University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Treadmills, Assessments and Teacher Preparation.

In The View from the OEP on October 12, 2016 at 12:24 pm

When working with students, parents, teachers, and policy makers, we find that assessments and treadmills have a lot in common.

Folks have a tendency to lose sight of the appropriate use of assessments, and use them in ways that don’t fit.  This can lead to unintended consequences like focusing too much on proficiency or imagining that one test score is all we need to understand a successful school. Taylor Swift portrays this perfectly here when she loses focus on the treadmill and face plants!

Some people forget to use assessments at all.  Like the expensive treadmill sitting in the corner of the room with clothes hanging on it, educators invest valuable time in assessing students, but then may neglect to use the information collected to inform their teaching and support student learning.

Assessments are also like treadmills in that if you use them appropriately, they can have a big impact. A balanced assessment system can be like a whole home gym for a district, where frequent formative assessments, interim benchmark assessments, and summative assessments all focus on and strengthen different areas. In order for schools to ensure the success of all students, every school needs teachers who can interpret assessment results and take action based on accurate data.

man_on_treadmill-253x300.jpgYou can think of these teachers like ‘personal trainers’ who know how to use the assessments effectively and appropriately, and can help students, teachers and school leaders set goals and meet them.  Unfortunately, few colleges of education or K-12 school districts provide adequate hands-on training on the use of assessments in teaching.  We simply aren’t preparing teachers to use assessments effectively for student learning.

As states and districts begin to construct new, coherent assessment systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) incorporating multiple measures of student learning, it is crucial that educators at all levels understand how to appropriately select, use, analyze, and communicate about the results of those assessments. In the teacher preparation regulations released today the US Department of Education, assessment of student learning is included as a required part of rigorous teacher candidate exit qualifications. In short, educators will need to be assessment literate.

What is Assessment Literacy?

The National Task Force on Assessment Education today released a foundational definition of Assessment Literacy. It can be used to guide development of systems that use assessments appropriately and equitably to support teaching and learning.

The definition states:

“Assessment is the process of gathering information about student learning to inform education- related decisions. One becomes Assessment Literate by mastering basic principles of sound assessment practice, coming to believe strongly in their consistent, high-quality application in order to meet the diverse needs of all students, and acting assertively based on those values.”

Further, the definition identifies traits of an assessment literate person. He or she:

  • Understands the purpose of the assessment and how the results will be used
  • Uses the learning targets to dictate the appropriate assessments
  • Recognizes that valid results only come from quality assessments
  • Communicates clearly about assessment results to parents, students, and others
  • Creates an assessment process that motivates students and supports learning

“Those who face the challenges of developing and implementing state, local or classroom assessment systems are far better prepared to succeed if they bring to the task a foundation of understanding of the basic principles of sound assessment practice; that is, if they are assessment literate,” said Rick Stiggins, advisor to the Task Force and retired founder and CEO of the Assessment Training Institute. “Our Task Force has defined this to mean that they always are clear about why and what they will assess, how to assess it well, how to share results effectively, and how to use assessment to support and promote student learning success.”

Is it Truthful?  Is it Useful?

Assessments of student learning are important for tracking success and ensuring equity among student groups.  Students, parents, teachers, and policy makers need to be assessment literate so they can advocate for  valid and reliable assessments that provide truthful and useful information.  Teachers need to be assessment literate so they can model quality assessment practices in their own classrooms, and modify their instruction based on student needs.  Parents and policymakers are open to new and innovative ways to measure and report educational success, and assessment literate educators can advocating for quality assessments and demonstrate that using assessments appropriately makes a difference for students. Students, parents , educators and policy makers need to learn more about quality assessment and assessment literacy development so we don’t find ourselves with just a more advanced version of the treadmill sitting in the corner covered in laundry.


A Catastrophic Amount of Money

In The View from the OEP on October 5, 2016 at 12:57 pm

LakeView2House and Senate education committees recently recommended a $20 million increase in funding for special education.  The money would go to the “catastrophic” fund, which provides reimbursement to districts that are educating special needs students with extraordinarily high-cost services.  In Arkansas, after subtracting Medicaid, federal funding through the Individuals with Disabilities in Education (IDEA), and other 3rd party funds, districts can receive 100% reimbursement for up to $15,000, 80% for costs between $15,000 and $50,000, and 50% for costs between $50,000 and $100,000.  The number of students for whom districts request reimbursement has more than doubled in the past four years. Under 500 reimbursement requests were submitted in 2010-11, and over 1,100 were submitted in 2014-15. Districts are committing funds to educate their students, and increasingly requesting reimbursement from the state.  Although requests and expenditures have increased dramatically, state funding for reimbursement has remained stagnant, and only about a third of eligible expenses are currently reimbursed.  The recommendation by the House and Senate education committees provides additional funding to reimburse districts.

Special education advocates commonly call on the federal government to fully fund the program. The initial passage of special education legislation, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, in 1975, stated that the federal government would fund 40% of the state’s “excess costs” for students with disabilities.  The Council for Exceptional Children estimates that, in 2008, the funded amount is closer to 17%.  The unfunded cost of special education does not disappear, but is instead borne by the state and local districts.  The reauthorization of IDEA, in 2004, allowed the use of federal IDEA funds to be allocated to state catastrophic or extraordinary aid pools, such as the one in Arkansas.

Here at OEP, we applaud the recommendation to increase funding for special education students in Arkansas. It is clear that providing necessary funds for students with disabilities is important. The students receiving “catastrophic” funds are those with the most severe disabilities who require the most intensive services.  For policy purposes, however, we suggest thinking more strategically about how the state’s funding mechanism for special education can more effectively allocate money to so fewer districts need to request reimbursement in the first place.

Funding for Arkansas’ special education students is currently embedded in the funding matrix, which assumes all schools have the same special education demands. Data show wide variation, however, between in the number and severity of special education students being served in Arkansas school districts.  Instead of providing funding through a model that assumes, incorrectly, all needs are the same, we suggest funding based on the needs of the students actually enrolled in the school.  Such a differentiated student-based allocation would ensure that special education funds are spent on the students for whom they were intended, and decrease the need for reimbursement though catastrophic funding.

Although additional money may soon be available if approved by the Legislature, the reimbursement-based nature of the catastrophic funding may work against small, rural, and poor schools. The financial burden of providing extensive resources (hoping they may be reimbursed) combined with the amount of time, effort, and expertise needed to submit the paperwork to receive the reimbursement may be more difficult for these schools.  Creating a funding model for special education based on the actual data about student needs would more effectively provide schools with the resources they need, and reduce the need for the state to further increase catastrophic funding.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is…Academic Guarantees and College Remediation

In The View from the OEP on September 28, 2016 at 12:58 pm


In our latest policy brief, summarized below, we examine options for reducing college remediation rates, including a public school district’s offering of an Academic Guarantee.

Last October, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education released Closing the Gap 2020, the state’s plan to increase the percentage of Arkansans earning a post-secondary credential or degree by 50% over the number earned in the 2013-14 academic year. Part of this plan includes reducing the percentage of students taking remedial courses at the college level.

Since 1988, Arkansas has required placement tests for all college-bound students in math, English, and reading. The most common placement test in Arkansas is the ACT. Students taking the ACT can score anywhere between 0 and 36. The national average ACT score in 2015 was a 21 and the average for Arkansas was a 20. Arkansas students must score a 19 to avoid remedial coursework.

College Remediation Needed

For the 2014-15 academic year, over 22,000 students enrolled for the first time at one of Arkansas’s post-secondary institutions. Just over 40% of these students were assigned to at least one remedial course (compared with 33% nationally). Remedial courses are often high school-level courses, yet the cost for students is the same as a typical college-level course.

Remediation not only hits students in their wallets, but also hinders their achievement and attainment. The ADHE states in Closing the Gap 2020, “Students requiring remediation pay more in tuition and are less likely to complete a credential…typically only 25-30% [of remediated students] successfully enroll in and pass the college-level course required upon completion of remediation.” With this in mind, it comes as no surprise Arkansas would like to reduce college remediation. However, decreasing the number of students who qualify for remediation is not just a post-secondary issue. It will take a devoted effort at the K12 and post-secondary levels.

An Academic Guarantee

There are a variety of policies Arkansas’s schools could implement, but Rogers Public Schools has implemented an “Academic Guarantee” since 2004. Rogers’ policy guarantees all of its graduates are academically prepared for college-level coursework. If a graduate is required to enroll in remedial courses after being admitted to college, the district will reimburse the full cost of tuition for said courses, pending students meet a list of requirements. No students have taken advantage of the policy yet.

According to the ADHE’s remediation report, Rogers Schools graduated 1,048 students in the class of 2014, with 457 enrolling in college in Arkansas, and 178 students enrolling in at least one remedial course. Using the average cost of tuition at the state’s 2- and 4-year institutions, we calculated the range of the potential cost of reimbursement to Rogers Schools, finding the district would have paid between $42,389 if all remediated students attended 2-year institutions and $88,645 if all attended 4-year institutions. In the brief, we also include the hypothetical cost of remediation reimbursement for 16 other districts in the state along with a projection of potential costs over the next five years. We show that a policy like Rogers’ implemented in other districts could come at a pretty high cost and these costs would vary quite a bit across the state. Because of this, it seems like a difficult policy to implement statewide.

However, would we even a want a statewide “Academic Guarantee”? Recognizing the potential costs could lead districts to council potentially remediated students away from post-secondary education or to less expensive schools. Also, with Arkansas’s new policy of paying for all juniors to take the ACT, schools could start encouraging students to attempt the ACT multiple times to avoid remediation by improving their scores above the remedial cutoff. Research from the ACT suggests students who take the test multiple times are likely to see higher scores, which is improved test-taking skills rather than academic preparation.

Need Multiple Measures

Districts could try to find ways to avoid paying for remedial courses if a statewide academic guarantee were to be implemented, but the real issue lies at the heart of the remediation policy itself. Currently, test performance is the only tool used to determine course placement and potential future success. This is a decision the ACT itself does not support, instead suggesting a multi-dimensional approach that goes beyond test scores. Research from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, shows that using multiple measures such as high school GPA alongside standardized test scores could reduce incorrectly placing students in remedial courses by 15 percent.

Arkansas has too many students entering college unprepared for the rigors of college-level coursework, but some of them may be incorrectly placed into remedial coursework. This forces students who could be successful in college to clear unnecessary hurdles and decreases their chances of earning a college degree. Simply using a more holistic evaluation of students’ skills could help Arkansas reach its post-secondary achievement goals. We could ask other districts to emulate Rogers, but we should start by revisiting the college course placement policy.