University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Freshman Grades Pack a Punch!

In The View from the OEP on December 15, 2021 at 11:47 am

As students are wrapping up the semester and teachers are assigning grades, we thought it would be a good time to share our new research about how freshman grades are related to student outcomes. You can read more in the full report or the shorter policy brief, but we will give you an overview here.

A lot of chatter has developed around high school GPAs being more indicative of future educational outcomes when compared to ACT or SAT scores. The thought is that GPAs measure more than just the cognitive skills it takes to show a high-test score—they reflect effort over an entire semester and the willingness to persevere. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research found high school GPAs to be five times stronger at predicting college graduation when compared to ACT scores. Further research found a student’s freshman year to be a pivotal academic point in their careers—freshman GPAs matter to predict a student’s future academic success.

Here at OEP, we conducted a similar study for Arkansas students from 2009-2019. We found freshman GPAs of Arkansas students are very influential even after controlling for student demographic characteristics:

  • A one-point gain in freshman GPA is associated with a six-percentage point increase in the likelihood of graduating high school and
  • A one-point gain in freshman GPA is associated with a 26-percentage point increase in the likelihood of college enrollment.

The thing about freshman GPAs is that they are malleable, and all subsequent high school GPA measures are built upon these first two semesters. Also it is important to understand that grades are subjective!  Individual teachers have wide latitude in the assignment that they give, how much they weight them, and calculating a final grade for a class. We find that freshman GPAs have increased by a half a point overall over the seven years examined, with more substantial increases for some student groups.

Average Freshman GPA by Class and Student Group

As freshman GPAs have increased, so have high school graduation rates with nearly 90% of Arkansas students graduating in four years. In our analytic sample (restricted to first-time freshmen that were still enrolled in twelfth grade) over 96% of the students graduated on time.  Interestingly, although Black students have the lowest freshman GPA, students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch are the least likely to graduate from high school.

High School Graduation Rates by Class and Student Group

Although nearly 90% of Arkansas students graduate high school, less than half of those that do go on to enroll in college the following year.  In our restricted analytic sample of only those students who graduated high school, only 55% of students enroll in college the following fall. There is substantial variation by student group.

College-Going Rates for High School Graduates, by Class and Student Group

You can read our full paper or policy brief for more details, but these findings should not be ignored by Arkansas administration. Not only do freshman GPAs matter for college enrollment and high school graduation, but being an FRL student in Arkansas is associated with the lowest educational outcomes. Students eligible for Free/ Reduced Lunch have higher freshman GPAs than Black students, but are consistently at the bottom of high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. To isolate the relationships between student characteristics, freshman GPA, and college-going, we conducted a multivariate regression and present the key findings below.

Multivariate Estimates for College-Going, Class of 2019

Our most important finding reflects how much freshman GPA matters when predicting college enrollment. Raising freshman GPA by one point is associated with a 26 percent increased likelihood of enrolling in college. When we hold freshman GPA constant, we find that Black students have an 11 percentage point greater likelihood of enrolling in college compared to white students. Conversely, FRL eligible students are consistently 15 percentage points less likely to enroll in college as non-FRL students with the same GPA.

So, what can Arkansas leaders do now that we know a student’s freshman year is pivotal in future academic success? The first step is increasing awareness about a student’s freshman year GPA. Informing school districts, teachers, parents and students about the importance of freshman GPA could help lead to better academic outcomes for all students.

Interventions should also be implemented in the state of Arkansas. One research-backed policy is the “no-zero” policy (Grading for Equity, Feldman, 2018). Under this policy, the lowest grade that a student can be assigned is a 50 as the typical 0-100 grading scale is not mathematically fair or an accurate reflection of a student’s learning. Arkansas could also develop and implement a research-driven state-wide early warning indicator system (Consortium on Chicago School Research) that monitors students’ attendance and grades. As the early warning indicator system is implemented, teacher PLC times can be focused on how to reach and help the students who have high absences or lower grades.

To support the long term success of FRL-eligible students, Arkansas teachers and administrators should focus on forming mentor relationships. These students have the highest risk of feeling that they don’t belong, but can develop their potential through a connection with an influential figure at school.

Lastly, college awareness opportunities should be implemented earlier in a student’s high school career. Freshman year is the perfect time for schools to host college and career information sessions for parents, students, and community members to familiarize them with future opportunities for their students. We urge Arkansas leaders and teachers to take action to help freshman students excel while noting the importance and weight of the freshman GPA. Simple measures like enacting a no-zero grading policy and building connections with lower scoring and high-absentee students could help more Arkansas students graduate from high school and enroll in college.

“Beating the Odds” even through COVID

In The View from the OEP on December 1, 2021 at 11:40 am

Today we share our final OEP awards for 2021, and discuss how (and why) our awards are different from the rewards given by the state.

We are so excited to release our “Beating the Odds” Outstanding Educational Performance Awards  for 2021!  These special OEP awards are for schools whose students are demonstrating high academic growth despite serving a population where at least 66% of the students participate in the Free/ Reduced Lunch Program, which is based on low household income.  Schools serving such student populations often struggle to obtain high academic achievement, but schools with high growth scores are helping students reach grade level goals.

Academic growth is less correlated with school poverty rates than achievement and we think it is a better reflection of how the school is impacting students. Growth is calculated at the student level, and essentially reflects how much a student has improved his or her score from the prior year compared to what was predicted based on prior achievement history. In the case of 2021 awards, student growth is calculated from the 2019 assessments. Especially this year, with the widespread decline in student achievement scores, growth helps us identify schools where students were learning more than expected, even through COVID. While poverty can negatively impact student success, the schools awarded today demonstrate that their students are “Beating the Odds”  The highlights are below, and you can read the full report here.

The OEP Awards highlight schools in Arkansas based on student growth on the ACT Aspire exams in Mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA). We choose to give OEP Awards based on student growth because we think it is the best indicator of how the school is impacting students’ learning.

Although school-level growth scores are much less related to the percentage of students at a school who are participating in Free/Reduced Lunch than achievement scores, a negative correlation does exist (-0.39).  This means that students at schools serving higher poverty populations are more likely than their peers at more affluent schools to demonstrate less academic growth than predicted. As can be seen in the scatter plot below, schools with higher FRL rates are more likely to receive lower growth scores.

Figure 1. Combined Content Growth Score by School % FRL, Arkansas Public Schools, 2021

If we limit the plot to only those schools with at least 66% of students participating in FRL, as presented in Figure 2, the relationship between poverty and growth decreases. Although all of these schools are serving high poverty populations, there is wide variation in the amount of academic growth that students at the schools are demonstrating.

Figure 2. Combined Content Growth Score by School % FRL, High-Poverty Arkansas Public Schools, 2021

We celebrate the state using this student-level growth model, and are pleased to be able to highlight how students are growing academically in schools across the state.  We hope that drawing attention to this growth information will spark discussions among stakeholders about the ways to ensure that all schools are growing the knowledge of Arkansas’ students.


“Beating the Odds” Elementary Level Schools

The top “Beating the Odds” elementary school overall is Weiner Elementary from Harrisburg School District.  Despite serving a student population that is 67% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch, Weiner Elementary students demonstrated the greatest growth in the state on the ACT Aspire out of all schools. Many of these top 10 Beating the Odds schools were also among the high growth elementary schools in the state, regardless of student demographics. The top 10 elementary schools that are beating the odds are:

  1. Weiner Elementary, Harrisburg SD (67% FRL)++
  2. George Elementary, Springdale SD (88% FRL)++
  3. John Tyson Elementary, Springdale SD (76% FRL)+++
  4. Monitor Elementary, Springdale SD (83% FRL)++
  5. Green Forest Elementary, Green Forest SD (87% FRL)++++
  6. Wickes Elementary, Cossatot River SD (81% FRL)
  7. King Elementary, Van Buren SD (77% FRL)
  8. Linda Childers Knapp Elementary, Springdale SD (90% FRL)
  9. Salem Elementary, Salem SD (69% FRL)+++
  10. Harp Elementary, Springdale SD (77% FRL)

+ indicates how many years a school was included in the top 10 BTO list since 2017

You can find the top BTO elementary schools by subject and region in the full report.


“Beating the Odds” Middle Level Schools

Helen Tyson Middle from Springdale School District is the top middle school beating the odds overall. Helen Tyson Middle serves a 6th-7th grade student population where 81% of students are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch, and 35% are English Learners. Helen Tyson Middle was eighth among the high growth middle schools in the state, regardless of student demographics.  The top 10 middle schools that are beating the odds are:

  1. Helen Tyson Middle, Springdale SD (81% FRL)+++
  2. Swifton Middle, Jackson Co. SD (71% FRL)++
  3. Cave City Middle, Cave City SD (78% FRL)
  4. Jessieville Middle, Jessieville SD (71% FRL)
  5. Decatur Middle, Decatur SD (81% FRL)
  6. Butterfield Trail Middle, Van Buren SD (68% FRL)++
  7. Nemo Vista Middle, Nemo Vista SD (71% FRL)
  8. Clarksville Middle, Clarksville SD (76% FRL)
  9. Atkins Middle, Atkins SD (68% FRL)++
  10. Star City Middle, Star City SD (72% FRL)

+ indicates how many years a school was included in the top 10 BTO list since 2017

You can find the top BTO middle schools by subject and region in the full report.


“Beating the Odds” High Schools

The top high school beating the odds is Arkansas Consolidated High- Harrisburg run by the Division of Youth Services School System. Despite serving a student population that is 100% eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch, and working to educate students in the juvenile justice system, it is also OEP’s top high growth high school in the state.  Arkansas Consolidated High School students are demonstrating that they can achieve at levels similar to students who come from higher income communities and traditional school settings. The top 10 high schools that are beating the odds are:

  1. Arkansas Consolidated High- Harrisburg, DYS (100% FRL)
  2. Danville High, Danville SD (77% FRL)+++
  3. Kingston High, Jasper SD (67% FRL)
  4. Arkansas Consolidated High- Dermott, DYS (100% FRL)
  5. Horatio High, Horatio SD (77% FRL)
  6. Jasper High, Jasper SD (67% FRL)++
  7. Decatur High, Decatur SD (71% FRL)++
  8. Oark High, Jasper SD (89% FRL)
  9. Highland High, Highland SD (71% FRL)
  10. KIPP Blytheville Collegiate High, KIPP Delta Public Schools (86% FRL)

+ indicates how many years a school was included in the top 10 BTO list since 2017

You can find the top BTO high schools by subject and region in the full report.

Congratulations to all the OEP “Beating the Odds” award winners!  Keep up the great work and we look forward to recognizing you again next year!


How are OEP awards different from the state rewards that were announced in November?

1) Part of the state rewards go to high-achieving schools, where a lot of students scored well on the state tests. These schools tend to serve a lower population of students facing academic risk factors poverty or second language acquisition.

  • OEP only awards schools for growth, because we think that it is a better reflection of how the school is impacting students.

2) The part of the state rewards that are awarded for growth use a different measure than the OEP awards.  The rewards program uses the growth value that also includes the progress being made in English language proficiency, a value called the combined value-added growth score. The difference between the values is inconsistent, with the content growth value higher for some schools and the combined value-added value higher for other schools.

  • OEP awards are based on improvement in the content areas of Mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) assessments only. 

3) The state rewards program for growth includes graduation rate for high schools.

  • OEP awards do not include graduation rate, and are based on improvement in the content areas of Mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) assessments only. We agree that graduation is important, but we don’t want to conflate student academic growth with obtaining high school credits.

4) The state rewards program rewards the top 10% of schools overall.

  • OEP awards are grouped by ESSA school level (Elementary, Middle, and High). We know that achievement and growth vary by school level and are concerned that middle schools demonstrating relatively high growth are not being rewarded by the state. In fact, in 2021, no middle schools were recognized in the top 5% growth/grad awards by the state.  See a further discussion here.

The differences between the state rewards program and OEP awards are due to the fact that the state rewards are legislatively mandated, while here at OEP, we created an awards system that supports our passion for highlighting schools where students demonstrate Outstanding Educational Progress!  Oh, and we don’t send money- just paper certificates!

OEP Awards for High Schools: 2021

In The View from the OEP on November 17, 2021 at 11:00 am

This week, OEP is pleased to recognize High Schools demonstrating Outstanding Educational Performance. OEP awards are different than other awards because we focus solely on student academic growth. Unlike other indicators of school performance, academic growth is not very correlated with school demographics. This means it is reflective of what students are learning in school, not what challenges they may face due to out if school factors. Here at OEP, we choose to highlight student academic growth because we believe that it is the best reflection of the impact that a school is having on students’ academic success. 

Today’s OEP awards for High Growth High schools are based on the growth of students in schools categorized as High Schools on the ACT Aspire Math and English Language Arts assessments.

Highest Overall Growth: High School Level

The top high school for overall student growth is Arkansas Consolidated High in Harrisburg from the Division Of Youth Services School System, with an overall growth score of 86.65. Arkansas Consolidated High in Harrisburg also had the highest growth in ELA at 89.09. Arkansas Consolidated High in Dermott took the top spot for growth in math at 93.62.


The 20 high schools with the highest overall content growth are:

  • Arkansas Consolidated High in Harrisburg, DYS (100% FRL)
  • Haas Hall Bentonville, Haas Hall Academy (2% FRL)***
  • Marmaduke High, Marmaduke SD (44% FRL)*
  • Danville High, Danville SD (77% FRL)***
  • Kingston High, Jasper SD (67% FRL)*
  • Haas Hall Academy at the Lane, Haas Hall Academy (9% FRL)**
  • Arkansas Consolidated High in Demott, DYS (100% FRL)
  • Haas Hall Jones Center, Haas Hall Academy (12% FRL)
  • Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy High, Responsive Ed. Solutions (5% FRL)*
  • Horatio High, Horatio SD (77% FRL)
  • Jasper High, Jasper SD (67% FRL)
  • Bradley High, Emerson-Taylor-Bradley SD (44% FRL)
  • Dardanelle High, Dardanelle SD (64% FRL)
  • Greenwood Freshman Center, Greenwood SD (32% FRL)*
  • Arkansas School for the Blind HS, Arkansas School for the Blind (39% FRL)
  • Malvern High, Malvern SD (64% FRL)
  • Haas Hall Academy, Haas Hall Academy (6% FRL)***
  • Quitman High, Quitman SD (49% FRL)*
  • eStem High, eStem Public Charter School (45% FRL)*
  • Concord High, Concord SD (64% FRL)*

*Asterisks indicate schools that have been in the top 20 for overall growth in prior years.

Four of these top 20 schools have been on our list every year since 2017, and eleven have been our top 20 list at least once before, demonstrating that high growth can be achieved year after year.  We also like how five of the schools on the list are newcomers- showing that growth scores can change over time. These schools, and others included in the full report, are growing student’s academic performance more than would be expected. Way to go!

It is important to note that very few students were assessed in some of the Top 20 schools, so the growth score is reflective of the performance of just a few students. In prior years, we limited our awards to those with at least 20 students, but this year we felt that it was important to recognize the achievement of these very small schools! Especially since, as shown in Figure 1, there is essentially no correlation between the number of students assessed and growth values (R= 0.5).

Figure 1: 2021 Math Growth Score and Number of Students Assessed

Four of these top 20 schools have been on our list every year since 2017, and eleven have been our top 20 list at least once before, demonstrating that high growth can be achieved year after year.  We also like how five of the schools on the list are newcomers- showing that growth scores can change over time. These schools, and others included in the full report, are growing student’s academic performance more than would be expected. Way to go! Similar to last year’s list, a variety of schools have shown high growth when observed through the lens of the percentage of students served Free/Reduced Lunch, indicating enrollment of students from lower income families. The proportion of students eligible for FRL among these high-growth schools ranges from a low of 2% to a high of 100%, reflecting that students can demonstrate high growth in all types of schools! As shown in Figure 1, high school academic growth is not very correlated with school poverty rates (R= -0.3).

Figure 2: 2021 Growth Score and % FRL, High School Level Schools

You can find the high schools with the greatest student growth by subject and region in the full report.  You can check out the growth ranking of all middle level schools in the downloadable datafile. We give OEP awards for high growth overall as well as for Math and ELA growth individually.  We recognize the highest growth schools by school level (elementary, middle, and high) and by region of the state.

The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education recently released performance data for all public schools in the state.  We created a statewide data visualization for you to explore the relationships between school poverty, academic growth, weighted achievement, and school quality.

For OEP awards, we use the purest measure of academic growth (referred to as Combined Content Growth Score) which includes growth for Math and English Language Arts only.  We chose this growth value, that excludes English Learner Progress because on average, including the ELP progress slightly depresses the growth score for schools.

—————Stay tuned to learn about more OEP Award Winners!————–

Next week we will release the list of high growth schools serving high poverty populations, those who are “Beating the Odds!”