University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Where do Arkansas Students Learn the Most?

In The View from the OEP on December 13, 2017 at 2:06 pm

GravetteGravette school district has the highest rate of student growth in the state, according to data released last week from researchers at Stanford, with students learning the equivalent of almost a whole extra year in school between 3rd and 8th grade! You can see how well your school district did here.

The new study examined rates of achievement and growth for nearly every school district in the country using 300 million scores on 3rd through 8th grade English/Language Arts and math assessments from 2008-09 to 2014-15. (If you are interested in learning how the researchers were able to compare scores across states- see notes at the bottom of this blog.)

Achievement represents how well students score on state tests, while growth reflects the rate of change in achievement over time. Examining growth allows us to see how students’ scores change while students are in school, essentially measuring how much students are learning.

To determine where kids ‘started’, the researchers examined the average third grade achievement in reading and math.  The measure represents the average third grade achievement across seven years (2008-09 to 2014-15). In the map below, green represents districts scoring above the national average grade achievement, and purples represents districts scoring below average. Darker colors indicate greater difference from the average.

Figure 1. Average Third Grade Test Scores, 2009-2015NAtional G3

When we zoom in on Arkansas below, we see a mixture of green and purple indicating varied achievement throughout the state. In a few districts, 3rd graders are scoring the equivalent of 1.5 to 2.5 grades above the national average (represented by the darkest green), while 3rd graders in a some districts are scoring the equivalent of 1.5 or more grades below the national average (represented by the darker purple colors).


ach legend

The orange circle on the figure indicates Spring Hill school district, where third graders were the highest achieving in the state, on average.  Appearing in dark green, Spring Hill students were more than 2.5 grade-equivalent units above average national achievement.

The red circle on the figure represents Gravette school district.  Colored light purple, Gravette third graders scored about half a grade below average, placing the district at the 43rd percentile for achievement.

Now that we know how well Arkansas’ students are achieving at the earliest tested grade, let’s see what the researchers found about how they grew while in school. The growth measure represents changes in reading and math achievement from 2008-09 to 2014-15 for cohorts moving from grades 3 through 8. In an effective school system, we would expect achievement to increase over time. The map below represents the rate of growth, with green being above national average growth rate, and purple being below average growth rate, with darker colors indicating greater difference from the average.

Figure 2. Average Test Score Growth Rates, 2009-2015


When we zoom in on Arkansas below, we see much more purple in the growth figure than we did in the performance figure. Throughout the state, only 19 school districts demonstrated growth above the national average (identified in green).  In the remaining 92% of districts in the state (identified in purple), students learned at a rate of less than one year per year.

growth_AR_2bgrowth legend

The orange circle again indicates Spring Hill school district, which, as we indicated previously, had the highest third grade achievement.  Appearing in dark purple in the growth figure, however, Spring Hill scores in subsequent years reflect very low growth rates over time.

The red circle represents Gravette school district.  Although third grade students were not initially high achieving, they grew at a faster rate than students in any other Arkansas school district. Colored dark green, students in Gravette experienced 5.9 years of growth in five years, ranking them in the 96th percentile in the country for growth in student learning.  Students learned the equivalent of almost a whole extra year in school by the time they were in 8th grade! Way to go Gravette!

If you are thinking that high growth is only possible for districts where initial student performance is low, consider the case of Bentonville and Brookland. Third graders in both of these districts score nearly a grade level above average, and serve relatively advantaged student populations (26% and 36% of students eligible for Free/ Reduced Lunch, respectively).  So, although these districts have similar third grade student achievement, and serve similar populations, there are large differences in student growth by 8th grade: in one district the growth is high (5.3 years in 5 years, which is at 78th percentile nationally) and in the other it is low (2.7 years in 5 years, which is at the 11th percentile nationally). Growth rates for all districts are available here

There is a weak and negative relationship between third grade achievement and growth.  The Stanford researchers report a correlation of -0.13 nationally, but the in-state correlation for Arkansas is somewhat stronger at -0.19. The figure below illustrates the growth and 3rd grade achievement of Arkansas’ school districts.

Figure 2. Achievement Growth Rates by Grade 3 Achievement, Arkansas  2009-2015

AR Growth_Achievement_2a

You can see that no district where third graders are highest-achieving (more than one grade level above average) exceed average national growth.  You can also see, however, that only two of the districts where third graders were the lowest-achieving (less than one grade level below average) exceed average national growth.

You might be wondering about how charter schools performed.  In this research, charter schools are not reported separately as they were collapsed into the geographic district in which they were located.  While there were relatively few charter schools operating in Arkansas from 2008-09 to 2014-15, it is important to consider the possible impact on district achievement and growth outcomes.  Also remember that these data do not include any information about learning experiences happening before 3rd grade or after 8th grade, including high school graduation or college readiness. Test performance is a proxy for opportunity and achievement, and can be affected by many factors including what students have been taught and have learned, and how motivated they are to perform.

The big takeaways from this new research are:

Achievement: Arkansas school districts vary in 3rd grade achievement (we knew that) but the achievement is not consistently behind the nation (shown by all the green in the achievement figure).

Growth: Arkansas school districts vary in growth achievement and the rate of growth is consistently behind the nation (shown by all the purple in the achievement figure).  There are some districts, however, with growth rates that are above the national average.

The researchers recommend using caution when interpreting growth rates as pure measures of school effectiveness:

“It is tempting to think of growth rates in test scores as a rough measure of school district effectiveness. This is neither entirely inappropriate nor entirely accurate. The growth rates better isolate the contribution to learning due to experiences during the schooling years. Grade 3 average scores are likely much more strongly influenced by early childhood experiences than the growth rates. So the growth rates are certainly better as measures of educational opportunities from age 9 to 14 than are average test scores in a school district. But that does not mean they reflect only the contribution of schooling. Other characteristics of communities, including family resources, after school programs, and neighborhood conditions may all affect growth in test scores independent of schools’ effects.” (pg. 26)

Nonetheless, growth rates are closer to a measure of school effectiveness than average test scores. It is not unreasonable to think that the growth measures carry some signal regarding school quality. In particular, learning what conditions make high growth rates possible, and how we can spread those conditions to all students throughout the state.


Note on scaling:  Since states administer different tests and set their own standards regarding ‘proficiency’,  comparing student performance nationally required the researchers to create an achievement scale that was comparable across states, years, and grades. Using data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which is taken by a sample of students in every state every other year, researchers placed state achievement on a common scale. You can read more about this here


  1. Where do the virtual public schools rank?

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