University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for the ‘The View from the OEP’ Category

Next Generation Science Standards: Coming Soon to Arkansas?

In The View from the OEP on September 24, 2014 at 10:58 am

While the Common Core State Standards have dominated the standards’ limelight, we at the OEP also wanted to examine Common Core’s lesser-known cousin, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). In our newest policy brief, we discuss the possibility that the NGSS will have an Arkansas presence in the future, and if so, what this presence could mean for our K-12 students, educators, administrators, and other education stakeholders. The policy brief explores the motivation for new science standards, the current status of the NGSS, arguments for and against the standards, and a synopsis of the situation in Arkansas.

ngss logoWhat are the NGSS?

The Next Generation Science Standards are K-12 performance expectations for science that states may voluntarily adopt. Similar to the Common Core, the NGSS provide guidance in terms of what students should learn in each grade, K-12, but leaves decisions about curricula up to local school districts.

Current Adoption Status

The final version of the NGSS came out over a year ago, but to date, only 12 states and D.C. have chosen to adopt the standards. A timeline of which states have adopted the NGSS is available here. This adoption process is much slower than it was for Common Core. There are several speculations as to why the process of adopting the NGSS has been slower, including:

  • Many states are preoccupied with implementing the Common Core
  • Unlike the Common Core, there are no federal financial incentives attached to adopting the NGSS
  • Some states have legislative/regulatory processes that delay the adoption of new standards
  • Some states have concerns with the standards’ content, such as its approach in teaching climate change and evolution


Arkansas is not included in the 13 “early adopters” but the Natural State is considered to be halfway to adoption, as this Science Standards Timeline for implementation from the ADE shows.

AR timeline

More information about Arkansas’ potential adoption of the NGSS is available here.

fordham reportNational Criticisms & Support

Just as for the Common Core, there are both ardent supporters and critics of the NGSS. Supporters of the NGSS are in favor of the standards’ emphasis on critical thinking and potential to prepare students for STEM careers. Supporters of the standards include representatives from several Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Intel Corp, and Time Warner Cable, and prominent foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

On the other hand, some critique the NGSS for a lack of rigor. The Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank, gives the NGSS a grade of C. As with the Common Core, the Fordham Report also ranked states’ current standards and compared them to the alternative: NGSS. In the case of Arkansas,  Fordham awarded the current science standards a “B” and ranked them as “clearly superior” to the NGSS. However, the National Education Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, critiques the Fordham report for the following reasons:

  • Possible conflict of interest: Fordham has their own set of science content standards. Follow this link and then scroll down through the document to page 55, and you will find their standards listed on pages 55 – 61.
  • Fordham’s science criteria earned low marks: Jack Hassard of the National Education Policy Center analyzed Fordham’s science crtieria using the Bloom categories in the Cognitive, Affective and Psycho-motor Domain. The Fordham science criteria scored low by these assessment criteria.

An Arkansas committee also differed in opinion from Fordham; 88% of the committee developed in Arkansas ranked the NGSS as higher than the current Arkansas science standards. These sorts of determinations about the quality of standards can be difficult to make and controversial.

So, is the NGSS a good option for Arkansas? Next, we will look at some Arkansas-specific information in relation to the standards.

State-Level Criticisms & Support

ar legislatureAt the Joint Education Committee meeting on August 11, 2014, Dr. Debbie Jones, Assistant Commissioner of Learning Services for the ADE gave a presentation to legislators on the Next Generation Science Standards.

Dr. Jones provided the following reasons to support the NGSS:

  • NGSS will help Arkansas students graduate high school prepared to succeed in college and careers, especially given the job growth in STEM fields.
  • In contrast to the current standards, which focus on memorizing facts, the NGSS require higher-level thinking.
  • Performance expectations are based on three elements that can be observed in a science classroom: (a) science and engineering practice activities, (b) disciplinary core ideas, and (c) cross-cutting concepts. Connections across subject matter areas are timely and appropriate to reinforce learning.
  • The NGSS implementation plan has been carefully designed in order to allow time for schools to prepare for the change.
  • The NGSS would improve the alignment of “when we teach what.”

Some concerns expressed by legislators:

  • Lower quality: Rep. Meeks expressed his “very serious concerns” that Arkansas is lowering its science standards by adopting NGSS. He cited the Fordham Institute study that indicates Arkansas standards are better than NGSS.
  • “Political issues being treated as facts:” Rep. Meeks also expressed concern that political issues are being treated as facts, pointing to a sentence on the last page of the handout that he perceived as treating climate change/global warming as factual. Jones noted that the statement in question is worded “impact of humans… on the local environment” and does not imply anything political, including global warming.
  • Science Accountability & Testing: Representative Douglas stated that K-4 teachers have told her they do not put science in the curriculum because they do not have time for material on which students are not tested. She questioned how teachers can be held accountable for new standards, asking, “How will these be implemented if we have standards now that aren’t being taught?” Jones replied that the group will address such issues as it moves into the assessment phase of the process.
  • Financial Impact: Other legislators questioned the financial impact on school districts of implementing the NGSS. Dr. Jones noted that the implementation timeline aligns with the cycle for adopting new materials, so that any new materials will be worked into the current cycle to avoid extra expense.

Science Test Scores in Arkansas

One of the reasons cited for development of the NGSS is because American performance in science has been weak. So, how do Arkansas students typically perform on science assessments? In short, the answer is not very well, although there has been some improvement in recent years.

Historically, Arkansas students score less well in science than they do in math and literacy. For example, in 2013-14, 82% of 5th graders scored proficient/advanced in literacy, 68% in math, and 57% in science. The difference in scores is more pronounced in 7th grade, where in the same year, 77% of 7th graders scored proficient/advanced in literacy, 69% in math and only 37% in science.

Arkansas Students % Proficient/Advanced on Science, Math, and Literacy Benchmark Exams By Year

NGSS graphAs illustrated in this graph, science testing in Arkansas is newer than testing in math and literacy. There are six years of science data vs. ten years of math and literacy data. One potential reason for the difference in scores could be that students are more consistently instructed in math and literacy because it is tested every year in grades 3-8, whereas science is only tested in 5th and 7th grade. As a result, teachers may feel pressured to focus instruction on math and literacy rather than science. Additionally, schools are not held accountable for science results under No Child Left Behind, thus administrators and teachers may not place as heavy of an emphasis on science. Finally, scores on the science exams may be lower simply because the tests are newer than math and literacy tests. We have seen a steady increase in math and literacy scores over time, which may indicate that scores get better as teachers and schools gain a better understanding of what is being assessed. A similar pattern can be seen for science although the scores are lower. It is possible that science scores look lower than math and literacy scores simply because the tests have not been around as long for teachers to familiarize themselves with the tests and tailor their instruction accordingly.

Arkansas Students % Proficient on Benchmark Exams:

Comparing First Year of Test Implementation Scores vs. Most Recent Scores

year one implementationThis graph illustrates the level of improvement shown in science, math, and literacy tests from the first year of the test’s implementation to the most recent data from 2013-14. Arkansas students have shown the greatest gains in math (27 percentage points), followed by literacy (26 percentage points) and then science, which has shown sluggish growth of 9 percentage points. Again, it should be noted that Arkansas has been testing in math and literacy for four more years than science.

Although science scores dipped last year, the following graph of 5th graders’ performance shows that since 2008, science scores have been slowly rising. The pattern for 7th graders is similar, but 7th graders have performed less well than the 5th graders.

5th grade 2014 science results

Middle School Science Results

Another “measuring stick” that we have available to help us compare Arkansas’ science test results is the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card”)  exam. The following graph compares 8th grade NAEP Science scores with 7th grade Arkansas Benchmark Science scores. As can be seen from the graph, Arkansas students have performed less well on the NAEP exam. More information on NAEP Science test results are available here.

Students’ Proficiency Levels in NAEP Science Exam vs. AR Benchmark Science Exam

NAEP vs. Benchmark comparison graphHigh School Science Results

Of the four End-of-Course (EOC) exams (Literacy, Algebra, Geometry, and Biology), Biology has the lowest exam scores nearly every year. In 2012-13, only 44% of students scored proficient or advanced on this exam while in every other EOC exam, overall Arkansas students’ scores were above 70% proficient or advanced. Low Biology EOC scores are comparable across regions, with Northwest Arkansas often scoring the highest, but not by much. As you can see from the table, testing well in Biology has been a struggle for Arkansas, although there was recent improvement in the 2013-14 scores.

Arkansas End-of-Course Biology Exam Results

EOC tableConclusion

In conclusion, Arkansas students have historically not performed as well in science as they have in other subjects, but there are many factors that could contribute to this performance other than the current science standards that Arkansas has in place. Arkansas is currently halfway to adoption of the NGSS (which, if adopted, will be adapted and become the Arkansas Science Standards), and there is a thorough plan in place for adoption and implementation of the standards. However, it is difficult to predict if new science standards will increase student achievement. As with Common Core, implementation of the standards will be a key factor. The ADE has created a survey for all science teachers, curriculum specialists, and administrators to gather their input on the new standards, which you can find here. Check out our newest policy brief for more information!

High-Achieving Elementary Schools By Grade Level and Region

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

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

This particular report is divided into two main sections:

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Blog Post: A-F School Letter Grades

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

September Joint House and Senate Ed. Committee Meeting Recap

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

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

Small Rural School Experience with Broadband

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

Access to Broadband

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

Best Practices in Charter Schools

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

Cost of Increasing Teacher Salaries

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

Arkansas School Funding Matrix

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

New Law on Dyslexia

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

Health Care Workers in Public Schools

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

The 2013-14 Outstanding Educational Performance Awards!

In The View from the OEP on September 3, 2014 at 11:19 am

imgresEvery year, we celebrate schools across Arkansas with our Outstanding Educational Performance Awards (also known as the OEP Awards)! We are excited to release the first installment of this year’s OEP awards today: High-Achieving “Overall” Schools in Arkansas. These awards are based on April 2014 Benchmark exam performance for students in grades 3-8. The report is divided into two sections (Benchmark mathematics and literacy), and within each section, we recognize the top 25 elementary and middle schools! (The list also includes some high schools that serve middle school grades.)

Like the past two years, the awards are based upon a GPA measure. The OEP calculates a GPA for schools in each subject based on the number of students that perform at each level on the Benchmark exam (advanced is assigned a “4”, proficient a “3”, basic a “2”, and below basic a “1). You can read more about our GPA measure here.

Of the “Top 25 Elementary Schools in Arkansas Based on Benchmark Math Achievement,” 10 schools are newcomers to this award, while 15 schools won an award last year in the same category. On the “Top 25 Elementary Schools in Arkansas Based on Benchmark Literacy Achievement” awards, 14 schools won an OEP Award last year in the same category, with 12 newcomers to this award (remember, there can be more than 25 schools on a list, as there can be ties). The Northwest region stood out again this year, with 15 schools on the math list and 13 schools on the literacy list.

Park Toolbar 2011 copyThe top elementary school in both math and literacy hails from the Hot Springs School District: Park Magnet School! At Park Magnet School, 99% of students scored proficient or advanced on the math exam, with a GPA of 3.85. On the literacy exam, 98% of students scored proficient or advanced with a GPA of 3.88. Congratulations to the students and teachers of Park Magnet School!

On the “Top 25 Middle Schools in Arkansas Based on Benchmark Math Achievement” awards, there are 10 schools that are newcomers to this award, while 15 schools won OEP Awards last year in the same category. Of the “Top 25 Middle Schools in Arkansas Based on Benchmark Literacy Achievement,” 18 schools won OEP Awards last year in the same category, with 10 newcomers to this award.

imgres Haas Hall Academy received the top spot on the middle school math and literacy lists this year, with a GPA of 3.83 in math (representing 98% of students scoring proficient or advanced) and a GPA of 3.76 in literacy (representing 100% of students scoring proficient or advanced). Congratulations to the students and teachers at Haas Hall Academy!

Stay tuned over the semester for more OEP Awards, as we celebrate the performance of many elementary, middle, and high schools across the state! Additionally, we will award Arkansas schools that are “beating the odds”–that is, schools that are high achieving, while serving high percentages of low-income students. In two weeks, we will release the next edition of the OEP Awards: High-Achieving Elementary Schools! In that report, we will give awards by grade-level and to schools by region. Until then, congratulations to all the high-performing elementary and middle schools highlighted in the overall awards!

Schools of Innovation Update

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

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

Difference between Schools of Innovation and District Conversion Charters

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

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

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

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

Characteristics of Successful Application for Schools of Innovation

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

Arkansas Schools of Innovation for 2014-15 School Year

schools of innovation


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

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

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





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



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

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

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

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

Benchmark Exams: Two Years of Declining Scores

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

To access the ITBS test score databases, click here:

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

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

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

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

Distributed Leadership

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

School Violence Report

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

Next Generation Science Standardsngss

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

E-Rate and Broadband                          

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

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

education super highway

Time on the Bus

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

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

Isolated Funding

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

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 146 other followers