selected.

We also recommend having an univolved third party manage the lotteries.  This adds to the transparency of the process.  If you are interested in having OEP assist you with your charter lottery- please let us know!

Whatever your feelings about the charter school movement, we should all be advocating for transparent and fair charter lotteries like those OEP has seen around the state- these are all PUBLIC schools serving Arkansas students.

Testing in Progress: Please Do Not Disturb!

In The View from the OEP on February 11, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Imagine you are sitting in a classroom, and have been working hard to learn the material throughout the semester. Suddenly, right before finals week, the teacher announces that there will be NO TEST! Some students in the class are high-fiving and gathering up their books as they prepare to leave, probably not planning on returning to class. The teacher is smiling and looks pretty relieved as well. You feel like you should be excited too, but after the initial feeling of relief passes you wonder about the implications of “No Test” and approach the teacher-

You: Will we still get a grade for the class?

Teacher: Yes, of course, I have to give you a grade.

You: What will it be based on? The test was 90% of our grade.

Teacher: I don’t know. If you really want to take a test, I guess you can take this test from a couple of years ago.  It would cost extra though.

You: Was it the same class?

Teacher: Sort of, but we learned different things.

You: I don’t think that will work. How will I know if I leaned what I need to know for my next class?

Teacher: I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter, at least we aren’t taking a test!

 

But it DOES matter. It matters to Arkansas students, parents, teachers and policymakers. We all deserve to know if Arkansas students are learning.

If passed, House Bill 1241, filed last week bCaution-Testing-In-Progress-Sign-S-8894y Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would essentially mean there will be “No Test” this year for the majority of Arkansas students. While this last-minute change might placate some of the Common Core opposition in the short-term, retreating from annual testing would be very problematic in the long-term and leave Arkansans as confused as the fictitious student in the conversation above.

In less than a month, Arkansas students will begin taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests in English and math. Under development since 2010, the tests are replacing the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) exams that have been administered annually to Arkansas students since 1999.

We don’t love students missing learning time to take tests, but we see assessment as an integral part of the learning process. We have been giving Arkansas students annual exams for 15 years, and the results provide valuable information to students, parents, teachers and policymakers.  Examining the results of the annual ACTAAP exams showed us that more students have been meeting criteria to be “proficient” or “advanced” in Literacy and math. Students got feedback about their strengths, and those that were not proficient were required to be provided additional help at school. Parents were able to learn if their student was meeting academic expectations. Teachers could learn something about the students coming into their class, without wasting several weeks of instructional time at the beginning of the year trying to determine who knew what. Policymakers looked for schools that were High Achieving or Beating the Odds, and worked to identify what practices were working for students and why.

We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. We have been making progress with our students and without annual assessments there is no way to measure progress for all Arkansas students.

test2

 

Here at the OEP, we believe Arkansas should definitely administer a statewide assessment this year, and we recommend PARCC for several reasons:

1- Because students, parents and teachers were told that we would. Knowing the target is important. Teachers and school leaders have worked for years to ensure  that their students will be prepared to succeed on these assessments. Districts across the state have invested time and money to purchase computers, prepare facilities and staff to administer the assessment.

2- Because it measures the standards Arkansas students have been taught. Arkansas students have been being taught the standards measured by PARCC. Starting with K-2 students in 2011-12, then 3-8th grade students in 2012-13, and finally with 9-12th grade students in 2013-14, Arkansas students have been learning the content that will be measured by PARCC.

3- Because Arkansas educators have been a part of test development.   Arkansas teachers have been involved in developing the PARCC items. From writing the questions, to reviewing the final items, Arkansas teachers were at the table, having their voice heard.

4- Because Arkansas educators will participate in setting the standards. Arkansas educators are already signed up to participate in the important process to determine what “proficient” looks like on the PARCC assessment.

5- Because we care about Arkansas students.  PARCC will help us all learn if we are preparing students to be ready for college and careers; and allows us to compare our performance to 10 other states!  Will Arkansas students do better than students in Massachusetts? If not, at least we will have information about where we need to improve.

An eleventh-hour change eliminating the PARCC testing this Spring would mean that students will get no unbiased feedback about their learning. Letter grades are subjective and can vary widely from teacher to teacher, and students deserve to know how their performance stacks up against a common measure. Parents and teachers across the state will lack a consistent source for information about student learning.  School leaders and policy makers will have to use whatever scraps of data they can find to inform their decisions.  The option suggested by HB 1241 is to revert to the old ACTAAP testing system from 2012-13. Not only would this re-introduce all the limitations of the ACTAAP assessments, but they no longer measure what students have been being taught. They also takes MORE TIME for students to complete and will COST MORE to administer. Both options are bad for Arkansas students and the PARCC exams should be given as scheduled this Spring.

The controversy surrounding PARCC (however unwarranted) may push state leaders to re-consider the choice of exam for future Arkansas students and search for a new exam to replace it. If this happens, there are a few testing virtues that should guide this search. A good statewide exam should certainly allow for comparisons across states throughout the nation, should allow for measures of student growth over time, and should be connected to important learning outcomes that matter to students.

There are several exams being used across the country that boast one or more of these characteristics. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and SAT-10 are examples of norm-referenced exams that allow us to compare Arkansas students’ performance to that of other students across the country. Either ITBS or the SAT-10 (previously the SAT-9) has been administered to Arkansas students’ for over ten years. An example of a test that allows for accurate measurement of student growth is NWEA MAP, an online, computer adaptive assessment that provides students, parents and teachers with information about student performance compared to a national peer group. Many Arkansas districts are already voluntarily using NWEA MAP to get actionable information about their success with students. Finally, an example of an exam that is connected to meaningful outcomes for students is the ACT Aspire. This exam is also an online assessment that provides students, parents and teachers with information about student performance compared to a national peer group. Importantly, ACT Aspire is linked to the ACT College readiness benchmarks and the ACT College Entrance exam.

Indeed, we are not the only ones that feel that many of these qualities in a test are important. Today during a press conference at which Governor Hutchinson announced the creation of a council to study the Common Core standards and assessments, the governor expressed that standards and tests should hold students to high expectations and tests should allow for national comparisons.

The success of Arkansas students is important to all of us.  It is critical that we continue to administer annual assessments of student learning, and we need to honor the hard work for Arkansas students, parents, teachers and policymakers. Retaining the PARCC test today – with the possibility of moving to a different high-quality assessment in the future– is the right answer for Arkansas students.test

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