University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

K-2 Assessment? Take your pick…

In The View from the OEP on February 19, 2020 at 3:40 pm


Districts are again being given the opportunity to select an assessment to administer to their students in Kindergarten through 2nd grade.  Districts initially selected a K-2 assessment in the spring of 2016, and have been using their selection for three years. This spring, districts are again being given the opportunity to choose a K-2 assessment that they will administer for the next four years.

We know that district leaders and teachers want to make the best choice to support student learning, so we did some digging into the relationship between student outcomes and which assessment was selected by each district.

We needed to use 3rd grade assessments to try to understand any relationship between the selected assessments and student outcomes, because we do not have a consistent assessment in earlier grades. Third grade data include two years of Pre- K-2 assessment and two years of Post-K-2 assessment. We use the terms “Pre” and “Post” terms relative to 3rd graders’ experience. Students who were 3rd graders in 2015-16 and 2016-17 were not exposed to the selected K-2 vendor. In 2015-16 the vendor had not been selected, and in 2016-17, the assessments were implemented in K-2 but the 3rd grade students had not used the assessment in 2nd grade the prior year.  Students who were in 3rd grade in 2017-18, however, had participated in the K-2 vendor assessment when they were in 2nd grade, and 3rd graders in 2018-19 had participated in both first and second grades.

You can read all about it in the policy brief, but here’s a quick summary of what we found:

  • The three K-2 assessments (Istation, NWEA, and Renaissance) were relatively equally selected by districts throughout the state.
  • The geographic and demographic characteristics of the districts that selected each assessment were similar.
  • Academic proficiency in 3rd grade is similar between the districts that selected different K-2 assessments.
  • There is no statistically significant difference in ACT Aspire 3rd grade growth scores between districts that selected different K-2 assessments.
  • Schools using NWEA: MAP evidenced significantly greater growth scores in ELA, although the effect was not present in the district-level analyses.
  • There are very high growth schools and districts using each of the K-2 assessments.

Although this is not a causal analysis, we can detect no relationship between district-level academic growth of 3rd grade students in Math and ELA, and the K-2 assessment selected by the districts. Interestingly, we do find a positive relationship at the school level between ELA growth and districts that selected NWEA: MAP.  This is likely due to the fact that large districts with multiple elementary schools all use the same assessment but some schools have more positive growth than others.  The difference in growth may be capturing the fact that schools which are more effective at ELA instruction are choosing to use NWEA, or that school implementation of NWEA is positively benefitting students in some ELA classes.

Given the variation in growth scores among districts and schools that selected the same assessment, it is important to point out that which assessment that is selected does not seem to be related to student outcomes.  Likely, it is how students and teachers act on the information gathered from the assessments, and what learning opportunities are present in the classroom daily, that results in better learning outcomes for students.


Year-Round Schools in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on February 12, 2020 at 10:07 am

Continuous learning schools in the Fayetteville Public School District have drawn media attention as they consider returning to a traditional school calendar. Asbell Elementary and Owl Creek currently operate on continuous calendars but, pending a school board vote later this month, may switch back to traditional calendars for the next school year. Today we explore the history of these alternative school calendars, and the pros and cons for students, teachers, and families.

Continuous learning schools, also known as year-round schools, incorporate several shorter breaks throughout the school year and a shorter break during the summer. Despite the ‘year-round’ title, students in these schools typically attend the same number of school days as students in schools on a traditional calendar. In Fayetteville, all schools start the same week in August, but continuous calendar schools end two weeks later than other schools in June. The continuous learning schools have two week-long breaks that are different from the traditional calendar – one the first week of October and another during April. As parents and the superintendent push for a return to the traditional calendar it is important to consider why year-round calendars came to exist and what they contribute to the educational landscape.

Brief History of Year-Round Schools

First attempted in the 1980s, year-round schools were created to push back on what was considered an antiquated school calendar based on economic, rather than educational, considerations. Although there is some debate, consensus says the traditional school calendar originated as a result of the need for students in rural areas to return to the fields for work during the summer months. Continuous learning calendars may be implemented to reduce over-crowding in schools or to improve student outcomes. Continuous learning schools can alleviate crowding in large schools where multi-track calendars allow different student groups to attend school at different times, alleviating space constraints. Advocates of continuous schooling suggest the shorter, more frequent breaks in learning could reduce learning loss between school years. They cited evidence from studies, which demonstrated that students experience a “summer slide” in which they lose knowledge and skills during the long break in schooling from June to September. This loss is especially pronounced for children from low-income backgrounds.

The increased frequency of breaks on a continuous learning calendar was also thought to provide non-academic benefits for students, teachers, and parents. Student-learning fatigue and teacher burnout could be reduced though the alternative calendar. Families may enjoy taking vacations when fewer families are traveling, and may avoid some childcare expenses if the school offers a no-cost intersession opportunity for students to participate in learning opportunities at the school over the breaks.

As a result of these hypothesized benefits, states around the country have implemented continuous-learning schools at varying scales. Research, however, demonstrates that switching to a year-round calendar has little effect on student achievement and may even be harmful in certain circumstances (McMullen & Rouse, 2012; Graves, 2010). Despite intersession programming designed to provide remediation and enrichment to students, the hoped-for benefit of continuous schooling to student-learning outcomes has proved insubstantial. The benefit to teachers is questionable as well, as some report enjoying the more frequent breaks while others are nostalgic for a longer respite from the demands of the classroom.

Parents who have multiple children of different ages generate the greatest pushback against the continuous learning calendar. Year-round calendars are frequently implemented at the elementary school level as schools serving older students struggle to accommodate extracurricular practice and game schedules on the alternative calendar. Since continuous calendars aren’t offered comprehensively across districts, parents with students in varying grade levels must juggle multiple breaks and calendars that do not align. This negates potential benefits of shorter breaks and can leave families feeling frustrated.

In addition, year-round schools may increase costs for districts due to increased transportation and operational costs associated with longer calendars and the lack of overlap with other schools. Coupled with the lack of evidence that continuous learning benefits academic achievement, a calendar change can be a hard sell when not implemented district-wide.

Year-Round Schools in Arkansas

Arkansas has had year-round schools since 1993 when Texarkana converted to a continuous calendar (Fritts-Scott, 2005). Data from the Arkansas Department of Education dating back to 2004-05 shows a decline in the number of year-round schools across the state since the early 2000s when as many as ten schools in nine different districts operated on continuous calendars. Between 2005 and 2008, Little Rock and Pulaski Special School Districts led the state in the number of alternative-calendar schools, but they have not operated one since the 2007-08 school year.

The mid-2000s saw an increase in the number of year-round schools that operated in Northwest Arkansas districts, but the number is now declining. Rogers and Bentonville each operated two continuous learning schools but have since returned them to a traditional calendar. Bentonville converted its schools to a traditional calendar in 2016 and Rogers switched the one remaining school in 2019-20. Fayetteville is unique as it is the only district in Northwest Arkansas that increased the number of schools offering year-round calendars in the last five years. Happy Hollow became a continuous learning school in 1996, and was joined by Asbell in 2008-09 and Owl Creek in 2014-15.

Asbell and Owl Creek may return to a traditional calendar next year, pending the vote by the school board next week. Attendance issues and low turnout to intersession activities are cited as impetus for the change. Upon investigation however, the average daily attendance of both Happy Hollow and Owl Creek has increased and shows no variation across quarters, and while Asbell’s attendance declined between 2013 and 2016 it has been increasing again since 2017. These changes in attendance rates, however, are likely due to a variety of factors and may not necessarily be due to the year-round calendar. Surveys from Owl Creek and Asbell reflect that 66% of school staff and 50-55% of parents support returning the schools to the traditional calendar.

Some Arkansas schools, however, are switching to a continuous learning calendar. Arkansas Arts Academy, an open-enrollment charter school in Northwest Arkansas, switched to a continuous calendar in 2017-18. In addition, Magazine School District converted both its high school and elementary school to a continuous calendar in the 2018-19 school year. As opposed to the Fayetteville calendar, which has the continuous learning schools ending later, the Magazine school calendar will start two weeks earlier in August and end at the same time as previous years. Magazine will provide an interesting case study for continual schooling in Arkansas since the change was district- wide. Due to the comprehensive nature of the change, the results in terms of attendance, student achievement, and parent and teacher satisfaction will be easier to gauge and might provide more insights into the value of year-round schooling for Arkansas students.

Since the quantifiable effect of continuous schooling is ambiguous at best, it is up to the stakeholders in each district to make decisions about what calendar meets the needs of their students.

Examining NWA Charter Schools Enrollment Trends

In The View from the OEP on February 5, 2020 at 2:04 pm

This month, open-enrollment charter schools throughout the state will hold public, random lotteries for students hoping to attend the schools in the 2020-21 school year.  Open-enrollment charter schools are public schools that are open to students regardless of their residentially-assigned traditional school district. Charter schools receive their charter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which holds these schools accountable to certain standards in order to stay open. They are publicly-funded and free of tuition.

Northwest Arkansas is currently home to nine public open-enrollment charter schools, with plans to open a new charter school for the 2020-21 school year. These schools, which serve unique missions, are some of the most highly ranked schools in the State of Arkansas. While critics argue that public charter schools segregate based on race or academic ability, national evidence finds that these claims are highly context specific. In today’s blog (and associated Policy Brief and Arkansas Education Report) we present what conclusions can we draw about Northwest Arkansas charter schools based on enrollment trends in recent years.

Similar to our previous work examining charter school enrollment trends in Little Rock, we begin by examining traditional and charter enrollment trends by student demographics and end with analyzing the academic performance of students that switch between traditional and charter sectors.

Arkansas Arts Academy schools provide an arts-based approach to learning. Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy schools have a classical focus, including the Socratic method and instruction in Latin. Each of the four Haas Hall campuses emphasize preparation for higher education with a semester block schedule. LISA Academy offers a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum. Finally, Hope Academy, which will open for the 2020-21 school year, will focus on serving children who have experienced trauma.

Charter schools in Northwest Arkansas enrolled 2,581 students in 2017-18, which was just under 3% of the nearly 90,000 public school students in Benton and Washington counties. Figure 1 presents Northwest Arkansas charter school enrollment from 2007-08 through the 2017-18 school year.


The 2017-18 enrollment data presented in Table 1, shows that charter schools in Northwest Arkansas enroll a larger proportion of White, Asian, and multi-racial students, than the traditional public districts.  The charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of other ethnic groups, students eligible for free– and reduced-priced lunch, English learners, and students eligible for special education services.

NWA Charter 2

When we examine ten years of enrollment data, we see that all Northwest Arkansas schools are becoming increasingly racially/ ethnically diverse and that charter schools are growing more similar to district public schools in their race/ ethnicity demographic composition. In 2007-08, less than 35% of students enrolled in NWA traditional public schools and around 10% enrolled in NWA charter schools identified with a minority group. In 2017-18, over 40% of the traditional public school population and 30% of the charter school population identified as a minority race or ethnicity. The district-charter minority enrollment gap was nearly 25 percentage points in 2007-08, but had shrunk to just over 10 percentage points ten years later.

Between 2009-10 and 2016-17, approximately 50% of students enrolled in traditional public schools were FRL-eligible. In contrast, approximately 20% of students enrolled in public charter schools were FRL-eligible. Similar disparities persisted for EL students (around 20% of traditional public school students and 3% of charter students) and SPED students (around 6% traditional public school and 3% charter). These trends raise the question of why NWA charter schools have become more integrated based on race, but not for FRL, EL, and SPED students?

Public charter schools are often accused of “cream skimming” (enrolling higher proportions of high-performing students) and “cropping” (encouraging low-performing students to enroll elsewhere). Do we see evidence of this with Northwest Arkansas public charter schools? In an effort to answer this question, we examine the academic performance of students who switched between the traditional and charter school sectors.

Students who exit NWA traditional public schools to enroll in a NWA charter school are, on average, academically high performing.  They scored two-thirds of a standard deviation above the state average on state assessments, and one-third of a standard deviation above the school average of the school that they moved from. The traditional public schools that students are leaving to go to a charter are high performing schools as well. Almost 58% of students who exit NWA traditional public schools to enroll in a NWA charter school left a school with a Z score in the top third of all NWA public schools.

Students leaving NWA charter schools to enroll in a NWA traditional school are also academically high performing on average. They scored on third of a standard deviation above the state average on state assessments. They were average performers, however, for the charter school that they exited.  About 40% of the students exiting charters left a school in the top third of all NWA public schools in terms of student achievement.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that higher performing students are leaving traditional schools to attend charter schools.  We have no evidence WHY higher performing students are leaving traditional schools, but possible reasons might be that they are attached to curricular options, changes in peer groups, or smaller classes. On the other hand, we do not see evidence that the students exiting charter schools are being ‘pushed out’ for low academic performance as they are average academic performers compared to their peers at the charter school that they are exiting.

The charter sector in NWA has grown rapidly over the past ten years, but continues to serve a small proportion (3%) of all public school students in the area. The region has grown more racially and ethnically diverse in that time. Public charter schools have also grown more diverse, though they continue to enroll a smaller proportion of certain student populations. Here’s what we think are important steps moving forward:

  1. Continue to monitor differences in demographic enrollment trends by sector.  Charter schools should be reaching out to all communities to communicate the opportunity to enroll, and if particular groups are not expressing interest we should try to learn more about why.  Do they feel that they are not ‘the right kind of applicant’ or do they prefer the opportunities that they are given in the traditional public sector?
  2. Gain a better understanding of why FRL, EL, and SPED students enroll in charter schools at such low rates. These enrollment trends may be related to problems with practical solutions, such as transportation. It may be that the families of these students are satisfied with services provided at their residentially-assigned district public school. It may be that students are interested in attending but are not being selected in the random lotteries that charters must hold if oversubscribed. Understanding the reasons for these enrollment trends is essential to crafting policy-relevant solutions.
  3. Respond to market demands. NWA charter schools enroll only 3% of all public school students in Benton and Washington counties. However, many of the charter schools are oversubscribed with waiting lists of students not selected through random lotteries.  The interest in charters suggests many more students may be interested in enrolling in these schools. Traditional public schools should communicate with students and parents to determine if their needs are being met, and, if not, how they can better support their educational experience.