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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.

Math Instruction Time: More is Not Necessarily Better

In The View from the OEP on July 30, 2014 at 10:37 am

mathIf a middle schooler spends more time in math class, will that student become better at math? Not in the long term, according to Eric Taylor’s recent research at Stanford University’s Center for Educational Policy Analysis.

Taylor’s study, Spending More of the School Day in Math Class: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity in Middle School, examined the effectiveness of additional time spent in math class by using data from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the U.S. For 6th graders who scored below the 50th percentile the previous year in a 5th grade math test, administrators doubled the number of math classes (students took one regular math class and one remedial class). However, the test scores between those selected for additional classes was sometimes only different by a few points compared to students who were not selected. As Taylor stated, “Think about a kid who scores 249 versus a kid who scores 250 — those kids are not different. But a small difference in scores determined who took two math classes and who took one.” Students in the control group took one regular math class and one elective.

The study found short term benefits: the students who took two math courses scored higher on the state math test that year. However, these gains did not last after students returned to a regular math schedule. One year after treatment ended, only 1/3-1/2 of the initial gain remained. Two years out, effects were at 1/3 of the original size. When the students reached high school, the gains were almost completely gone.

These large gains that diminish over time have often been termed as following a “fade-out pattern.” This phenomenon is common with educational interventions, such as smaller class sizes, summer schools, and assigning students to a more effective teacher. This pattern does not necessarily mean that the interventions did not help students, but that the effects did not last. On the bright side, some studies show that interventions that had fading test score benefits have other long-term benefits, such as Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s study that found the achievement gains from having an effective teacher fade out over time but eventually effect college-going rates and earnings.

foreign languageOne interesting point Taylor makes is that there may be hidden costs associated with assigning a student to an extra math class. Since these students had an elective removed from their schedule, they were less likely to take art, foreign language, or physical education. He also finds that some evidence, though less strong, that students who had a double dose of math were 10 percentage points less likely to have completed two years of foreign languages by the end of high school, often a requirement for admission to selective colleges and universities. In addition, Taylor cites research that found that 5th grade boys who do not take P.E. are at an increased risk of obesity. All of this raises the question: is it worth it to provide students with a double dose of math if the effects eventually fade out and causes them to miss out on other classes that may be helpful to them?

A Contradictory Study?

The research literature on the topic of double-dosing confirms part of the story from Taylor’s study: at least two similar studies of the effect doubling the number of classes in a subject (Nomi and Raudenbush (2013) and Daugherty (2012), found positive short-term results.

Another 2012 study (coauthored by by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University, Joshua Goodman of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University) found just the opposite of Taylor’s findings: that students who received a “double-dose” of 9th grade Algebra in Chicago experienced “positive and substantial” benefits in the long run, but not the short term.

Similar to Taylor’s study, the Cortes et al. study compared students who were just below the cutoff point for being assigned an additional Algebra class with those just above the cutoff. In the short term, the researchers reported that these students did not perform better on the 9th grade Algebra exam as hoped. However, when researchers measured the effect of the additional Algebra intervention over time, they found several long-term benefits to students, such as better performance on college-entrance exams like the ACT, increased high school graduation rates, and increased college-enrollment rates. These researchers conclude, “A successful early intervention may be the best way to boost students’ long-term academic success.”

How prevalent is double-dosing? Does this happen in Arkansas?

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results label 2/3 of American students ages 14-15 as “not proficient” in math. In light of these statistics, we know that the U.S. has a high proportion of students who lack foundational math skills. According to the Cortes, Goodman, and Nomi, nearly half of large urban districts report “double-dose” math instruction as the common way to support struggling math students.

reading_recovery_logoSo, what about Arkansas? We at the OEP are not aware of a formal policy across the state or in specific districts that leads to “double-dosing.” Arguably, Reading Recovery is a program connected to “double dosing” 1st graders with 30 minutes of extra, one-on-one reading instruction with a trained teacher. According to  What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), most research has  found Reading Recovery to be effective, having positive effects on general reading achievement and potentially positive effects on alphabetics, reading fluency, and comprehension for beginning readers. In February 2014, Little Rock School District announced that they were scrapping their Reading Recovery program, which had been in operation since 1995. Many Little Rock parents were upset about this program being cut and started a petition to keep it, which generated over 1,500 signatures. In March 2014, Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs announced at a Little Rock School Board meeting that elementary schools may keep the Reading Recovery program, but the decision is left up to principals and the funds must come from Title 1, NSLA (National School Lunch Act), or grant funding.

While in this case the research literature does not give us a definitive answer on the value of “double-dosing,” it does bring up some questions that district and school administrators should ask before adopting a new program:

  • What is the evidence on the effectiveness of this program?
  • Is this program likely to have a long-term effect as well as a short-term effect?
  • What positive classes or activities may students miss out on by participating in this program?

School Discipline in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on July 16, 2014 at 11:45 am

School safety is, without dispute, an important issue (in fact, the OEP named school safety concerns as the #4 story in our top 10 education stories of 2013).  According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the common sense of any teacher or parent, students need a safe environment in order to learn at an optimal level. But sometimes creating a safe environment that is equitable to all students isn’t simple, or else we wouldn’t have issues like those highlighted in a report by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this year.  The report showed large racial disparities in discipline rates, which are often viewed as contributing to a “school-to-prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects students of color and limits their educational opportunities.

aacf reportSo this raises the question: what is the state of discipline and school culture in Arkansas? According to a report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), Arkansas ranks
15th in the country in the use of out-of-school suspension (OSS) for all students and 13th in the disparity between the use of OSS for black and white students. The AACF report also found that black students in Arkansas were suspended about 3.5 times as often as white students.

On Friday, July 11th, OEP Director Gary Ritter presented the results of a study on school discipline rates in Arkansas to the Arkansas State Board of Education. This report was in response to Act 1329 of the Arkansas legislature, which required a report on school discipline by July 1st of each year starting in 2014. Using student-level data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education, with all personal identifiers removed in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), we were able to analyze the relationship between discipline rates, student demographics, and academic achievement.

Before moving to the results, it’s important to consider some limitations of the data.

     1) Lack of transparency of discipline measures

Discipline data are reported by school districts in systems with different codes than the state level codes, so when aggregated up to the state level, some district actions are lumped into an “other” category. Therefore, we lose transparency between the local and state level. In addition, the data did not include categories such as referrals to law enforcement authorities (a key indicator of the “school-to-prison” pipeline), but the ADE will start reporting this measure as of the 2014-15 school year.

     2) Each district has has different discipline policies and resources

The use of resources like deans or other administrators that have time to focus on discipline or the use of School Resource Officers (SROs) differ among schools and districts.

     3) It is not clear how to interpret discipline rates

For instance, both high and low discipline rates could be considered to be good or bad. A district with high discipline rates could be viewed either as positive (the school is not letting anything slide and is doing a great job handling, reporting, and tracking issues) or negative (kids are unruly, and there are a lot of behavior issues).  On the other hand, a district with low discipline rates could be viewed as positive (the school culture is positive, and there are little to no behavior issues) or as negative (the district isn’t reporting the issues that it has, or is letting too many behaviors go unpunished).

Now that we have listed the appropriate caveats to the interpretation of discipline data, let’s move on to the results. In our report, we looked at three-year average discipline rates for seven different actions: In School Suspension (ISS), Out of School Suspension (OSS), Expulsion, Corporal Punishment, referrals to an Alternative Learning Environment (ALE), No Action, and Other.  Act 1329 required a report based on a discipline rate calculated as the number of students who receive a discipline measure divided by the total number of students. The discipline rate using this method was 7.6% for ISS, 4.7% for OSS, and 5.1% for Corporal Punishment. In order to account for the fact that some students may have repeated discipline actions, we have also provided the number of incidences per 100 students. At the state level, there were about 19.5 ISS incidents per 100 students, 13.1 OSS incidents per 100 students, and 7.0 Corporal Punishment incidents per 100 students.  The rates for the other categories were relatively small.

discipline image

So what does this mean? Perhaps for those who don’t believe corporal punishment should still exist in schools (Arkansas is one of 19 states in which corporal punishment is still legal), any rate here is “bad.”  Otherwise, it’s a bit unclear whether high rates are good or bad. To add some clarity, we can at least look at disparities in the rates between various subgroups and try to answer questions related to equity.  This data showed that over the past three years, the ISS rate for non-white students (30.8 incidences per 100 students) was more than double the rate for white students (13.4 incidences per 100 students). The biggest disparity in ISS, however, that we were able to find was between students who had scored basic or below basic on a standardized test in a given year (45.3 incidences per 100 students) compared to students who hadn’t scored basic or below on their exam (13 incidences per 100 students).

ISS disparity rates

The story in OSS rates is similar, though even more striking.  Non-white students (24.8 incidences per 100 students) received OSS at a rate of over 3.6 times as high as white students (6.8 incidences per 100 students), and students who had scored basic or below basic on a standardized test in a given year (31.2 incidences per 100 students) received OSS at a rate of 4.75 times as high as students who hadn’t scored basic or below on their exam (6.6 incidences per 100 students).

At this point, it’s important to reiterate the limitations of the data and methodology used when interpreting this information.  We are only showing correlation at this point between certain demographic factors and discipline rates and are not attempting in any way to show causationIt is unclear for example, whether low-achieving students start out low-achieving and then misbehave because of it or whether students who miss school due to suspension score lower on their tests due to missing instructional time.

Despite the inability to show causation, however, we can come to an important conclusion about the importance of school culture and positive discipline policies. We found that districts with lower discipline rates have higher test scores, which is not surprising. We also found that districts with lower discipline rate disparities between students who scored basic or below basic and those who did not generally also had higher test scores. In other words, not only were the discipline rates lower in higher performing schools but the differences in disciplinary actions between groups were smaller.

The OEP will continue to work with the Arkansas Department of Education on asking and attempting to answer more questions about the relationship between school discipline and student achievement in Arkansas. In the future, the ADE will likely want to look for schools and districts who seem to be getting it right – having positive school culture, low disparity in these rates, and high levels of academic performance among all subgroups, and then identify best practices and resources that can be shared with other districts and schools. Act 1329 cited evidence-based strategies, such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), as ways to improve school culture and reduce behavioral problems. In a variety of studies, PBIS in schools has been linked to lower discipline referrals, higher test scores, lower truancy rates, and improved relationships between students.

For now, school districts should know that there are plenty of resources available. The Arkansas Department of Education provides tools and resources related to PBIS on its website. In addition, the US Department of Education (USDE) has already compiled a fantastic list of resources.

A Working Lunch With The President

In The View from the OEP on July 16, 2014 at 11:44 am

This past week, Justin Minkel of Springdale was one of four teachers selected to have lunch with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Here is a brief video clip of President Obama’s opening remarks.

All four of the teachers work in high-poverty schools, and the focus of the lunch conversation was on how to find quality teachers to serve in these environments. Specifically, the president wanted to know:

  • Why had the teachers stayed in high-poverty schools?
  • What can he and the Secretary do to support teachers in high-need schools?
  • What policies could ensure that students who need the strongest teachers receive them?

In the Washington Post, Minkel summarized the teachers’ four main points:

jones elem1. There’s nothing wrong with the kids.

Minkel told the president about Cesar, a 2nd grader who won $10 in a writing contest. When Minkel asked what he planned to do with his winnings, he said, “I’m going to give it to my mom to help her buy food for our family.” He also told the president about Melissa, a 2nd grader who became the only literate person in her family through a home library project and school-wide support. Melissa told Minkel one day, “Now when my mom and little sister and I are watching TV, they tell me, ‘Melissa, turn off the TV and read to us,’ so I do.” Students like Melissa and Cesar, who walk into the classroom with greater challenges than more affluent students, are not the obstacle to attracting skilled teachers to high-poverty schools. They’re the motivation.

2. “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

There is great pressure in many low-income schools to raise test scores, which can make teaching and learning less enjoyable for all. Minkel advised the president that teachers are hesitant to work in classrooms that are stripped of educational joys, such as literature, the arts, and critical thinking, to focus instead on test preparation. These teachers are concerned that this is not what students need in order to be successful. Minkel quoted the writer Philip Pullman, who said, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.” He said in order to draw teachers to high-poverty schools to help students excel, we have to “restore some of that delight.”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers. It’s about good and bad teaching.

According to Minkel, there are a “handful” of teachers who cannot or will not improve as teachers, but most of the time this is not the case. Some ways to improve teaching:

  • Allowing teachers time to collaborate
  • Allowing teachers the space to innovate
  • Peer observation
  • Building time into the school day for professional development
  • Mentoring
  • Reflection

With the right support systems in place, the teachers told the president that almost every teacher that is willing to work can move from being a novice to becoming competent and, eventually, excellent.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do those same things.

Teachers should not be seen as just “consumers of policy, professional development, curriculum, and research”–teachers should be creating them.

Hope for the Future

Minkel states that there is hope for lower-income schools. If Springdale’s Jones Elementary, a school with 99% poverty, 85% English Language Learners, and nearly 0%  teacher turnover can create a climate of excellence, then so can other schools. Minkel concludes that there’s nothing wrong with the kids. There are inherent wrongs in the system, but none that cannot be remedied. Including teachers in the conversation on how to improve schools is not going to fix the American educational system, but it’s a good place to start. The last thing the president said to the teachers was, “You all make me feel hopeful.” Minkel states, “President Obama, you left us hopeful, too.”


Justin-MinkelBackground on Justin Minkel

Justin Minkel began his teaching career at P.S. 192 in Harlem, New York City, as a member of Teach For America. He went on complete a Masters in Elementary Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Most recently, Minkel has taught 2nd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, a high-achieving public school where 99% of the students live in poverty and 90% are English Learners. In 2006, Minkel was named Milken Educator for the state of Arkansas. In 2007 he became the Arkansas Teacher of the Year and was Nationally Board Certified in 2011. Minkel also writes a blog for Education Week and serves on the board of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).  Minkel is also the author of the children’s book Clubhouse Clash. He will teach 1st grade part time at Jones Elementary next year.

Educational Philosophy

Minkel believes that his students should be engaged in meaningful real-world projects. For example, his 2nd and 3rd grade students have worked to design, build, advertise, and sell a product of their own invention. This project integrates the disciplines of math, technology, writing, design, and economics. Another of Minkel’s projects includes the engineering challenge of designing a parachute for a gummy bear. Minkel also engages his students through research and creative writing. Minkel believes that even young children should learn “21st century skills” including collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. He reminds his students that “your choices determine your destiny,” and he strives to provide his students with opportunities that allow them to develop their gifts and pursue their passions.

books1,000 Books Project

Another large part of Minkel’s educational philosophy is a strong belief in literacy and the power of putting great books into the hands of children. This belief and the realization that many of his students did not have books at home sparked the 1,000 Books Project. This project sought to provide a library of 40 books in each of his 25 students’ homes. Through donations from Scholastic and other donors, and money from Minkel’s own pocket, the effort was successful and accomplished for less than $100 per student.

We have heard of opportunity gaps, teacher gaps…but what Minkel worked to close is the “book gap.” Researchers have found that in a more affluent community, each child has an average of 13 books. These students have books of their choosing that they bring from home, read when their work is done, and take home with them in the evening. These books are read only for pleasure, not for a grade. However, many children in Springdale may not have books at homes and have limited access to bookstores and public libraries. In poorer neighborhoods, there is an average of just one book for every 300 kids. Minkel states that having books at home improves literacy because students can repeatedly read their favorite texts that are at their reading level. Students in Minkel’s class progressed from their first book, Where The Wild Things Are (a picture book) to their 40th text, The Lightning Thief (a novel for fifth and sixth graders). Also, his students’ parents reported that the children spent increased time reading at home.


It is exciting to have Arkansas represented during this recent meeting with President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan! Thanks to Justin Minkel for being an exceptional educational leader for Arkansas. Stay updated with Minkel’s latest contributions on his two blogs, Teaching for Triumph and Career Teacher, and follow him on Twitter:  @JustinMinkel


PARCC in Arkansas: Moving Forward

In The View from the OEP on July 9, 2014 at 10:12 am

parccThe last time we reported about PARCC, several Arkansas public schools had participated in field testing for PARCC and the field testing was reported to have gone well. However, in a recent article from Politico, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education stated that Arkansas may choose NOT to use PARCC for next year’s roll-out of its first year of Common Core-aligned testing. So, what’s going on with this surprising statement??

Lawsuit in New Mexico

Interestingly, the back story on this announcement begins in New Mexico. According to Education Week, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has filed a lawsuit in the New Mexico state court that argues that the contract for Common Core-aligned testing was awarded to Pearson in an illegal process that benefited Pearson. The PARCC contract awarded to Pearson calls for the company to develop test items, deliver the test, report the results, and analyze student performance.

The dispute began in November 2013, when New Mexico, on behalf of PARCC member states, released the initial request for PARCC testing proposals. In December 2013, the AIR filed a protest with New Mexico state officials regarding the request for bids, arguing that the Pearson was shown favoritism because the request tied assessment in the first year of testing with work in the years to follow, which created a “bundling of work” that favors Pearson. Pearson had already developed a content-delivery platform that would allow them to meet the “bundling” requirement. NM rejected AIR’s protest, stating that it was not filed within the required time frame. In response, the AIR filed an appeal in state court, asking a judge to overturn the state’s decision, declare the process of awarding the contract invalid, block it from going forward, and order that the initial bid be restructured and reissued in a non-biased way.

pearson1Money, money, money

Due to the fact that AIR claimed the bidding process to be unfair, they chose not to bid. In the end, Pearson was the only bidder and won the contract. How much money is at stake? James Mason, who helped negotiate the contract, has stated that the size of the PARCC contract is “unprecedented” by the standards of the U.S. testing industry. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are members of PARCC and this totals around 5.5-10 million students that will be tested on an annual basis. The projected cost for per-student testing is about $24. Thus, this contract is estimated to be worth between $132 million-$240 million. Mason stated that he could not provide an exact dollar amount because it would depend on factors such as how many students and states end up participating and whether they opt for computerized or paper-and-pencil tests.

How does Arkansas fit in?

Politico recently reported about “a new twist in Common Core wars,” which is the widespread disagreement at the state level over testing contracts. The article discussed the AIR lawsuit and predicted that the dispute could last for months and may result in PARCC’s inability to administer exams in the 2014-15 school year. The article then quotes Kimberly Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, who stated that if the lawsuit is not resolved by mid-July, that Arkansas plans to use an alternative form of testing than PARCC.

Most Recent Update

However, on July 3rd, Education Week reported that New Mexico State Purchasing Agent Lawrence O. Maxwell ruled against the AIR, stating that the bidding process for PARCC testing was structured carefully, and not in a biased way. Unless the AIR appeals this decision, Pearson will be free to move forward with test development and proceed on schedule.

Jon Cohen, president of the AIR’s assessment division, told Education Week that his organization had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision. However, from other statements by Cohen, an appeal does not seem extremely likely. Cohen advised that it is not the AIR’s intention to put PARCC in a position where it may not be able to administer tests next year and also stated, “It’s in the country’s interest for PARCC to survive and be healthy…We don’t want to derail the PARCC consortium.” Cohen also said that the AIR was willing for Pearson to receive the contract for the first year or two, but then would like to see the contract opened back up for bids.

forwardThis week, the Democrat-Gazette reported that the dispute in New Mexico has been “resolved” and that PARCC testing will be moving forward. The Arkansas Department of Education had previously set this Wednesday (July 9) as a deadline to decide whether to begin steps to solicit bids and award its own contract to another company who would produce Common Core-aligned exams. Staff from the ADE will report on PARCC at the State Board of Education meeting this Thursday.

In conclusion, with this favorable outcome for PARCC in the resolution of the lawsuit in New Mexico, it seems likely that Arkansas will be using PARCC exams in the upcoming school year, but this was a near-miss and a situation worth following. We at the OEP will keep you updated!



2013-14 Benchmark Results Database Released: Did Scores Fall Due to Weather?

In The View from the OEP on July 9, 2014 at 9:24 am

actaapAbout a week ago, we reported on preliminary data released from the 2013-14 academic year’s Benchmark/ACTAPP testing results in our blog post “Statewide Benchmark Scores Released, Drop in Scores.” This week we are proud to release our corresponding yearly database, which can be found here. This database was created using original source data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education Testing website. Each year, the OEP takes the raw data and aggregates them into school and district-level databases that allow the user to look at performance of the entire school, the entire district, by educational region, and statewide. In the event that you are interested in previous years’ data, our databases go back to the 2004-05 academic year. We hope that these databases will serve as valuable resources for Arkansas education stakeholders. Please contact our office at or (479) 575-3773 if you have any questions about these data.

The release of this year’s data signals the finale of the ACTAAP exam. Next year, it will replaced by the PARCC exam, which will be the first test administered in Arkansas to measure students’ mastery of the Common Core State Standards.

Factors Contributing to Lower Scores

As stated in last week’s blog post, scores dropped across the state in all categories. Three factors may have contributed: 1) inclement weather and  subsequent snow days, which many districts struggled to make-up before testing week; 2) the fact that students were being taught the Common Core State Standards, but tested on the Arkansas Curriculum Frameworks; and 3) ceiling effects. A ceiling effect is exactly what it sounds like: when scores reach high levels, growth from that point on becomes difficult and close to impossible.  While Arkansas scores have not reached the ceiling of 100% proficient or advanced on these tests, they have still reached levels which leave little room for additional growth.

Snow Day Study

Joshua Goodman

Joshua Goodman, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University

A 2012 study from Harvard researcher Joshua Goodman has looked into the impact of snow days on student achievement in his study titled Flaking Out: Snowfall, Disruptions of Instructional Time, and Student Achievement. Goodman was asked to look into this matter by the Massachusetts Department of Education. He examined data from students in Massachusetts from 3rd grade-10th grade from the years 2003-2010, paying close attention to school closures, individual absences, and standardized test scores. In short, Goodman concluded that school closures due to inclement weather did not affect student achievement, but that individual absences do. He speculated that schools are prepared to deal with disruptions like snow days, but that they are ill-equipped to deal with individual absences. In fact, estimates suggest that student absences explain about 8-20% of the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students.

However, a Business Week article pointed out that Massachusetts usually only calls off school 2-3 days per year. Many districts in Arkansas went way beyond 2-3 days. For instance, Viola School District missed 23 days! Goodman, the author of the Harvard report, states that larger chunks of time spent away from school will hurt student achievement, especially when it comes to scores on standardized tests.

In a 2010 article for Education Next, Dave Marcotte of the University of Maryland found that each additional inch of snow reduced the percentage that 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade students scored on math assessments from one-half to seven-tenths of a percentage point.

Make-Up Days

Goodman does not believe that it is effective to tack on days at the end of the year, stating that school days become “increasingly calorie-free” the longer that a school year lasts. “These are not real days,” Goodman stated, from his experience as a former high school math teacher.

Instead, Goodman suggests that districts reschedule standardized testing for later dates. This way, teachers would have extra time to cover material needed for exams. This year, Arkansas chose not to push back the exam schedule.

snow day waiversArkansas Snow Days & Performance

In March 2014, 75 school districts requested waivers from the State Board of Education and they were all granted, except for the requests of Decatur and Quitman School Districts, who did not meet the criteria of being out of school for 10 days. These waivers shortened the required 178 days of instruction. Dr. Kimbrell, Commissioner of Education at the time, stated, “They’re [school districts] making up 10 days, but some of them are actually getting waivers for 7 days, 5 days, 4,3,2…It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Unlike most other school districts in Northwest Arkansas, Springdale School District did not request a waiver, choosing instead to make-up all of their snow days prior to standardized testing, even shaving days off their spring break. So, did Springdale students experience better growth on the Benchmark exams than did their peers in other bad-weather districts?

Take a look at the OEP databases for the answer!


Changes May Be Coming to Teacher Insurance

In The View from the OEP on July 2, 2014 at 12:18 pm

insurance-premium11Early this morning, the three-day Arkansas Special Legislative Session wrapped up, with both the House and Senate approving legislation to boost funding for the public school employees health insurance plan, preventing a 35% premium increase for thousands of employees. Next, the bill will go to Governor Beebe, who has said he plans to sign it on Thursday.

The cost of teacher insurance premiums has been a long-standing issue in Arkansas. For the second year in a row, the health insurance program for public school employees has faced a deficit which, without Legislative intervention, would have caused double-digit premium increases. According to the Associated Press, the program suffers from low participation, expensive benefits, and a high number of claims.

Background on October 2013 Session

In order to reduce the cost of premiums, Governor Beebe called two special sessions in the past eight months. In October’s Special Session, the Democrat-Gazette reported that the Legislature authorized the use of $43 million in state surplus funds to help cut the proposed premium increases of about 50% to about 10% this year, and enacted measures to shift $36 million per year in state funds to the plan in the fiscal year that recently began. A task force was also created to recommend changes related to teacher insurance, headed by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs. (Read our blog post here examining October’s special session.)

Changes for Part-Time School Employees and Some Spouses

Under the new plan, about 4,000 part-time public school employees and some spouses will be removed from the insurance program in order to cut costs. Proponents state that most of these part-time employees will qualify for subsidized coverage that became available January 1st under the state’s private-option program. Arkansas uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for low-income Arkansans, with the funding coming from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. These part-time employees are eligible for the state Medicaid expansion program as long as their incomes do not exceed 138 percent of the poverty level — $16,105 for an individual or $32,913 for a family of four. According to the Associated Press, some chose to vote against the bill because they believe that the “private option” Medicaid expansion could be eliminated by the Legislature next year. “What’s going to happen to them then?” said Rep. David Fielding, D-Magnolia, who voted against the bills. “There’s just too much uncertainty about what’s going to happen to those part time workers.”


Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, Chairman of State & Public School Life & Health Insurance Task Force

In the House debate over this measure, Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, asked if pushing part-time employees off the public school employees health insurance would backfire because the most “health-needy” employees would have an incentive to try to become full time while the least expensive part-time employees, who pay in but don’t use the program much, would be gone. Proponents stated that by removing part-time employees,  school districts would save about $7 million annually because they would no longer have to contribute to the cost of part-time employees’ insurance. The districts are now required to contribute at least $150 per month for each employee enrolled. Chairman Hendren stated, “None of us came down here in the last General Assembly with the idea that we are going to start excluding people from insurance. But the fact is a decision has to be made. Do we want to have affordable rates or do we want to have a high eligibility?”

House Bill 1004 and Senate Bill 3 (which are identical) were also approved, which will remove public school employees’ spouses off of school insurance plans if they can get coverage through their own employers. The bill also limits coverage for weight loss surgeries. In doing so, the bill would eventually transfer about $4.6 million a year from school districts to the public school employees health insurance plan from school districts’ payroll tax savings.

Projected Changes in Premium Costs

If this plan is adopted, insurance premiums will still increase next year, but only by about 3% (this projection is from the state’s Employee Benefits Division). According to Arkansas News, Chairman Hendren stated that this estimate may vary based on the individual and which plan he/she has: some school employees may see an increase of more than 3% and some may see their premiums go down. For example, some bronze plan employees will see an increase in premiums from about $11 per month to $60-65. On the other hand, over 50% of employees are on a gold plan and their premiums are going to decrease by a couple hundred dollars per month.

A Short-Term Fix

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-GravetteConclusion

AAEA_LogoMembers of the Legislature have stated that this is a short-term fix or a “Band-Aid” applied to an issue that will have to be re-addressed in next January’s session.  Shortly after the votes, Senate President Michael Lamoreux announced, “I’m satisfied with what we did here, but I don’t want to say that means we’ve permanently solved the problems, because that’s not what we did.” Richard Abernathy, Executive Director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, has voiced his agreement. The AAEA does not plan to oppose the proposals reached in the Special Session, but Abernathy indicates that additional fixes to the insurance program will be needed in the future.

Possible Future Solutions

Chairman Hendren has warned that the long-term solution to Arkansas teacher insurance woes is going to be controversial. Some long-term changes that have been proposed include: 1) merging the teacher insurance program with one offered to state employees and 2) having school districts contract with health insurers on their own rather than depend on a state-administered system.

In conclusion, Arkansas’ teacher insurance premium costs have been an extended and not-yet-resolved issue. We at the OEP will keep you up-to-date on any new developments through blog posts and social media — stay tuned!


Statewide Benchmark Scores Released, Drop in Scores

In The View from the OEP on June 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported tables showing the statewide Benchmark results for the school year which just ended, as well as those for the Little Rock School District.

While small corrections to this statewide data will come out later this summer, this release signals the end of the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) tests, which will be replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam in the upcoming school year.  The terms Benchmark and ACTAAP have been used interchangeably.

These last Benchmark scores showed a continuation of the drop-off that was seen last year (2012-13).  In 2012-13, all statewide scores, 3rd through 8th grade, math and literacy, either remained the same as the previous year or went down.  This decline continued for the state in 2013-14, with the average score on all exams dropping or remaining the same once again.

But why?  Why the drop in scores across the state?  We would advance two scenarios: 1) the weather, and 2) the changing state standards.  While we are certainly not the type of group that would make excuses for the educational system over the long-term, we do think that the story of each education year has some quirks to it.  Even though these quirks would even out in the long-run, they do have an effect on this year’s test scores.

Weather – as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported – caused school cancellations across the state.  Some districts missed fewer than 10 days, but many districts came close to missing 20 days, with several going over.  While there were procedures for making up those missed days, the statewide exam was not moved back.  So, many districts had 15 to 20 less instructional days before the Benchmark exam was administered.

Also, while teachers switched over to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) over the past few years (Grades K-2 in 2011-12, 3-8 in 2012-13, and 9-12 in 2013-14), the Benchmark exam was still based on the old standards.  The CCSS debate aside, when the standards are different from what is being tested, you can imagine that scores could suffer accordingly.  Since the PARCC exam is aligned with CCSS, this issue will be irrelevant next year.  While some will talk about learning a new test, at least the standards and assessment will be aligned.

Finally, a separate issue is that a regime change in the world of testing also means districts and schools will no longer be able to make comparisons to test scores from the years before PARCC. Comparing PARCC tests to the prior ACTAAP tests would be like comparing apples and oranges. We will still be able to track progress over time using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) but only at the state level.

The good news is that there’s still a lot we can learn with a new test in place. Under PARCC, we will still be able to access district- and school-level results and compare districts’ and schools’ performance in the 2014-15 school year.   Furthermore, even under the new Common Core regime, educators and policy makers in Arkansas will be able to use PARCC assessments to measure the achievement gaps between different subgroups. For a more in depth look at Achievement Gaps, see our Arkansas Education Report.

Perhaps most exciting is that, for the first time, we will be able to compare district- and school-level results in other states using PARCC assessments in the 2014-15 school year. These states are Colorado, D.C., Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, and Rhode Island. We could learn how students in Little Rock are performing compared to students in Chicago, how students in rural districts in Arkansas compare to rural districts in New Mexico.

Teacher Evaluation Systems Under Common Core

In The View from the OEP on June 25, 2014 at 11:53 am

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been in the news a lot lately, as many states are deciding to drop the standards entirely or to drop the assessments associated with CCSS. For the OEP’s overview of the Common Core, take a look at our June 2014 Arkansas Education Report on the Common Core Debate.common core logo Even for those states that seem committed to staying the course with CCSS, there is still debate about how transitioning to new (and most often, more rigorous) assessments will work within existing teacher evaluation and school-level accountability systems.

Big Changes in DC and NY?

Last week, Washington, DC and the state of New York announced they would not be using test scores under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as part of teacher evaluations. This is important, of course, as DC and New York are key actors in the education reform and teacher evaluation debates. Some are wondering whether this move represents a “backing off” on accountability, or just a more cautious move forward on the connection between teacher evaluation and student test scores.

The District of Columbia was one of the first districts in the country to use student test scores as part of teacher evaluation. Under the current system, put in place by the previous chancellor Michelle Rhee, test scores make up 35 percent of teacher evaluations in tested subjects. D.C. was often viewed as a pacesetter in the trend towards rigorous teacher evaluation. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson says the districts wants to allow time for students to adjust to the new standards, but asserts D.C. plans to stay committed to assessing teachers in part on student test scores in the future.

DC was supposed to have its first year of full implementing teacher evaluations that include student growth in 2014-15, and New York’s first year of using student growth to inform personnel decisions was supposed to be 2014-15 as well.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo endorsed, and lawmakers recently passed a law to prevent teachers labeled as “ineffective” or “developing” from facing termination or denial of tenure based solely on test scores for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.  The state saw sharply lower test scores on standardized tests last in the 2013-14 school year, and has decided to keep Common Core test scores off of student transcripts through 2018 to appease parents who were worried about the standards.

Easing into Evaluations?

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), as of September 2013, 35 states and D.C. have or have passed laws establishing teacher evaluation systems that include student achievement as a significant factor in teachers’ ratings.  Only ten states (Alabama, California, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Texas, and Vermont) didn’t require that test scores be a part of the evaluation process. In March 2014, NCTQ provided a timeline of teacher evaluation systems, by state, that include and count student growth.  Six states (California, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Vermont) still don’t have a policy in place to use student growth now or in the future. Various other states will start using teacher evaluations within the next three school years.

teacher evaluation map

The decision by New York and DC not to include student test scores in teacher evaluations is part of a wider “moratorium movement.” Even some of the most ardent proponents of the Common Core State Standards have expressed concern about using student test scores to inform personnel decisions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently called for a two-year moratorium on using Common Core test scores to make high-stakes decisions such as teacher evaluations, joining the two largest teacher unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers). The Gates Foundation strongly supports the CCSS and the aligned tests, has invested over $200 million in the standards, and is an “ardent supporter” of evaluation systems that include measure of student achievement and growth, but says the “standards need time to work.”

Federal Reaction

The Obama administration rejected the idea of a blanket moratorium for all states.  Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said these types of decisions should be made on a state-by-state basis.

Enhanced teacher evaluation systems were put into place in states across the country in response to Race to the Top (RTTT),  a $4.3 billion competition among states for education grants from the US Department of Education, and ESEA waivers, which granted flexibility to states to change their accountability systems from the original No Child Left Behind model. Both RTTT and ESEA waivers required teacher evaluations systems in order for states to be eligible for the funds associated with each program; for RTTT, it was for supplemental grant funding to fund new education reform initiatives and for ESEA waivers, it was to be eligible to receive Title I funding. Many have speculated that changes to teacher evaluation systems could result in the loss of these funds. However, last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a plan to give states with ESEA waivers more flexibility in when they start using student growth data for high-stakes personnel decisions, allowing delays up to the 2016-17 school year. As for states with RTTT funds, an official with the U.S. Department of Education warned, by email, that the state risks losing up to $292 million of funding tied to the Race to the Top by removing student growth measures from teacher evaluations.  This warning, by Ann Whalen, is the first warning that RTTT funding may be on the line when considering whether or not to use student growth as part of teacher evaluations.

Bringing it Home to Arkansas

Arkansas did not win Race to the Top funds but currently has an ESEA Flexibliity waiver.  In order to be eligible for RTTT, Arkansas adopted a new teacher evaluation system, the Teacher Effectiveness and Support System (TESS), which includes the use of student growth in accountability. The 2014-15 school year will be the first year of full implementation of TESS, as well as the first year of full implementation of Common Core in Arkansas.  So the 2014-15 will be a big year for implementation of new education initiatives, with a new test through the consortium Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) based on the on the CCSS standards, as well as a new teacher evaluation system (TESS). While the first full year of TESS is 2014-15, it is important to note that Arkansas teachers identified as “ineffective” will only be subject to improvement plans and interventions based on TESS starting in 2015-16, and the first year that these evaluations must “inform personnel decisions” will be 2016-17.

arkansas timeline

Thus, in Arkansas, the adoption period is clearly gradual, and it will be a while before these new TESS teacher evaluations will have “teeth”. Because the most consequential decisions for teachers will not be made based on test scores until 2015-16 and 2016-17, we do not think a moratorium on using test scores is necessary to have a fair teacher evaluation system in Arkansas.






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