University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

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An Arkansas Perspective: National Thoughts on School Reform

In The View from the OEP on August 16, 2017 at 1:00 pm


This week, the education journal, Education Next, released its annual poll examining attitudes toward major issues in K-12 education.  The poll surveyed more than 4,200 respondents (a nationally-representative sample), covered 10 main topics, and compared the results with those of prior years. There is a lot to examine in the survey results, but we wanted to give you a quick overview and put the results in an Arkansas context.

EdNext Asked: How good are schools and teachers?

  • The majority of respondents would give the public schools in their community a grade of “A” (14%) or “B” (40%). Respondents were less positive regarding public schools in the nation as a whole, however, only 2% would give schools an “A” and 21% would assign them a “B”. A small percentage of respondents felt that schools were failing, with only 5% grading local schools with an “F” and only 6% assigning an “F” to schools nationally.
  • The majority of respondents think more than half of the teachers in their local schools are “Excellent” (25%) or “Good” (33%). Twenty-eight percent of teacher were perceived as “Satisfactory” and 15% were seen as “Unsatisfactory”.  Interestingly, even respondents who were teachers reported 11% of teachers in the local schools were “Unsatisfactory”.

Arkansas perspective: A-F grades for schools in Arkansas haven’t been assigned since 2015, when 1% of schools received an “A” grade and 21% received a “B”.  School grades will be assigned again this spring and (of course!) OEP will keep you updated! Arkansas has implemented a teacher evaluation system called the TESS system, which has a focus of teacher improvement.  We were unable to locate any information on the percentage of Arkansas teachers who were rated Unsatisfactory based on TESS (hopefully this sort of information will be made available in the future).


EdNext Asked: Are we spending the right amount on schools and teachers?

  • Respondents underestimated annual per-pupil funding in their local district by over $4,000 (30% less than actual funding of $12,899) and 62% reported being unsure about their answer.  A majority (54%) felt that funding for public schools should increase, but once informed about actual spending in their district, only 39% supported increasing funding, while 49% felt that is should stay the same.
  • Respondents also underestimated annual average teacher salaries in their local district by over $17,000 (30% less than actual salary of $58,258) and 48% reported being unsure about their answer.  A majority (61%) felt that teacher salaries should increase, but once informed about actual teacher salaries in their state, only 36% supported increasing salaries, while 56% felt teacher salaries should stay about the same.

Arkansas perspective: Arkansas per pupil funding from all sources was $11,334 in 2015-16, and has increased consistently since 2001.  A recent report by OEP shows that school funding has increased to near the national average (adjusted for cost of living) and surpasses the average of the other states in this region.  Annual average teacher salaries in Arkansas are $48,752, (you can check for your district here). Furthermore, OEP will soon be releasing a new report on how Arkansas teacher salaries salaries compare to other states and differ throughout the state and compare to other states and the nation (this is an update to our 2010 Arkansas Education Report on this same topic).


EdNext Asked: Should schools have common standards and required assessments?

  • Although 38% of respondents oppose the use of ‘Common Core’ standards, 61% support the idea of standards that are the same across the states (ha!). The level of support for consistent standards nationwide is up 5 percentage points from the 2016 results and 20% of respondents neither supported or opposed common standards.
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents support annual testing of students in grade 3-8 and high school in reading and math and oppose letting parents “opt-out” of testing requirements. Support for testing holds even for younger students: over half of the respondents supported testing of early reading and math skills in publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs.

Arkansas perspective: Arkansas has developed Arkansas standards for learning based on reviewing and improving the Common Core State Standards. In a 2015 survey of Arkansas teachers, 61% reported that they would keep the Common Core standards and 92% felt that they were more rigorous than Arkansas’ previous standards. Arkansas requires that all students attending public school participate in the statewide assessment program.


EdNext Asked: Do parents want their children to go to college?

  • Only 11% of respondents would not want their child to earn a degree after high school.  Twenty-two percent would prefer a two-year degree from community college, and 67% want a four-year degree from a university.  This percentage remains consistent when earnings and cost information are provided.

Arkansas perspective: While we don’t know what percentage of Arkansas families want their student to attend college, we do know that only 50% of high school graduates attend college in state.  Our recent blog highlights how many students go, how many need to be remediated because they don’t have the skills to succeed, and how many will actually graduate based on trends.


EdNext Asked: Are opinions about school choice changing?

  • Charter schools are public schools that are not managed by local school boards, are expected to meet promised objectives, held to the same accountability requirements as all public schools, but are exempt from many state regulations. Support for charter schools dropped by 12 percentage points between 2016 and 2017. In 2016, 51% of respondents said they supported “the formation of charter schools” while in 2017 only 39% of respondents indicated support.  Overall, 25% of respondents neither supported or opposed the formation of charter schools.
  • Questions regarding tuition support for families choosing to send their student to private school reflected declining opposition.  More than half of the respondents (54%) supported tax-credit funded scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools. Support is somewhat lower (45%) for ‘voucher’ programs, which allow families to use government funds to help pay private school tuition.  The level of support for these programs is consistent with the 2016 results, but the percentage opposed declined. Overall, 21% of respondents neither supported or opposed the use of a tax credit to support low-income student tuition at a private school, and 18% neither supported or opposed vouchers programs.
  • Allowing parents to homeschool their children was supported by 45% of respondents. Over half (53%) supported requiring districts to give approval, and 72% support the requirement that families notify their local district of their decision.

Arkansas perspective: Charter schools remain a contentious issue in Arkansas, especially in the Little Rock Area. Arkansas has fewer charter schools than many states, with only  24 open-enrollment charter schools currently or charter school systems in operation. Arkansas Code Annotated 6-23-304 sets a loose cap on the the number of open-enrollment charter schools resulting in a state cap of no more than 29 total charter schools for the 2018-19 school year.  A proposal to allow parents to open tax-exempt savings accounts to defray private education tuition, as well as give tax credits for donations to nonprofits managing the accounts was defeated in the Arkansas House in 2017. Arkansas now has a tuition voucher program for students in special education to use at authorized private schools.  In Arkansas, parents or legal guardians who choose to provide a home school for their children are required by law to notify the superintendent of their local school district each year. According to the Arkansas Department of Education, 3.9% of Arkansas’ public school population were homeschooled in 2015-16.

National perspectives on education like those presented in the EdNext poll are interesting, but education policy is generally set at the state or local level.  We thought it was helpful to compare the national results to what is happening in Arkansas. If you would like to read more about the national perspectives, you can go here, and if you would like to know more about what is happening in education in Arkansas- you are already where you need to be!

School Supply List: Bring Your Own TP?

In The View from the OEP on August 9, 2017 at 10:47 am


Across the country and throughout Arkansas, parents and their students are wandering through school supply aisles looking for items listed on the school supply lists shared by their local public schools. What are parents expected to purchase and how much will these supplies cost?

School supply lists have been around for a long time.  As a child, picking out new folders, freshly sharpened pencils, a new box of crayons, and a backpack to put them in whispered promises of an exciting year full of learning and fun. As a teacher, tweaking the supply list from the prior year meant re-imagining how well the colored-folder system would work and how those index cards were finally going to be put to good use. Parents, however, might view this task quite differently.

Hunting through crowded aisles for the specified “one red folder with 3 prongs, one purple folder with 2 pockets, one orange folder with 3 prongs AND two pockets…” is not fun, efficient, or equitable for students and their families.


So this got us thinking- what is the deal with these school supply lists? Most schools in the state have the school supply lists for grades K-8 posted somewhere on their website, so we took a look at a sample, and here’s that we found.

Some schools don’t ask for anything.  We found a handful of schools and districts that do not request anything.  These schools stated that the school will provide what students need to learn. Way to go!!

The school supplies listed will cost between $40 and $160.   We found no consistent pattern by grade level: Kindergarten wasn’t more expensive than junior high, and no direct relationship with the level of poverty of students in the school. In some districts, like Bentonville, the lists are consistent by grade level for all schools across the district but in the majority of districts, the items listed for second grade at one school are different from those for second grade at another school.

School lists can be maddeningly specific.  Five folders with specific colors and specific numbers of pockets/ prongs. In one grade mechanical pencils are listed, while other times they are specifically banned. Many school lists were VERY specific about even the BRAND of supplies.  Schools requested “2 packages of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and one pair of Friskars scissors”.  Ticonderoga pencils are great, but they are also WAY more expensive than non-Ticonderoga pencils.  For example: Ticonderoga pencils are $2.24 a dozen, while the store brand is $0.75 for a dozen. Five bucks for a couple dozen pencils may not seem like too big an ask for a year of learning, but surely there are families attending your school who don’t have the extra money to spend on brand-name pencils, particularly if the pencils are, as noted on many lists, going into the ‘community supplies’ for the classroom.

“Please do not put names on any of the supplies. All supplies will be collected by the teacher to be used by the class as needed.”


The listed quantities aren’t available.  You can’t buy just one Dry Erase Marker or the requested one pack of post-it-notes, and glue sticks come in packs of 2 or 4, not 7. So we end up getting a four-pack of dry erase markers, a six pack of post-it-notes, an extra glue stick.  Maybe you are buying supplies for more than one student and the other list also includes a dry erase marker.  Lucky you!  In isolation, this may seem like not a big deal, but it adds up!

The variety of ‘needed’ items is expanding. In addition to the standard pencils, paper, crayons, and folders, many lists include some new ‘Tech’ items.  Headphones, earbuds and flashdrives are listed often, and while we support schools using technology to support student learning, these items are among the priciest items on the lists at $6 or $7 dollars each!  Graphing calculators often appear on the supply lists at middle school and higher, and at $100 each, these are a significant cost for families.

Most school supply lists include some non-instructional items as well: boxes of Kleenex ($1.50), bottles of hand sanitizer ($2), Clorox wipes ($4), and Ziploc bags ($5) are the most common.

Why are schools so specific about the supplies?  It seems to us that many of the items listed may make the classroom easier to manage.  Ticonderoga pencils break less frequently, leading to less disruptions when students need to sharpen them. It is easier to see if everyone has their “red folder” out than their “Math Folder.” And each teacher has his/her own ideas about what students will need to learn best.

While we support teachers having what they need to teach and run their classes smoothly, we think there may be better ways to reach this goal.

Most importantly, the current school supply lists aren’t good for kids.  Think about how quickly the school supply list identifies the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our schools.  If a student’s family can’t afford to get the supplies requested by the school, he or she walks in the first day of school without the variety of colored folders and Ticonderoga pencils and immediately feels identified.  Even if the student was able to get one of the backpacks generously filled with school supplies by the community, they may not be the “right’ supplies for his/her classroom. This is not the way to start a school year.

But wait! If parents don’t provide these, then teachers have to buy them out of their own pocket- right?


This should not be the case.  In Arkansas, schools spend between $7,000 and $16,000 thousand dollars per student per year!  This is money provided to the districts by taxpayer dollars to support public education.  Districts should make providing the resources that students need, including Kleenex, a basic fiscal commitment.  Teachers, do you think your Superintendent buys supplies for his/her office out of pocket?

We didn’t find any school supply lists asking students to bring toilet paper, but it seems like that may be coming soon if we don’t change the expectation.


School Leaders:

We have some suggestions for options other than parents, individually, buying the 15 or so items on the schools supply list (and driving from one store to another looking for that purple folder with one pocket!).


  1. Think ahead and buy in bulk: It is ridiculous for parents/ guardians to be out trying to find the magic orange folder with three prongs and two pockets- if this is so important- order it for all the kids!  Ordering in bulk costs less, but schools should order the same quality supplies that teachers are requesting.
  2. Make Class Packs: These can be packed with the pre-ordered specifics for each class (maybe including a welcome note from the teacher) and purchased from the school.  Parents who still want to go to the store and get their own supplies can.  Students who qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch can be provided a pack free of charge.
  3. If you are going to ask, be general, have a short list and don’t dictate the brand.  And keep it to things the student is going to use themselves! The lists often indicate that the supplies parents are purchasing will be be put into a communal pool. We think it is fine to have communal supplies, but the school should buy them in bulk.
  4. Do not ask for non-instructional items.  Part of the tax dollars that the school gets goes to supplies and maintenance.  If the school district can’t figure out how to purchase tissue for the students, then they need to take a long hard look at where the money for supplies is going.  Maybe that instructional program that only one teacher uses and hasn’t shown any results for student learning can be non-renewed and the money can go toward supplies.
  5. Request a donation for school supplies for the year- we liked how eStem requested a relatively minimal  ($45) school supply fee.  Parents could pay this optional fee through an online portal or in person at open house. This allows the school to order in bulk and keeps it from impacting the kids in the classroom,  Seriously.  If you are the kid coming in the first day without any supplies- that STINKS.  Don’t put kids in that situation.  Be sensitive.
  6. Partner with your community.  Businesses and community organizations might be willing to provide materials for students to use throughout the year.  You need 100,000 pencils?  Maybe someone in your community can help.


In sum, if your school is requesting supplies, you may be creating a barrier to learning before school even begins.  Think this through, there has to be a better way for students to have the materials they need for a successful school year.  In the meantime, when classroom doors open next week, be sensitive to those students who don’t have a backpack full of listed supplies. They are coming to learn too.



FYI: Less than 50% of AR high school grads head to college, and less than half of those that do will get a degree

In The View from the OEP on August 2, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Students throughout the state are preparing for a new school year, and some students are experiencing two of the biggest changes: entering kindergarten or entering the first year of college!

Students entering Arkansas public school kindergarten classrooms this fall become the Graduating Class of 2030.  The parents of these young students will be dropping them off or loading them on buses in a few weeks and will be filled with tears and worries and hopes and dreams. Some parents might see this as the first step toward college, but given Arkansas’ current educational pipeline, it is unlikely that their student will receive a college degree.



Similar students entered kindergarten in the fall of 2003 becoming the Class of 2016, and a new report from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education allows us to consider the longer-term outcomes for these recent graduates. Last fall, 49.7% of the Class of 2016 entered a two- or four- year college in Arkansas.

Let’s follow the progress of the Class of 2016, given what we know about the educational pipeline in Arkansas.  Average class size in Arkansas is 16 students K-12, but kindergarten classes are limited to 20 students with one teacher.  This is a lower ratio than some surrounding states; Texas has a limit of 22 and Missouri is 25.

K class

In 2016, 87% of the expected Class of 2016 graduated from high school! Over 30,000 students received their high school diploma within four years of entering high school. For our illustrative kindergarten class- that means 17 of the initial 20 graduated!


This is great! Graduation rates differ somewhat by student demographics, but even if all the kindergarten students were academically at risk, 17 would still graduate on time given current rates.

According to the new report, 49.7% of those students enrolled in a two- or four-year college the following fall. Most go to a four-year college, but 1/3 go to two-year colleges.

For our kindergarten class- that is 8 students.

College Going

But these 8 students who have successfully graduated high school AND applied AND been accepted into college are not yet home free! According to data from Arkansas Department of Education, 57% of the college-going graduates needed to take a remedial course once they arrived at college because they did not meet the minimum score of 19 on the ACT math and/or reading.

For our kindergarten class – that is 4.6 out the 8 college-going students that would require remediation.

Remediation  rem2

Having to complete a remedial course is associated with decreased chances of graduating. Maybe because they are not free and no credit is awarded. Five of our 8 students are facing these increased challenges because they did not demonstrate being ‘college ready’ before leaving high school. Given current trends, half of remediated students will not return for a second year.

We see this when we apply the graduation rates from Arkansas colleges:  41% of incoming freshman graduate in 6 years from 4-year institutions and 27% of those who enter 2-year colleges graduates within 3 years.


These numbers indicate that  ONE in TEN Arkansas’ kindergarteners will successfully complete a four-year university in six years.

Essentially, 3 kids from each kindergarten classroom of 20 students (14.5% of our kindergarteners) will complete a college degree by the time they are 24.


That is depressing…. Are these data accurate?

Looking over the lists of Arkansas’ National Merit Scholars or Academic All Stars, we see that  many of out “best and brightest” high school graduates are headed out-of–state for college.  These students are not included in the ADHE college-going rate which only tracks graduates who attend in-state institutions.   Many other graduates may be going to school out-of-state as well, especially those from areas close to a bordering state. How many do that?  WE HAVE NO IDEA! 

But there is a way to find out!  National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is a non-profit that partners with colleges and universities that enroll over 98% of all higher education students in the country. Using this information, we could find out the ACTUAL percentage of Arkansas graduates attending college- including those who attend school outside of our borders. In addition, we can learn where our students are going and if they are graduating successfully.  While better data won’t directly help students graduate from college, they can help identify problem areas.

Something that MAY help Arkansas students graduate from college is the new method for funding colleges and universities. The change will start next July, and will be based on a school’s “productivity index”, which will reward schools for the number of degrees/credentials awarded.  In addition, high demand and STEM degrees earn more points for an institution, and additional points are earned for at-risk students such as those who are enrolled in a remedial course or are Hispanic or Black, or received federal student aid due to financial need.   While some are concerned that this change in funding might lead to a lowering of the bar for degrees, we are optimistic that it will help institutions become more student-focused and remove unnecessary barriers to success.

The K-12 system needs to focus on student success as well.  High school graduation rates in Arkansas are above the national average, but many of our students are still not prepared for success in post-secondary education. Over 57% of Arkansas students will need remediation to be successful in college English or math courses.  Hopefully the ACT Aspire assessments and statewide ACT exams for high school juniors will provide more opportunities for students, parents, and teachers to identify the level of readiness for college and careers, and enough information to provide needed instruction prior to college entrance.

Arkansas is nearly last in the nation in the percentage of adults with college degrees.  Arkansas’ 20.8% of adults with an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s degree is lower than that of all other states except West Virginia.  We need to do more to ensure that the Class of 2030 who are entering kindergarten this month will have a greater likelihood of obtaining a degree.

Northwest Arkansas Report Card 2016

In The View from the OEP on July 26, 2017 at 11:05 am


Today we are pleased to release the 2016 Northwest Arkansas Report Card, our annual look into standardized test performance, graduation rates, and all things K-12 in the NWA region. This report card provides a regional overview of districts in Benton and Washington counties as well as key performance indicators for each of the 15 traditional public school districts and 5 public charter schools.

How Are NWA Schools Doing?

Northwest Arkansas continues to lead the state in K-12 education. Students in Northwest Arkansas outperformed the state in Mathematics, English Language Arts, and Science on the 2015-16 state assessments, and preliminary results from 2016-17 reflect the same advantage.

Northwest Arkansas students scored 8 percentage points higher than the state overall on the ACT Aspire in 2015-16. Although the 2016-17 results are preliminary, improvement in student performance over 2015-16 results is present both statewide and for NWA. However, because these assessments are not widely administered across the country, we can’t know if students in Northwest Arkansas are performing better or worse than their peers in other states.


Percentage of Students Meeting/Exceeding Expectations


The Report Card presents a ‘district dashboard’ format that makes it easy for educators, school administrators, parents, and policymakers to see how school districts are performing. This year individual school data is included for the larger districts. Information includes key metrics about assessment results, student growth, graduation rates, student demographics, and financial indicators.



A concerning finding in our report involves differences in student performance between districts, with students in some districts being more likely to meet readiness benchmarks than those in other locations. When examining district performance, it is important, however, to consider the characteristics of the students served.

At Risk students (students who participate in the Free/Reduced Lunch Program, who receive special education services or who are identified as Limited English Proficient) face more challenges in achieving academic success than do students who are not at risk.

Arkansas has developed a new metric that should be less related to student demographic characteristics. The student growth model examines how students are growing academically. Measuring individual student growth over time provides a different perspective than measuring the percentage of students meeting readiness benchmarks at a specific point in time.

Although the Report Card uses official data from 2015-16, the preliminary ACT Aspire results from 2016-17 generally follow the same patterns reported here.

Highest Performance:

Three public charter schools had the highest performance in the region, with Haas Hall Fayetteville, Haas Hall Bentonville, and Northwest Arkansas Classical students reporting the highest proficiency rates in Mathematics, English Language Arts, and Science. Preliminary data from 2016-17 indicate that these three schools scored the highest in the most recent assessments as well.  In addition to high achievement, students at these schools also demonstrated the highest levels of student growth in the region.

Bentonville, Fayetteville, and Gravette were the highest performing traditional school districts, for both student achievement and student growth. In the preliminary results from 2016-17, Bentonville and Fayetteville still top the list for traditional public schools, but Farmington may have gained a slight advantage over Gravette.

Among districts where more than half of the students are identified as At Risk, Rogers, Gentry, and Siloam Springs reported the highest performance, while Springdale, West Fork, and Gentry students demonstrated the highest academic growth.

Graduation rates were highest at Arkansas Arts Academy, where 100% of students graduated, and at Farmington where 97% of the class of 2016 graduated on time.

Gains in 2016-17:

Although the Report Card uses official data from 2015-16, preliminary results from 2016-17 are available here, including calculations of improvement over prior year scores. All NWA districts made gains in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English Language Arts, and most also made gains or held steady in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in mathematics.

While there is much to celebrate about Northwest Arkansas schools, many students in Northwest Arkansas are not meeting academic expectations. Each of Northwest Arkansas’ schools must continue to seek to improve and provide high-quality learning environments for all students.

For more information about current education issues, check out OEP’s Policy Briefs and Blog.  The more we can share the good news and look for ways to improve, the better Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas will be.

We invite you to share this report card with anyone who might be curious about the state of education in our region.  If you want more information on schools in Northwest Arkansas or the state as a whole, head on over to our website, where you can dive into all of the publicly available data on school demographicstest scores, and finances.


ACT Aspire Results: A Primer

In The View from the OEP on July 19, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Last week, preliminary scores from the spring administration of the ACT Aspire were released by the ADE, and the news was good!

In today’s blog we highlight performance patterns by subject overall and by grade, to help put your district/ school results in context.


Before you start ‘digging in’ to your data, you need to be aware of what the results look like across the state.  Maybe that gain in ELA is amazing– or maybe it looks like nothing when compared with gains made by similar districts.  If you want to see more detailed school- and district- level information, both by grade level and OVERALL, you can find it on the OEP website here!

Overall, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding readiness benchmarks increased nearly 5 percentage points in English Language Arts, just over 4 percentage points in mathematics, and 2 percentage points in science.


ACT Aspire: Percentage of Arkansas Students Meeting/Exceeding Readiness Benchmarks, by Subject, 2015-16 and 2016-17

In English Language Arts, (a combination of English, Reading, and Writing scores) almost all grade levels saw over 50% of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks and all grade levels evidence gains in proficiency rates. The performance pattern was similar to 2015-16 results, with somewhat lower ELA proficiency rates in the lower grades.  Here at OEP we advise you to use CAUTION when examining the sub-scores that make up ELA proficiency.  The HUGE gains in the writing domain in some grades may or may not be the result of changes in instructional practice at your school. We are limiting this analysis to ELA overall. 

ELA highlights:

  • 6th grade reported the highest ELA proficiency rate at 62%
  • 4th grade saw the largest gain from prior year: the increase of 8 percentage points was driven by a large increase in writing scores (+19)
  • 3rd grade ELA scores continue to be the lowest with only 41% of students meeting benchmarks
  • 3rd grade ELA proficiency rates increased less than other grade levels across the state and this was the only grade level whose writing scores decreased from the prior year




ACT Aspire ELA: Percentage of Arkansas Students Meeting/Exceeding Readiness Benchmarks by Grade, 2015-16 and 2016-17


In Mathematics about half of the grade levels saw over 50% of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks and all grade levels evidenced gains in proficiency rates. The performance pattern was similar to 2015-16 results, with much lower mathematics proficiency rates in the upper grades.

Math highlights:

  • 6th grade reported the highest mathematics proficiency rate at 62%
  • 6th grade also saw the largest gain from prior year with an increase of 7 percentage points
  • 10th grade math scores continue to be the lowest with only 25% of students meeting benchmarks
  • 4th grade math proficiency rates increased less than other grade levels across the state

ACT Aspire Mathematics: Percentage of Arkansas Students Meeting/Exceeding Readiness Benchmarks by Grade, 2015-16 and 2016-17


In Science no grade levels saw over 50% of students meeting or exceeding readiness benchmarks, but nearly all grade levels evidenced gains in proficiency rates. The performance pattern was similar to 2015-16 results, with moderate proficiency rates in all grades.

Science highlights:

  • 6th grade reported the highest mathematics proficiency rate at 49%
  • 9th grade also saw the largest gain from prior year with an increase of 5 percentage points
  • 9th grade math scores continue to be the lowest with only 32% of students meeting benchmarks
  • 6th grade science proficiency rates decreased 3 percentage points from the prior year

ACT Aspire Science: Percentage of Arkansas Students Meeting/Exceeding Readiness Benchmarks by Grade, 2015-16 and 2016-17


What types of districts made the biggest gains?

Across districts, gains were fairly consistent regardless of prior year performance.  The scatterplot below illustrates the percentage of students meeting or exceeding ELA and math readiness benchmarks by district for 2015-16 and 2016-17. The correlation with prior year performance is very strong for both content areas.




So- what are the big takeaways from the preliminary ACT Aspire results? 

  • Performance is UP over prior year!
  • Increases are consistent across grade levels and subject areas (with few exceptions).
  • Increases are fairly consistent across districts.

This is all good news, and the first consistent measure we have had in several years!  Although proficiency rates are still lower than we would like to see, they are moving in the right direction and the assessment seems to be stable across years!

As you dig in to your data, celebrate the successes of students in your districts /schools, look for areas where you can continue to improve – and remember to put these results in context!

Stay tuned for more info from OEP!



If we are closing, students need better

In The View from the OEP on May 31, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Here’s a question: Do charter schools have to be performing better than similar traditional schools to remain open, or can performing similarly be sufficient grounds for the state to let schools retain their charter?

Yesterday, the State Board answered this question for one Little Rock charter school, overturning the Charter Authorizing Panel’s recommendation to revoke Covenant Keeper’s charter.

Covenant Keepers is a charter school in Southwest Little Rock, that served 171 students in grades 6-8 during the 2015-16 school year. The student enrollment is representative of the community: 57% African American, 42% Hispanic, 32% English Language Learners and 98% low-income.   You may remember that the school has been classified as in Academic Distress for having a 3-yr average of fewer than 50% of students meeting expectations on state assessments. In April, the Charter Authorizing Panel recommended that the school’s charter be revoked, although a three-year renewal had been granted last year.

Earlier this month, the SBE decided to review the recommendation to revoke Covenant Keepers charter.  The special meeting was set, and yesterday OEP had the opportunity to present on the academic performance of Covenant Keepers.  Proficiency rates at the school are low, but we feel it is important to compare the performance of similar schools.  OEP compared Covenant Keeper’s academic performance to the other traditional middle schools in the area which enroll students with similar demographics: Mabelvale, Cloverdale, and Henderson. Overall, we found that all of the schools examined have performed similarly in terms of proficiency since Covenant Keepers opened in 2008-09.  In terms of  Value-Added growth, Covenant Keepers had the highest scores in 2015-16, although data were inconsistent over the three years available.


So here’s the question- is similar good enough?

Although there were other issues in play, including some fiscal and governance issues, the academic performance of the school was a primary concern.  State Board member Jay Barth pointed out that regardless of other issues,

“We’ve got to be clear that how we evaluate whether schools are in or out of academic distress… is about proficiency.  Nobody at this table loves that as the way to gauge that, and we are changing it, and we are going to begin taking growth into account, but that is the ruler by which all schools are evaluated in the state and this school has consistently failed to meet that.”  

He continued, “I know some of that is unquestionably the student population that Covenant Keepers serves, but other school do serve very similar student populations and do reach achieving status.”  Here at OEP we appreciate Dr. Barth’s willingness to acknowledge the limitation of a straight proficiency based model, the current rules, and his desire to ensure that Arkansas students are attending a high-quality school.

Board member Fitz Hill responded to Barth by saying,

“At the end of the day, student learning is why we are all serving on this board. But if we close this school, can you say with good clarity that these students are going to be placed in a high academic achieving classroom by August?” 

After Barth replied that he could not, Hill continued,

If we close the school we need to know exactly where those babies are going, who is going to teach them. Always, if we are closing, they need better…If they aren’t getting ‘better’, we haven’t helped the situation.”

Yes, Dr. Hill.  Exactly.  Here’s the thing- the students attending Covenant Keepers, who likely attended LRSD school before Covenant Keepers, have no other real options than to attend the traditional public schools that they are zoned for (Mabelvale, Cloverdale, and Henderson) which are similarly.  The difference is that Southwest Little Rock parents are CHOOSING to send their students to Covenant Keepers.  And here at the OEP, we think that allowing parents to have a choice, is good for kids and families, even if the school’s test scores are just the same.

The SBE voted unanimously to not revoke Covenant Keepers charter!  Congratulations to the SBE for carefully considering the information, weighing the options, and making the right choice for students in Southwest Little Rock.






Your Feedback is SOOO Important!

In The View from the OEP on May 24, 2017 at 12:51 pm

While most schools in Arkansas are winding down for summer break, here at the OEP we encourage all educators to give their feedback on an important plan that will impact the future of education in the state.

The ESSA Accountability Plan (draft #2) Feedback Due by June 23rd.

Seriously- read it and give your feedback.  This new draft includes details about school accountability models, including:

Long Term Goals of 90% achieving or exceeding grade level proficiency and 94% 4-year high school graduation rate and 97% for 5-year graduation rate.  The timeline for these goals is 12 years – that’s 2020 folks!


School Performance Rating that will consist of the following indicators:

  • Weighted Achievement (100 points possible with up to 25 extra possible points) Using Weighted Achievement for the academic indicator in the School Performance Rating honors stakeholder concerns that students at the upper end of the continuum of achievement (higher performers) are valued in the system so that schools will attend to their learning needs
  •  School Growth (100 possible points) Using Arkansas’ Value-Added Model
  •  English Learner progress to English Language Proficiency (100 possible points) Arkansas will transition this in
  •  Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (100 points possible each)
    • 4‐year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate
    • 5‐year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate
  • School Quality and Student Success (100 possible points)


The ESSA Plan draft also includes a cool mockup of a Performance Report Dashboard (see below)!



Although each of the 5 areas is worth 100 points, some areas are weighted more heavily than others, and we are SO EXCITED to see that growth is weighted more heavily than proficiency/ achievement.  Here’s how the percentages would work, and note the differences based on ELL population size- if you have fewer than 15 ELL students, those points move to another area:

o1 ratings

The Minimum N size is 15 (this is down from the prior minimum N of 25).  Minimum N indicates how many students have to be in a subgroup for that group to ‘count’ in school accountability.  A lot of data was examined to determine the ‘best’ N size. In the past, larger schools were held accountable for more student groups, while smaller schools often didn’t have 25 students in many groups and so were not. With a minimum N of 15, more schools will be reporting performance for various student groups, and as you can see in the table below, at least 90% of students from all groups will be included in the school performance calculations.

Min N Students

Interim Progress Measures:  The ADE used prior year trends from 2005 to 2013 for evidence of realistic rates of improvement based on Arkansas’s population of students and previous school improvement efforts. Instead of making up interim targets that ‘sound good’, the new targets are based on ACTUAL previous school improvement.  While I may WANT to get to 100% proficient in one year, historical trends indicate that most schools improved about 3-4 percentage points in ELA and Math each year.  AND- get this- they aren’t yearly targets that schools must meet- but rather 3-year checkpoints to give schools feedback about it they are on track for meeting the 12 year goal.

Other Indicators of School Quality vary by grade span as presented in the table below, but include chronic absenteeism, percent Reading Ready by grade 3, percent Science Ready in Middle Schools, and percent of graduates with one or more AP/IB/Concurrent credits earned.

5th Indicators

Schools that aren’t on track aren’t ‘in trouble’- the idea is to give feedback, but some schools will be targeted for support.  The lowest 5% based on the school performance rating by grade span will be identified for the first time in 2018-19 and will get support for three years. After three years, new schools will be identified.

ADE is asking stakeholders for specific feedback on the following questions during the draft plan review period:

  1. Do stakeholders want ADE to create a “watch” category or “alert” category for schools that are just above the bottom 5% cutoff?
  2. For schools in the next 5%, should ADE notify LEAs of schools that are in this position/rank above 5% through 10% to empower districts to provide preventative support?

Please give your feedback to ADE by June 23rd! We need educator voices to be included If you have questions about aspects of the plan, or thoughts you would like to share- please comment below or email us at!


School Discipline in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on May 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm



While many of us laugh at Bart’s chalkboard trials, discipline in schools has been raising concerns nationally.  Today’s Policy Brief examines trends in school discipline in Arkansas. In response to concerns about disparities in discipline outcomes and the impact school discipline has on student achievement, Arkansas passed Act 1329 in 2013. State policymakers recognized that lost instructional time contributes to poor student performance and that disciplinary measures that keep students engaged in the education process support student learning and academic achievement. The goal of the law is to evaluate and to track the progress of school districts in reducing disciplinary rates and disciplinary disparities. The law provides for annual district-level reporting of school disciplinary data.

The Office for Education Policy assists with the analyses required under ACT 1329, and posts the research on our website. The consistent collection of data permits evaluation of disciplinary practices and aids in the identification of state, district, and student-level disparities in Arkansas schools.

A disciplinary incident has two parts– the infraction and the consequence. We examine both sides of the incident statewide, by student characteristics and by school characteristics.

A quick summary of key points:

  • Reported disciplinary incidents have increased since Act 1329 was enacted.
  • 82% of reported infractions were minor and non-violent (insubordination and disorderly conduct).
  • In-school suspension rates have risen, and out-of-school suspension rates have increased slightly since 2004-05.
  • Corporal punishment is occurring less frequently, although is still used by over 80% of districts in 2015-16.
  • Students who are Black are more likely to be cited for disciplinary infractions.
  • Schools that enroll the highest percentage of Black students are the most likely to exclude students from school as a consequence for misbehavior.
  • Differences in disciplinary severity reflect differences in practices between schools, not within a school.

Unlike academic performance data, where higher scores are better, interpretation of discipline rates is unclear. Is more discipline reporting the sign of a school where student behavior is out of control, or of a school where behavior expectations for students are high and enforced consistently? If we aim for lowering discipline rates, how to we avoid the unintended consequence that only the reporting of disciplinary incidents will decrease? Although we may not yet know the answers to these questions, meaningful conversations can only begin when the data are available and transparent. By raising awareness of potential discrepancies, school leaders may seek solutions to address such issues.

The main point is that these data are available and should be discussed.

One thing we do know is that there are real disparities in school discipline for certain types of students and schools. Students who are Black are more likely to be cited for infractions, and schools that enroll the highest percentage of Black students are the most likely to exclude students from school as a consequence for misbehavior. Research into Arkansas discipline data, however, has determined that these differences in the frequency and severity of consequences are due to differences between school practices. This means that within a school, students receive similar consequences for infractions regardless of race, but that there are significant differences in practices between schools.

We find that Black students are more likely to attend schools that exclude students from school as a consequence for misbehavior. Black students attend schools that adhere to stricter disciplinary policies, so they are disproportionately missing school. Being excluded from school leads to lost instructional time and has been associated with disengagement in school and negative life outcomes. Policymakers and school leaders may want to focus on these schools to identify possibilities for ensuring students are not being excessively excluded from the learning environment.

Policymakers and educators alike should be concerned with the long-term consequences of denying children access to the educational process. Arkansas took a necessary first step by adopting AR 1329 which aims to reduce disciplinary rates and disparities. To that end, decreasing suspensions overall will require a transformation in disciplinary practices, and particularly in schools that administer more severe consequences for minor non-violent infractions.

School-level discipline data, current discipline reports and future research can be found on OEP’s website at


A Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights

In The View from the OEP on April 26, 2017 at 11:39 am

Ahhh, testing season.  Throughout the state, students are completing their annual state assessments.  Participation in Arkansas’ assessment is required for all public school students, and most are completing the ACT Aspire.  This is the second year for this assessment, and here’s the main facts about the test:

  • Each student will be assessed in English, reading, math, science and writing
  • 4 to 4 ½ hours total testing time per grade
  • Accessibility features available for all students, and
  • Accommodations available for qualifying students
  • Students in grades 9 and 10 will receive a predicted score for the ACTⓇ
  • Computer-based administration with hardship waivers available for paper/pencil administration
  • Schools set their own schedules within the following windows:
    • Computer-based administration: April 10-May 12

But what else do students and their parents need to know about these assessments?  Here at the OEP, we think they should know

  • when the results will be back,
  • how the results will be used and by whom,
  • how to interpret the results when they get them, and
  • what is the next step if the student didn’t meet grade-level expectations.

We were discussing these issues last week at the National Task Force on Assessment Education, and we like Oregon’s Student Assessment Bill of Rights that clearly identifies the rights of students and their families when it comes to assessments.



Certifying Learning

Annual standardized statewide assessments like the ACT Aspire ‘certify‘ learning by identifying if a student has (or has not) met the performance expectation set by the state.  State and district leadership examine the results to determine if ‘enough’ students met the performance expectation.  Over the past 15 years, Arkansas used the percentage of students meeting grade level expectations to ‘rate’ schools.

The annual ‘snapshot’ of student performance provided by the statewide assessments is intended to provide a benchmark for how Arkansas students are performing.  Over the past several years, this has been difficult to determine because the assessments have been changing each year- from Benchmark (2013-14) to PARCC (2014-15) to ACT Aspire (2015-16).  The results from this year’s ACT Aspire assessments will be the first directly comparable results since 2013, and will allow us to more easily determine if we are doing a better job helping our students learn.

More recently, Arkansas has developed a way to use these annual assessments to measure if students have made enough ‘growth’ from the prior year.  This measure examines how students score compared to how well we thought they would score based on prior assessments.  Schools where the majority of students score better than expected receive a high “Value-Added” score. Here at the OEP, we really like the idea of examining student growth, because it should be less related to the economic status of the students at the schools than the percentage of students meeting grade level expectations.  You can read more about this new measure and what the data show here.

Supporting Learning

Whether measuring performance or growth, however, annual standardized assessments like the ACT Aspire are not good tools for SUPPORTING student learning.  The once-a-year snapshot isn’t detailed enough to dig down into the specific skills that students do and do not know, and by the time the results are back, students have moved into the next grade.

Information that SUPPORTS student learning are often gathered in the classroom through observation, questioning, or other checks for understanding are called formative assessments.  Teachers and students use formative assessments to gather evidence of where students are in their learning and of any problems that they are having. In the hands of a knowledgeable teacher and informed student,  these assessments can move students learning forward.

Unfortunately, classroom assessments are not always used effectively to support learning. A primary cause is when assessments are being used (like annual state assessments) to ‘certify’ learning. Many students complete an assignment or classroom test, fail to demonstrate that they understand the material, and receive a ‘bad grade’. In most classrooms, the student will be presented with new content the next day, and is never given the opportunity to fully understand the previous material.  When students are not provided the opportunity to master content, they can face poor foundational skills and begin to feel that they cannot be successful in school.

In some cases, students may receive ‘good grades’ from their teachers, but fail to demonstrate their understanding on standardized assessments.  According to the State Report Card, more than 1 in 3 Arkansas high school students are ‘Grade Inflated’. This means they have a GPA of “B” or above, but scored less than “19” on the ACT math or reading. Students who score less that 19 on these sections of the ACT  have to take remedial courses in college which do not count toward their degree.  Poor assessment practices at their high schools are providing students the wrong information about their learning and leading them to encounter barriers in continuing their education.  PAS

Some teachers ARE using formative assessments to adjust their instruction but often they do not have access to high-quality tools.  As Rick Stiggins points out in his new book, The Perfect Assessment System, we have invested in the quality of an annual standardized assessment but not in the quality of classroom and interim assessments.


Focusing on Learning

Unfortunately, many teachers and students do not understand how to use assessment data in the learning process.  This feedback loop is essential to improving student learning and should be occurring regularly throughout the school year.

Arkansas can use the flexibility inherent in ESSA to ensure that students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and school districts develop a better understanding of the principles and practices of sound assessment that ultimately support student learning.  We can leverage ESSA funds to do some of the important work to develop sound assessment practices and the ESSA guiding document on assessment literacy provides concrete suggestions for using ESSA funding to address this critical need.

While schools may make a ‘big deal’ out of the ACT Aspire testing, it isn’t the most important time of the school year.  We would like to see as much focus on each day of the learning in the classroom, with students and teachers using high-quality formative assessment practices to help students understand where they are in their learning and what they need to do to grow their understanding.


Arkansas’ Best High Schools

In The View from the OEP on April 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm

UPDATED: 4/26 (the initial post used the 2016 rankings- our apologies!)

This week, U.S. News & World Report released their annual “Best High Schools” rankings, and we want to clarify what the rankings do (and do not) mean.

First, congratulations to those Arkansas high schools that made the Best High School list!  Below are the Top 10 in Arkansas:

#1: Haas Hall Academy

#2: Arkansas Arts Academy High

#3: Parkview Magnet High School

#4: Rogers High School

#5: Bentonville High School

#6: Central High School

#7: Prairie Grove High School

#8: Fayetteville High School

#9: Southside High School (Ft. Smith)

#10: Rogers Heritage High School

Here at the OEP, we are big advocates for assessment literacy, which essentially means understanding different types of assessment information, having the skills to determine if the information is dependable,  and knowing how to use it productively to support or certify achievement.

The first thing you need to know about the U.S. News rankings is that they are based on state assessment data from the 2014-15 school year, so the ranking is reflecting student performance from nearly 2 years ago.

US News compares the performance of students in each Arkansas high schools to the performance of students in other Arkansas high schools. In addition, it is not a simple ‘direct’ comparison of how the students performed, but includes information about how the students would be EXPECTED to perform given the percentage of students enrolled that are economically disadvantaged.

There are four aspects to the ranking: 1) the performance of students on state assessments in literacy and mathematics; 2) the performance of disadvantaged student subgroups; 3) graduation rate and 4) the degree to which high schools prepare students for college by offering a college-level curriculum.

Schools must pass the first step by performing better than expected based on their student population in order to continue in the ranking process.

STEP 1: Identify High Schools Performing Better than Expected

To determine if schools are performing better than expected, U.S. News created a Performance Index for each high school by examining student performance on state assessments, and compared it to the percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs (which are an indicator of low socioeconomic status). This model reflects the understanding that students who face economic challenges outside of school are typically less likely to achieve at the same levels at their peers who do not face economic hardships.  We are going to skip the details, but you can read more about it here.

The figure below represents Arkansas high schools’ school-level Performance Index scores plotted against the school percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs. The figure below present the information used in Step 1 of the Best High School rankings. You can see the relationship between Performance and the percentage of students who are identified as economically disadvantaged. The red line represents the ‘typical performance’ of schools in Arkansas given the percentage of students in the school that are disadvantaged. Yellow markers represent schools where students performed BETTER than expected, and light blue markers represent schools where students performed AS expected. Dark green markers indicate schools where students performed BELOW what is typical for schools with the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students.




The yellow dot on the far left side is easily identified as Haas Hall because they are the only high school in the state that reports 0% of students participating in FRLP. The Performance Index for Haas Hall is more than 120, which is 50 points above the expected performance. As you move to the right side of the graph, the percentage of students participating in FRLP increases. At the far right hand side of the graph are dots representing schools with 100% of students participating in FRLP. The highest yellow dot on the right hand side shows a school whose enrollment is entirely low-income, but whose Performance Index is also 20 points higher than expected!


Only schools whose Performance Index is ABOVE the gray performance zone and represented by yellow dots and passed on to the next step. This is the critical step for Arkansas high schools. A majority of Arkansas’ high schools do not pass this step, and are therefore unranked. This year, 91 (33%) of Arkansas high school were performing above expectations and move on to Step 2 of the ranking.

STEP 2: Identify High Schools Performing Better than State Average for Their Least Advantaged Students

For this step, the performance of African American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students on the state assessments are compared to state averages.  Schools where these disadvantaged students are performing as well or better than state averages are automatically considered bronze-medal high schools and move on to Step 3 of the ranking to determine silver or gold medal.

STEP 3: Ensure Graduates Rates Are Above 68%

This step of the of the U.S. News ranking process is new for 2016 and requires that high schools have graduated at least 75% of students. Arkansas’ graduation rate is 85% overall, so this is an EXTREMELY low bar for Arkansas, and only a couple of high schools fall below this bar.


STEP 4: Identify High Schools That Performed Best in Providing Students with Access to Challenging College-Level Coursework

For this final step, the participation of 12th grade students in AP or IB examinations was used to determine which high schools passed Step 4 to become silver-medal high schools, and also was used to rank high schools across states to distinguish the gold-medal high schools from silver medalists.

So, is the “Best” really the best?

We like the U.S. News rankings because it provides information that can be helpful! We want to know which high schools are performing better than expected, serving their most disadvantaged students and preparing kids for college. We also like being able to compare to other high schools across the country.  It is a somewhat clumsy comparison, however, since each state currently uses a different test to measure performance, and we look forward to the day when cross- state comparisons are facilitated by common assessments. We DON’T like that the data used by U.S. News are nearly two years old and hope that stakeholders will keep that in mind as they search for their school on the “Best” list.

The final stage of the rankings is focused on College- Level coursework. Here at OEP, we would like to see them including more indices of career readiness, because not everyone wants to go to college. Just like ‘the best’ colleges, just because it is ‘the best’ doesn’t mean it is the best for your student.




A few notes:

Towards the low and high ends of the economically disadvantaged distribution, however, it can be difficult to predict where a ‘typical’ school should be. For example, there is only one high school in Arkansas with less than 20% economically disadvantaged (Haas Hall), so the ‘prediction’ of how the students should be performing may not be as accurate as it is for the schools in the range of 40-70% economically disadvantaged where the majority of the high schools are identified.

A high school’s low performance may be the result of the entire school system that the students attended BEFORE the high school. However, many of the significantly under-performing schools are small rural high schools that serve grades 7-12.