University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

These Schools are ‘Super Growers’!

In The View from the OEP on October 20, 2021 at 11:48 am

Last Friday, the Arkansas Department of Education released one of the most important pieces of data related to student learning: the value-added growth scores for schools.

The value-added growth scores are, in our opinion, the best evidence of how well a school is educating its students.  These scores measure how well a student performed based on how well they were expected to perform given their prior achievement on the ACT Aspire. You can check out the growth scores for your community on our database.

We love value-added growth because unlike achievement, growth scores are relatively uncorrelated with student demographic characteristics like gender, race/ethnicity, or, perhaps most importantly, poverty (as you can see in the figure below).

The especially great thing about the Value-Added growth score THIS year, is that it is immune to the statewide academic declines in student achievement from pre-COVID testing.  This is because students are compared to the typical statewide growth of students with similar prior academic achievement. In this case, even though most all students declined in achievement, average growth is still assigned 80 points, even if it was a decline from prior year performance.  So if students declined, but not as much as other similar students, the school is rewarded with a high growth score for that student.  This helps us because we can compare growth scores across time to determine which school are making significant progress in student learning.

The student-level growth scores are averaged at the school level, with a statewide average of 80. About half of the schools in the state showed above average student growth (not surprising, given that it is based on average growth for the state- that’s how math works….).

Value-added scores range from 60 to 90 with a standard deviation of 3.4, which makes it cumbersome to correctly interpret the magnitude of the differences between schools. A school value added score of 80 is average, while a score of 85.5 is in the top 10% in the state for Elementary schools even though it seems like just a few points higher. To make it easier to interpret differences in growth between schools, we assign statewide percentile ranks for growth on our database.

We are proponents of stakeholders using growth to examine how well students are learning. Here at OEP, we were interested in schools that have been in the top 10% of growth for multiple years because we recognize that persistent high academic growth is an indicator of a highly effective school.

There are twelve ‘super growers’: schools that have been on the top 10% of growth scores for their school types (Elementary, Middle, High) for the past five years. There were 7 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 4 high schools (about 1% of all schools).

Schools in the Top 10th Percentile of Growth since 2015-16

These ‘super growers’ are a diverse group of schools! In terms of the percentage of students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch, they range from 5% to 90%. The race/ethnicity of their student populations range from 4% to 89% non-white, up to 12% are English learners, and up to 15% receive special education services. Between 2 and 14% of students are identified as Gifted and Talented. Average teacher experience ranges from less than 2 to more than 15 years, and the student: teacher ratio ranges from 5 to 16 students per teacher. Average teacher salary ranges from $42,724 to $61,864. The majority of these ‘super growers’ are in northwest Arkansas, and represent 1% of all traditional public schools and 7% of all public charter schools in the state.

We also checked out the academic growth of students in specific populations for these schools and were delighted to find that for 2020-21, these schools had above-average growth for all groups in 98% of the cases where the subgroup included at least 10 students.

2020-21 Subgroup Growth for ‘Super Grower’ Schools *=<10 students

Why are these schools more likely to demonstrate fantastic student academic growth every year? Unfortunately, there likely isn’t a magic bullet. Haas Hall teachers are doing something for the students that is likely very different from what Linda Childers Knapp teachers are doing, but they are both helping their students grow academically. Likely it is a combination of things. We should be researching these ‘super growth’ schools, understand what makes them unique, and leads to these outcomes.

Even though they serve very different populations, these ‘super growers’ show all kids can grow! Check out how the students in your community are growing academically on our database.

Taking a long(er) look at proficiency change

In The View from the OEP on October 6, 2021 at 9:48 am

In anticipation of the release of growth scores later this month, we have been taking a look at the trends in 2-year changes in proficiency on the ACT Aspire assessments. We are looking at 2-year cohorts because the assessment wasn’t administered in 2020. We wanted to examine how 2-year proficiency changed historically, and how the 2019 to 2021 assessment data compares to the historical trends. For example, 3rd graders tested in 2016 were tested in 2018 when they were 5th graders, 3rd graders tested in 2017 were tested in 2019 when they were 5th graders, and (this is the important bit) 3rd graders tested in 2019 were tested in 2021 when they were 5th graders.

We examine the 2-year proficiency changes by subject for all grade cohorts with ACT Aspire data: 3rd to 5th; 4th to 6th; 5th to 7th; 6th to 8th; 7th to 9th; and 8th to 10th. Systemic differences in proficiency due to the assessment being more or less difficult for a particular grade level or subject area are addressed by keeping the grade cohort and subject areas constant.

Consider, for example, the 2-year change in reading proficiency as students move from 3rd to 5th grade. Statewide data presented below show that from 2016 to 2018, students’ reading proficiency increased from 35% proficient when they were in 3rd grade to 38% proficient when they were in 5th grade. This 4 percentage point gain was also evidenced with the next cohort; 3rd graders in 2017 that were 5th graders in 2019. For the most recent cohort however, 3rd graders in 2019 who were 5th graders in 2021, the reading proficiency rate dropped by 4 points. Only by looking at the prior 2-year change can we identify how unusual and substantial the decline in reading proficiency is for young students learning through the pandemic really was.

Grade GroupPercent Proficient
2016 & 2018
Percent Proficient
2017 & 2019
Percent Proficient
2019 & 2021
3rd grade &
5th grade
35 -> 38= +437 -> 41= +438 -> 34= -4

We acknowledge that these aren’t perfect cohorts, as there were some 3rd graders that moved away and some 5th graders that moved in, but our research found that over 92% of the students were consistent over two years.

The following charts display the statewide 2-year proficiency change by subject and grade cohort. We are displaying just the change values, but proficiency data are available on our website.

Statewide 2-Year Change in Reading Proficiency by Grade Cohort

The statewide 2-year change in reading by grade cohort is presented above. Overall, we see that students in the four youngest grade cohorts increased their reading proficiency over the 2-year time periods prior to the pandemic. Students in the cohort starting in 7th grade were less likely to increase their reading proficiency, and student reading proficiency consistently decreased for the 8th to 10th grade cohort. For students learning during COVID, however, decreases in reading proficiency rates were substantial. Students tested as 6th graders in 2019 and as 8th graders in 2021 were an exception, as the grade cohort who demonstrated gains in proficiency consistent with prior 6th to 8th grade student cohorts. The greatest decline in reading proficiency was 22 percentage points in reading proficiency for 8th to 10th grade students.

Statewide 2-Year Change in Math Proficiency by Grade Cohort

In math, students in all grade cohorts saw decreased levels of 2-year proficiency prior to the pandemic, but the declines were much greater from 2019 to 2021. For the youngest grade cohort, students tested in 3rd grade in 2019 and 5th grade in 2021, there was a 28 point decline in math proficiency, while the oldest grade cohort math proficiency rate declined 26 points.

Statewide 2-Year Change in English Proficiency by Grade Cohort

Statewide English proficiency rates generally increased or remained stable in the younger grade level cohorts in the years prior to the pandemic. For students in higher grades, however, significant declines in English proficiency were typical. For students learning during the pandemic, all groups saw reduced proficiency in English except for students tested in 5th grade in 2019 and 7th grade in 2021, who increased proficiency by 3 points. The greatest decline in English proficiency was 23 percentage points in reading proficiency for the 7th to 9th grade cohort.

Statewide 2-Year Change in Science Proficiency by Grade Cohort

Similar to English proficiency, science proficiency rates generally increased or remained stable in the younger grade level cohorts prior to the pandemic. For students in higher grades, however, significant declines in science proficiency were typical. For students learning during the pandemic, all groups saw reduced proficiency in science. The greatest decline in reading proficiency was 14 percentage points in reading proficiency for 8th to 10th grade students.

Our analysis of 2-year changes in statewide proficiency rates indicate that from 2019 to 2021 there was more learning loss in lower grades compared to historical trends, but not all districts experienced such significant declines. Here at OEP, we wanted to highlight districts where kids are consistently increasing proficiency rates over 2-year periods. This is an opportunity for districts to recognize the teachers that consistently move more students than expected to grade level over two years. We hope that this analysis will help districts identify areas of strength and opportunities for improvement.

Using 2-year proficiency change scores, we identified the top 10% of districts by grade group and subject. We found 35 districts that were consistently in the top 10% for 2016-18, 2017-19 and 2019-21 and have listed them in our latest data post.

For example, Woodlawn School District has been a top 10% district in math proficiency change from 5th to 7th grade in all three time periods. Math proficiency increased from 5th to 7th grade by 21 points in 2016-18, 11 points in 2017-19, and 17 points from 2019 to 21. Compared to the statewide declines of -1, -4, and -12, that consistent improvement is impressive! Woodlawn is also a top 10% district in ELA proficiency for 3rd to 5th grade.

We like to highlight student growth scores more than proficiency rates, but in this case they go hand in hand. With 6th and 7th grade math growth scores in the top 10% of the state for 2017-18 and 2018-19, students in Woodlawn are growing to proficiency!

Want to see how proficiency rates change for students in your district? Check out our interactive data viz. Just select the district and grade range you want to see! You can hover over the bars to get a snapshot of subject proficiency, and learn if your district is consistently in the top 10% for the grade range.

We encourage district leaders and other education stakeholders to reflect on these patterns of 2-year proficiency change for grade level cohorts, and consider opportunities for increasing student achievement consistently in all subjects and grades. If you would like to see this information at the school level, just reach out to us at and we’ll be happy to help!

Grade 11 ACT Scores

In The View from the OEP on September 29, 2021 at 11:06 am

This week we are digging into the grade 11 ACT scores from last spring. Statewide, scores dropped from 2019, which is similar to what we saw with the ACT Aspire scores for students in grades 3-10. 2020-21 was the fifth year that all Arkansas public school juniors were given the opportunity to take the ACT at their home school, during a regular school day, for free.

Arkansas is one of a small but growing number of states (currently 20) that offer all students free and accessible opportunities to sit for College Entrance Exams.  Although some colleges are moving away from requiring scores from such tests, the ACT is still a meaningful test for students and schools.  It is meaningful for students because it is still required to obtain scholarships like the Arkansas Academic Challenge (aka the lottery scholarship) as well as the Governor’s Scholarship which provide up to $14,000 and $40,000, respectively.  The ACT is also meaningful for schools because it is a part of how school quality is being measured in Arkansas.

In 2020, the average composite ACT score statewide declined 0.4 points (about 2%) from 2019 scores, after holding fairly constant since universal testing began in 2015-16. For reference, the national average ACT score is between 20 and 21. As presented below, the decline was evident across Black, Hispanic, and White students.

Average ACT Composite Score, by Race/Ethnicity, 2015-16 to 2020-21

There was variation among the subject tests in changes from 2019. In English, Black students held steady while White and Hispanic students declined slightly (-0.2 and -0.3 points, respectively). In reading, all student groups declined: Black -0.1, White -0.3, and Hispanic -0.5. In science, Black student gained 0.5 points, while other student groups held steady. In math, presented below, Hispanic students declined 0.4 points from the 2019 average, while Black students declined 0.1 and White students increased by 0.1.

Average ACT Mathematics Score, by Race/Ethnicity, 2018-19 and 2020-21

Another way that ACT scores are reported is the percentage of students that meet ACT Readiness Benchmarks. Students meeting these Benchmarks have a 50% chance of getting a “B” in a college class and a 75% change of getting a “C”. Only 12% of Arkansas 11th graders met the Readiness Benchmarks in all four content areas. The biggest decline in Readiness was in mathematics, where students were 5 percentage points less likely to meet the Benchmark than their peers 6 years ago.

Percentage of Arkansas Students Meeting ACT Readiness Benchmarks, 2015-16 to 2020-21

There are substantial differences in the likelihood of students meeting Readiness Benchmarks by demographic characteristics. For context, the table below compares Arkansas to the US in the percentage of student meeting the benchmarks in all four subject areas.

AR % US %
All Students1226

Administering the ACT to all juniors is wonderful policy, but just testing them doesn’t help them learn. Here at OEP, we wonder what schools are doing to help students demonstrate their learning on the ACT? Although Arkansas’s high school graduation rates are among the best in the country, the data from the ACT makes us wonder if we are really preparing Arkansas students for success after high school.

We’ve posted the data on our website and included change in scores so you can dig into it yourself and see how the students in your school or community score on this important assessment.