University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Arkansas’ College Degree Reality Gap

In The View from the OEP on March 4, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Lately, we have been thinking about Arkansas students that are nearing the end of high school. Many students across Arkansas are taking the ACT exam, deciding on which college they will attend, working through financial aid documents, and looking forward to heading out into the rest of their life.  According data reported by ACT, 70% of Arkansas students from the class of 2019 indicated that they wanted to obtain a bachelor’s (BA) degree or higher. This high rate of post-secondary aspiration is actually a decline from the class of 2017, in which 75% of students intended to get a BA or higher degree.

But the reality is, based on current data and prior trends, only 11% of Arkansas high school graduates will obtain a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of their high school graduation.

And, although Hispanic and African American students also report high levels of post-secondary aspirations, the likelihood of getting a degree decreases for these students. Hispanic students from the class of 2017 reported a 72% aspiration rate for a BA or higher, but only 6% are projected to meet that goal.  African American students are the least likely to get a BA, with only 5% of students obtaining one, although 70% of African America students reported that aspiration.

Figure 1 represents the number of students in the class of 2017 progressing through stages from high school to a 4-year college.  All calculations are based on a kindergarten “class” of 20 to ease interpretation.

Figure 1. College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students (4-year institutions)


Step 1. High school graduation: A high percentage of students graduate from Arkansas’ high schools, with 17.6 of a typical kindergarten class of 20 graduating high school in four years (88%).  High school graduation rates are somewhat lower for Hispanic and African American students, with 17.1 and 16.7 of 20 students graduating, respectively (85.7 and 83.4%). Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 2. Post-Secondary Aspirations: Between 15 and 14 of 20 high school students report aspiring to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher. Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 3. College-Going: Four-year college-going rates differ for the groups examined.  Out of the initial 20 student “class”, 5.6 students attend overall (48.2% of high school graduates).  Hispanic students had the lowest percentage of students attending a 4-year college with only 3.6 of the initial 20 students (39.5% of high school graduates).  African American students attended 4-year schools at a rate of 4.7 (40.3% of high school graduates). Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 4. Persistence: The percentage of college-going students that return for the second year of college is isn’t reported by student population, so we use the overall value reported in the recently released ACT report.  85% of students from the Class of 2017 persisted in year 2 at the in-state 4-year institutions.  Source: ACT High School to College Success Report – class of 2017-18 Freshman

Step 5. Completion: While many of us think of “4-year institutions” as taking 4 years to graduate from, colleges generally report a 150% (6 year) completion rate. The class of 2017 hasn’t had time to complete their degree, so we use the most recent data available to project their completion rates. The overall rate of 6 year completion was 45.8% for most recent cohort (started in 2013). The Hispanic student rate was 39.5% and African American completion rate was 25.6% (both for the cohort that started in 2012). Source: ADHE Comprehensive Reports.

As presented in Figure 1, a high percentage of students graduate from high school, with 17.6 of a typical kindergarten class of 20 graduating high school in four years.  High school graduation rates are somewhat lower for Hispanic and African American students, with 17.1 and 16.7 of 20 students graduating, respectively.  Between 15 and 14 high school students report aspiring to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher, but 4-year college-going rates differ for the groups.  Out of the initial 20 student “class”, 5.6 students attend overall, Hispanic students had the lowest percentage of students attending a 4-year college with only 3.6 of the initial 20 students.  African American students attended 4-year schools at a rate of 4.7 students.  The majority of students return for the second year of school, but then fail to complete their degree within six years.  Out of the initial 20 students in the “class”, just 2.2 students in the overall population, 1.2 Hispanic students, and 1 African American student are projected to obtain their degree in 6 years.

We know that 4-year college isn’t everyone’s goal, but there are A LOT of students that report wanting to get a degree.  We highlight the gap between the aspirations and the (projected) reality of getting a degree. For the Class of 2017, the difference between students that aspired to obtain a BA degree and those that actually do would be over 22,000 students.

Figure 2.  Four-Year College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students, difference between aspirations and projected degree completion highlighted

4year gap

We also examined the trends in 2-year college enrollment, based on the same 20 student kindergarten “class”.  High school graduation rates remain, but we can see that a much smaller percentage of students report aspiring to an associate’s degree or Voc/Tech training.  In fact, overall and for Hispanic and African American students, more students attend a 2-year school than had indicated that they wanted to, but the rates are very low. Note that Hispanic students are more likely to attend a two-year college than their peers, and are more likely to persist and obtain a 2-year degree in 3 years.

Figure 2.  Two-Year College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students


We have previously raised this issue of low college completion for Arkansas students (in 2016,  2017, and  2019), and increasing the percentage of Arkansas residents with a BA is an important driver for economic development in the state.  Over three years ago we wrote about the Closing the Gap 2020 strategic plan from Arkansas Department of Higher Education.  There have been increases in credentials awarded since the plan was implemented, but the increases are only about 1/10th of the targets identified in the report.  The new funding formula for higher education institutions rewards completion (instead of just enrollment), and early reports indicate that the funding formula may be contributing to increasing the 4-year completion rate. Hooray!

Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is providing additional resources to support students’ success while still in high school. The ADE is providing a College and Career Readiness Tool (CCR Tool) for Arkansas students in grades 8-12. Schools can select a provider from the approved list. We recommend that schools use these resources and that the state evaluate their effectiveness.  We need to know if the tools DESE is providing are helping students develop and achieve their goals.

We look forward to greater collaboration and communication between higher education and K-12.  We think that the more information a school has about its students, the better it can serve them. We think more integration between of these systems will lead to better outcomes for Arkansas students.

As students are looking toward to their next steps, we feel like they need to understand the obstacles that they may face in pursuit of a degree.  Parents and school personnel should discuss these challenges, but it would likely be more instructive to have students from the community who went to college (and did/ didn’t complete) share about their experience, challenges, and successes.  As shown by KIPP, Arkansas high schools can do more to support their students through college transition. Education doesn’t stop at graduation. We should do all we can to help students meet their aspirations!

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.