University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

English Language Learners in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on June 18, 2019 at 3:16 pm

English language learners (ELs) are a growing student population throughout Arkansas.  With the passage of ESSA, the progress of EL students towards proficiency in English has been added to the metrics by which schools and districts are held accountable. With this academic context in mind, we at the Office for Education Policy thought it would be useful to provide a descriptive analysis of the EL population in Arkansas. These analyses, beginning with an overview of the recent enrollment trends in the state, may help policymakers and school leaders better understand this important group of students.

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that ELs comprise about 9.5% of K-12 students in the United States. Some states have a larger share of EL students than others. For example, in fall 2016, only about 1% of West Virginia’s student population were ELs while nearly 16% of students in Nevada were ELs.

We really like this map from USDOE that shows the percentage of ELs by school district across the country.

EL Map

Additionally, some states are experiencing faster growth in the proportion of EL students than others. For example, the states with the highest growth of EL student population from 2000 to 2014 include Arkansas.

The change in Arkansas’ EL population by district from 2009-10 to 2014-15 is presented below.  Most districts had few or no ELs, as represented by black or gray shading, but many districts are colored dark purple, indicating an increase in EL enrollment of at least 50% over the years examined.

El Change legend

Change in EL


With such large changes in the EL population by 2014-15, we wanted to bring in more current data to examine the trends here in Arkansas.  Examining data from the Arkansas Department of Education, we describe overall EL enrollment in the state, the proportion of EL students to general population, and the proportion of EL students by academic region for the past 15 years.

Table 1, below, presents the number of students enrolled in English language learning programs over the last 15 academic years. Overall, the total number of EL students enrolled in Arkansas schools has doubled from just under 20,000 students in the 2005 academic year to just under 40,000 in the 2019 academic year. All regions have seen increases in the number of EL students from 2005 to 2019. In total numbers, the Northwest academic region welcomed over 23,000 EL students in AY 2018-19 – the most by far.

Table 1. EL Enrollment in Arkansas, 2004-05 through 2018-19.


Changes in the proportion of EL students in Arkansas from 2004-05 through 2018-19 are illustrated in Figure 1, below. The figure shows the EL percentage of the general student population in Arkansas, by academic region, and in the United States overall. The available data for the national EL rate, represented by the blue dotted line, reflect that the overall share of the EL K-12 population is consistently between nine and ten percent of the general school population.

Figure 1. Percentage of General Population Identified as EL, 2004-05 through 2018-19.


Several key points should be noted from Figure 1.

  1. Although Arkansas enrolls a smaller percentage of EL students than the national average, the share of Arkansas public school students identified as EL is increasing, from 4% in 2004-05 to 8% in 2018-19.
  2. While Northwest Arkansas consistently enrolls the highest percentage of EL students in the general student population, both the Southwest region and the Central region have seen large relative increases in the percentage of EL students enrolled.
  3. A recent decline in the percentage of EL students is also evident in Figure 1. Starting with academic year 2016-17, there is a downturn in the percentage of EL students in Arkansas overall, and a sharp decline in the Northwest region in particular. This decline coincides with a change in the assessments used to reclassify EL students as proficient in English. Beginning in academic year 2016-17, Arkansas replaced the ELDA with ELPA21, and although not evident in all regions, the decline in identified students overall is likely due to a greater percentage of EL students being identified as English Proficient through the new assessment.

In addition to looking at the proportion of ELs enrolled in the general population, we examined which region has the highest proportion of EL students overall and how that has changed over time. Figure 2 illustrates the shift in the overall share of EL students between the academic regions over the last 15 years. While all regions demonstrate growth, Figure 2 illustrates that while Northwest Arkansas consistently has the highest number of EL students enrolled, the region’s proportion of the EL population in the state is decreasing, due, in part, to an increase in the numbers in the Central region.

Figure 2. Share of EL Enrollment by Academic Region, 2004-05 through 2018-19.

ELALLRegionIn 2004-05, over three-fourths of the state’s EL students were enrolled in Northwest Arkansas schools. This has dropped to 61%. In contrast, both the Central and Northeast regions have experienced growth in the share of the overall proportion of EL students. The Central region’s share, for example, has increased from 11% to 2005 to over 21% in 2018-19.

We finally illustrate this major shift in student composition in the state by looking at the extremes – districts with no EL student enrollment and districts with at least 10% of their student population identified as ELs. We illustrate this in Figure 3. While the number of EL students in Arkansas has increased, so has the number of individual districts that enroll these students. Look at the Northeast region, for example. In 2004/05, 56 of the 75 districts in the Northeast region did not enroll a single EL student. None of the remaining districts in the Northeast region had EL enrollments that comprised 10% of the overall student population. By 2019, however, only 17 districts in the Northeast have no EL enrollment and two districts had EL enrollments that comprised over 10% of their student population. In 2019, every academic region of Arkansas has at least two school districts where at least 10% of their student population are English learners.

Figure 3. Share of EL Enrollment by Academic Region, 2004-05 through 2018-19.



The English Learner student population in Arkansas has more than doubled over the last decade and a half. While the majority of EL students attend schools in Northwest Arkansas, the Central and Southwest regions have higher rates of growth. Additionally, schools in the Northeast academic region account for whittling some of the Northwest region’s share of EL students. The share of EL students in the Northeast has grown by over 2.5 percentage points from 2018 to 2019.

While the number of EL students has grown, so has the number of districts in which they are enrolled.  In 2004-05, 155 districts throughout the state enrolled no EL students, but in 2018-19 there were only 44 such districts.  In addition, over 30 districts have at least 10% of their students identified as EL, compared to fewer than half that 15 years ago.

The differential growth patterns in the EL population in Arkansas may be problematic for districts that have had few or no EL students enrolled. Districts that have long welcomed EL students may have greater institutional knowledge to identify and support their EL students as they learn and become proficient in English. Districts that have experienced high EL growth, or have recently received their first EL students, may struggle with how best to meet the learning needs of these students. This can be an opportunity for the veteran EL districts to be pedagogical leaders, sharing their expertise with other districts.

It is important to ensure that EL students who attend schools in all regions of Arkansas are afforded the opportunities to succeed in learning English as well as core academic content. In addition to looking descriptively at the educational contexts EL students find themselves in, we will examine how EL students are doing academically in future installments of this OEP blog – watch this space!



Arkansas School Spending by Level

In The View from the OEP on May 22, 2019 at 10:58 am

Two weeks ago we provided a first look at Arkansas’ brand new school-level spending data. Today we dig a little deeper to look at how spending varies by school level. We show that there is significant variation in spending based on the grades schools serve, and we attempt to explain some of that variation by looking at several important spending categories.

In the coming weeks we also plan investigate how spending varies by school type (i.e., traditional public vs. open enrollment charter) and whether Arkansas’ schools exhibit meaningful economies of scale (i.e., do bigger schools spend less on things like administration). For those interested in playing with the school-level spending data on their own, you can either go to or download the data from our website.

For this post we divide schools into three levels: elementary, middle, and high. Because districts have the flexibility to distribute grades differently across schools, there is some variation around the state in school level terminology. However, we chose to use the same categorization that is used for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reporting. In general, this means that we label schools serving kindergarten through 5th grade as elementary, grades 6 through 8 as middle, grades 9 through 12 as high.

Figure 1 shows total per pupil spending by school level. While there is a lot of variation within each level, a clear pattern is evident across levels – high schools spend the most per pupil, middle schools spend the least, and elementary schools are in between. We have included the school level medians to further illustrate this point. The median represents the school exactly in the middle of the per pupil spending distribution for each level. Half of schools spend more than the median and half spend less. The high school median is the highest at $10,594. The elementary school median is $9,586 or $1,008 per pupil lower, and the middle school median is $9,185 or $1,409 per pupil lower.

Figure 1: 2017-18 Total Spending Per Pupil by School Level

To better understand what’s driving spending differences across school levels, we take a closer look at four important categories that together represent nearly 80 percent of all Arkansas school expenditures: instruction, administration, student support services, and instructional staff support.

Figure 2 shows the per pupil spending devoted to instruction. This category includes teachers’ salaries as well as books and other instructional supplies. Here too Arkansas’ high schools spend more than elementary and middle schools. The median high school spends $6,184 per pupil on instruction, while the median elementary and middle schools spend $5,245 and $5,055 respectively. Higher per pupil spending on instruction explains nearly all of the difference in total per pupil spending between the median high school and elementary school and about half of the difference between the median high school and middle school. High schools spend more on instruction because class sizes generally decline as grade level increases and high school teachers can be more expensive due to factors like the prevalence of advanced degrees and other specialized skills/certifications (i.e., national board certified).

Figure 3 depicts the distribution of school spending on administration (i.e., school and district). This category includes school principals as well as district administration and the superintendent. Spending on administration is quite similar across school levels. The median elementary and middle schools spend $727 and $763 per pupil respectively on administration. The median high school spends $845 or right around $100 dollars more per pupil. Given the nature of supervising older students, it’s not too surprising that administration spending increases with grade level and that high schools spend the most on administration.

Figure 2: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Instruction by School Level

Figure 3: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Administration by School Level

Figures 4 and 5 show per pupil expenditures on support services for students and instructional staff respectively. Student support services includes things like physical and mental health services and guidance counselors, and instructional staff support includes expenses related to professional development. Arkansas’ schools generally spend less on support services for students and instructional staff than they spend on administration, but there is significant overlap in the distribution of all three categories, with instructional staff support exhibiting the most variation (i.e., the distribution is much more spread out).

Elementary schools spend more for support services. Median elementary school spending for both types of support services is around $100 more per pupil than median high school or middle school spending. The median elementary school spends $537 per pupil on student support services, while the median middle school spends $431 and the median high school spends $451. And for instructional support, the median elementary school spends $785 per pupil, while the median middle school spends $653 and the median high school spends $628.

Figure 4: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Student Support Services by School Level

Figure 5: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Instructional Staff Support by School Level

The upshot of our analysis is that Arkansas spends the most on high schools and the least on middle schools, with elementary school spending falling in between. Greater total spending on high schools can largely be explained by higher instructional expenditures, which are likely strongly related to smaller class sizes. High schools also tend to spend more on administration. Elementary schools, on the other hand, tend to spend more on student support services and instructional staff support.

Middle schools spent the least overall as well as on instruction and student support services. While we were not surprised by the greater spending on high schools, prior to performing this analysis, we would have guessed that the high school spending gap would have been smaller and that elementary and middle school spending would have looked more similar. Arkansas’ middle school spending might be an area worth further investigation given that it represents a critical juncture for kids, and as a country, we have made less progress improving academic performance in the middle grades and beyond than we have in elementary school. For those interested in some additional reading on middle school performance check out the Education Next articles here, here, and here.

As we mentioned in the introduction, we have a couple of additional topics that we plan to investigate using the new school-level spending data. However, we also want to hear what you are interested in learning more about. Please feel free to suggest topics or questions in the comments or just reach out to us directly.

The Seven Year Hitch

In The View from the OEP on May 15, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Keep Calm

Today we heard that the ACT Aspire is sticking around at least through 2026. ADE recently signed a contract for 7 additional years of ACT Aspire assessments.  We know that the assessment window just ended and that testing is that LAST thing educators throughout the state want to think about right now, but this consistency is great news!

We think sticking with the ACT Aspire is a great plan and applaud ADE for not changing the assessment for grades 3-10 at this time. Although we can’t compare Arkansas’ student achievement with any other state (because, so far as we can tell we are the only state currently using ACT Aspire as our annual assessment for grades 3-10) we think it is important to continue with the ACT Aspire so that we can look over time to see what is (and isn’t) working for students in our state.

For example, consider some recent analyses that we have been doing to see if differences in achievement for particular student groups are decreasing over time.  We discussed the statewide achievement gaps by race and gender in an earlier blog post, but today we present differences in student achievement by participation in the Free/ Reduced Lunch program. To be FRL eligible a student’s family must have an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and so participation in the program is a rough measure of the student poverty.  Students from lower income backgrounds generally score lower on state assessments than their more-economically advantaged peers.

We examine the difference in average achievement percentile on the annual state assessments between FRL-eligible students and students that, based on higher family incomes, are not eligible to participate for the FRL program. Information is presented by grade, and, we would hope that over time, effective schooling would decrease the differences in achievement between the groups.

Figure 1, below, illustrates the difference in the average literacy percentile between FRL students and students that are not participating in the FRL program. We can see that the achievement gap for FRL-participating third graders was -26 percentage points in 2008-09, and that it had closed to -19 in 2017-18. Similar gap reduction is evidenced for 4th, 5th, and 8th grades. There has been a lot of variability in the intervening years, however, and it is difficult to say with confidence that the gaps will continue to close.

Figure 1. Difference in Average Literacy Achievement by Free/Reduced Lunch Eligibility, by Grade, 2008-09 through 2017-18

FRL LIT grade2

Figure 2, illustrates the difference in average math percentile between FRL-eligible students and Non-FRL students. Information is presented by grade, and we can see that the math achievement gap for FRL-participating third graders was -25 percentage points in 2008-09, and that it remained at -24 in 2017-18. A similar pattern is present from all grade 3-8, but, as with literacy achievement, there has been quite a bit of variation in the gap over the last decade.

Figure 2. Difference in Average Math Achievement by Free/Reduced Lunch Eligibility, by Grade, 2008-09 through 2017-18Math FRL Grade

We can’t fail to notice the major difference in both the literacy and math achievement gaps in 2014-15.  As noted on the figures, this was the year that the PARCC assessment was administered. Because this was the only year that the PARCC was administered, we are unable to determine if the reduction in the gaps was a real reflection of how our students were performing, or just some type of effect of a different test. Variation like this makes it difficult to measure our progress in making a difference for kids, so we are happy to hear that Arkansas is committed to ACT Aspire for another 7 years. Fingers crossed that a consistent target will reflect increased achievement for our students!