University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

The Special Education Graduation Conundrum

In The View from the OEP on February 6, 2018 at 12:27 pm

The Hechinger Report recently published an article discussing the potential of students with disabilities to earn high school diplomas.  The story was particularly interesting to us, because it highlighted that Arkansas has the nation’s highest graduation rate for students with disabilities.  Over 81 percent of students with disabilities in the class of 2015 graduated, compared to the national average reported rate of under 65 percent.


While this news is exciting (we love to be the best!), we have to wonder: what is the reason for our high graduation rates? Data from the Arkansas Department of Education show that the graduation rate for students with disabilities has been over 80 percent since 2013,  with the 2016 rate reflecting a new high of over 84 percent!

We examine three possible reasons for Arkansas’s high graduation rate for students with disabilities:

  1. The students in Arkansas have less severe disabilities than students in other states.
  2. Schools in Arkansas do a great job at educating students with disabilities.
  3. Students with disabilities in Arkansas can earn a diploma by meeting easier requirements than students in other states.

Do students in Arkansas have less severe disabilities?

Arkansas and Mississippi are close geographically, have about 500,000 students enrolled in the public school system, and a similar the percentage of students enrolled are eligible for free/reduced lunch, which is often used as a proxy for student poverty.

Although student populations are similar, however, the graduation rates for students with disabilities are not. Mississippi has the second lowest graduation rate in the nation, (30.7 percent in 2015-16) for students with disabilities.  Table 1 shows the 2015 special education enrollments by disability for Arkansas and Mississippi.  The low-incidence disabilities, which are generally considered more severe disabilities, are presented in bold.

Table 1. Students in special education by disability, Arkansas and Mississippi.


Although Arkansas enrolls a higher percentage of students with intellectual disabilities than Mississippi,  the developmental delay category that Mississippi uses (usually for pre-k) is likely offsetting the intellectual disability rates. Overall, differences between the disabilities identifies for students in Mississippi and Arkansas are slight, providing no plausible explanation for the 50 percentage point difference in graduation rates between the two states. Students in Arkansas do not seem to have less severe disabilities.

Are Arkansas students better prepared?

Arkansas’s high graduation rates for students with disabilities could be a reflection of the the quality education in schools in Arkansas are providing.  The only measure publicly available to us, aside from graduation rates, on how well schools are serving students with disabilities academically is through standardized assessments.  We’ll preface this by noting that no one in the special education community thinks that test scores are great measures for students with disabilities because of the variety of problems students with disabilities run into taking assessments.  Nevertheless, the graduation rate, math proficiency, and English language arts (ELA) proficiency rates for students with disabilities in Arkansas and all students in the state in Table 2, below.

Table 2. Graduation and ACT Aspire proficiency rates in math and ELA, Arkansas, 2016.


While there is less than a 3 percentage point difference in graduation rates, there is a 30 and 38 percentage point difference in math and ELA proficiency, respectively.  Although there are large differences in academic performance, Arkansas schools are graduating students with disabilities at almost the same rate as their non-disabled peers.

However, as noted above, test scores are not great measures of the educational experience provided to special education students. Thus, it is certainly possible that part of the explanation for the high graduation rate for special education students in Arkansas is the quality of service provided or the attention paid to special education students in the state. Future studies could begin to test this hypothesis by comparing the special education graduation rates between Arkansas districts with different types of services provided to the students.

Is it easier for students with disabilities in Arkansas to earn a diploma?

Perhaps the high graduation rates for students with disabilities in Arkansas are due to less rigorous high school graduation requirements in Arkansas (compared to other states).  Although Arkansas has Smart Core Course graduation requirements to help prepare students for college and career readiness, students can still graduate by completing the less demanding Core Course requirements if they have parental consent.  The diploma is the same, but the requirements are different.

Similarly, a study of career and technical education in Arkansas found that students with disabilities were substantially over represented in the career concentrations of “manufacturing” and “transportation, distribution, and logistics,” while most underrepresented in “finance,” “health sciences,” and “education and training.”  The differences in academic expectations in these career tracks are clearly different.

Every student in special education has an individual education program (IEP) that should outline their path to graduation.  Some school districts state, “Those students not participating in the Smart Core curriculum will be required to fulfill the Core curriculum or the requirements of their IEP (when applicable) to be eligible for graduation.”  The word “or” is important because it tells us that the IEP can take the place of both the Core and Smart Core Course requirements.  If student IEP goals are used to determine whether a student earns a diploma or not, this could be the reason for Arkansas’s high graduation rates for students with disabilities.

Of course, we have not done a thorough review of the rules in the other 49 states, so there may be similar alternative paths available across the nation. Thus, for now, it is certainly noteworthy that special education students in Arkansas are graduating high school at very high rates.

Now what?

After examining some potential reasons why Arkansas’s graduation rates for students with disabilities may be so high, we are left wondering what the implications are for our students. Policymakers and special education scholars should be examining these results so that we can better decipher whether this is good news or bad news for our state! If the results are good news, policymakers in other states should be visiting Arkansas to gain insight. On the other hand, if we are not holding our special education students up to appropriately high standards, then school leaders in Arkansas need to seek improvement.

Of course, decisions regarding graduation requirements matter a great deal in the real world — there are real repercussions for students who do not earn a diploma.  Moreover, there are consequences for schools, districts, and states. Washington DC is facing an investigation into its graduation practices. Since 2010, all states must use the same calculation for determining the graduation rate, but the meaning of a high school diploma still varies.

Arkansas’s vision is to lead the nation in student-focused education so that every student graduates ready for college, career, and community engagement. We need to promote pathways for students to follow toward future careers and/or college, and have diplomas that match those pathways.  High school graduation is only one measure of success for our students. We should also look at their experience after graduation. Education stakeholders in Arkansas, including students, parents, school leaders, and policymakers need to determine whether those high rates of graduation for students with disabilities equates to high rates of successful graduates.

Special thanks to Sivan Tuchman, PhD for the research and insight for today’s blog!


Corrected webinar time!

In The View from the OEP on January 30, 2018 at 1:45 pm

OOPS- the growth webinar is at 9:30 AM on Friday (not 2pm). Sorry for our mistake!

Get your Growth on!

In The View from the OEP on January 30, 2018 at 1:10 pm


Please join us for the ADE’s Growth Indicator Webinar on Friday at 9:30am (note corrected time). OEP will be asking questions about the indicator and working to make sure that you have a solid understanding of what growth is, what growth isn’t, and how to interpret the growth indicator score.

Arkansas, like many states, has included student growth in the assessment of school performance.  As we mentioned last week, in the new ESSA School Index, the student growth indicator is weighted 50% for elementary- and middle- level schools and 35% for high schools.

This is a welcome change from the NCLB days when only Proficiency mattered. Proficiency still matters, of course, but the calculation is not binary (kids are ‘proficient’ or ‘not proficient’) but weighted along the performance continuum (hooray)!

Updated DRAFT ESSA reports are available for Triand-authorized school users, with public versions of these reports available to the public before the end of April.

School and district leaders should take advantage of this long runway before the public release to get prepared to explain to their stakeholders

  • what the ESSA School Index says about their school(s),
  • what the plans are to continue to improve, and
  • how stakeholders can support the work.

This initial webinar is a great first step to understanding the new index, and more details can be found in the updated business rules.

Remember that A-F school grades and rewards and recognition $$ (coming out this spring) will also be based on the ESSA school index, so a clear understanding and pro-active communication plan seems like a good idea to us!

If you have questions about your report, or how to communicate the results, we are happy to help- just email us at






ESSA Plan Approved! Now What?

In The View from the OEP on January 23, 2018 at 1:46 pm


Last week, Arkansas’s ESSA plan was approved by the US Department of Education, which means that after lots of hard work on the plan development side, now comes the implementation!  While we recommend reading through the whole plan, we know you are busy so here’s what OEP thinks you need to know NOW.

The ESSA School Index: is a number calculated for every school in the state which will be used for the accountability system, for school grades (A-F), and for the recognition and rewards program. The index score is based on weighted achievement, growth, English learner proficiency progress, and School Quality and Student Success indicators (more info on what each of these pieces represents included below).

What is my school’s ESSA index?

DRAFT ESSA reports are available to authorized users in the Accountability Reports Center and you should be sure to check them out!   Authorized users click on the 2017 ESSA School Index & ESEA Reports tab, and login with their Triand account. The reports are PRIVATE and still DRAFT so school personnel can look them over and check for things that ‘don’t seem right’.  Some needed corrections have already been identified-like counts of student enrollment in AP/IB/Concurrent Credit courses. Many of the variables in the School Quality Success Indicator have not been used in accountability before, so the process for accurately pulling the information is being worked out.  New reports will be uploaded periodically, until the final reports are ready for public release.

Is my school’s index ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

Currently, your index is only informational, reflecting how your students’ achievement, growth, graduation, and SQSS indicators compare to each other and to other schools in the state. The ESSA index is calculated for every school in the state, and DRAFT values range from 31.11 to 97.84, with a statewide mean of 70.89.

This spring, however, the ESSA school index will be used to assign A-F school grades and award reward/ recognition money.  Using the ESSA index aligns these state-legislated with the federal accountability system for the first time, which helps us all be on the same page when we are talking about school success.  Letter grades must be assigned this year, so ADE is currently working with stakeholder groups to determine what ESSA school index score is an “A”, what is a “B”, etc.

OEP was happy to be included in the stakeholder meetings, and we found it difficult to use the overall ESSA score to assign a letter grade. We were concerned that the process of using the overall ESSA Index failed to differentiate between, for example, schools with very low growth, but high achievement and those with very high growth, but low achievement.

Consider what types of schools this situation may represent:

  • The low-growth (27th %ile), high achievement (87th %ile) school likely serves more advantaged students who demonstrate success on the state assessments.  These students are not, however, making predicted gains in achievement from one year to the next, which raised our concerns about the quality of instruction taking place.
  • The high-growth (97th %ile) , low achievement (44th %ile) school likely serves a population that is more at-risk for academic difficulty (economically disadvantaged, English learner, and/or students with special needs), and demonstrate lower achievement on the state assessments.  These students are making greater than predicted gains in achievement from one year to the next, indicating high-quality instruction taking place.

Which school do YOU think should get the higher letter grade? Based on the overall ESSA School Index, the low-growth but high achieving school gets a better grade. What we recommend is an overall grade (as required under the legislation), but also additional grades for each area: Achievement, Growth, and SQSS.   

The state’s ESSA plan does away with labeling schools (the old ‘Priority’ and ‘Focus’ labels are gone!), but does identify schools for support.  The identification of these schools, however, won’t happen until 2018-19 and will be based on the results of the Spring 2018 assessments so don’t even worry about that now.

For now, we recommend you focus on ensuring there is quality instruction happening in your classrooms, that staff are entering quality data into the system, and developing a plan for communicating with your stakeholders about the ESSA school index and letter grade your school receives (expected mid April).

ADE has done a fantastic job putting out resources to support our understanding of the ESSA plan.  We summarize the ESSA index pieces below, but you can get more info here or by watching this webinar (we know- but it’s FULL of great information)!  For more nitty-gritty details you can read the business rules. Keep you eyes out for additional webinars that will go into more detail about growth (Friday, Feb 2nd from 9:30 -10:30) and graduation rate (TBD).

Components of the ESSA Index:

Weighted Achievement: Part of the ESSA school index, weighted achievement reflects student achievement on the ACT Aspire (or alternative) math and ELA assessments. In contrast to the old “proficiency rates”, schools are awarded graduated points for each students’ achievement: In Need of Support=0 points, Close=0.5 points, Ready=1.0 points, and Exceed= 1.0 or 1.25 points (depending on how many In Need of Support students you have). Only non-highly mobile are included in the weighted achievement calculation.  Weighted achievement represents 35% of the ESSA school index for all school. DRAFT values range from 1.94 to 105.36, with a statewide mean of  63.35.

Growth: Part of the ESSA school index, school value-added growth reflects how student scores changed over time compared to what was predicted by the student’s prior score history.  Scores are calculated for ACT Aspire or alternative assessment and for the English language proficiency assessment (where applicable). Scores of 80 indicate that, on average, students in the school made expected growth.  Scores above or below 80 indicate that, on average, the students in the school made more or less than expected growth, respectively.  Only non-highly mobile students with a prior test score are included int he school growth score.  Growth represents 50% of the ESSA school index for Elementary and Middle Level schools, and 35% for High School Level schools. DRAFT values range from 70.18 to 89.66, with a statewide mean of 80.17.

Graduation rate:Part of the ESSA school index for schools that serve 12th graders, both a 4- and 5- year cohort graduation rate are used. This is the first time Arkansas has used a 5-year graduation rate so PLEASE NOTE that these are graduation rates for DIFFERENT groups of kiddos: the 2017 4-year rate is for students who entered 9th grade in 2013-14, while the 5-year rate is for the group of students who entered 9th grade in 2012-2013. Graduation rate represents 15% of the ESSA school index for High School Level schools, (10% for 4-year and 5% for 5-year). DRAFT values for the 4-year rate range from 22.22 to 100, with a statewide mean of 88.6. DRAFT values for the 5-year rate (remember this is a different group of kiddos) range from 0 to 100, with a statewide mean of 82.18.

School Quality and Student Success Indicators: Part of the ESSA school index, the SQSS are a combination of several measures of engagement, access, readiness, completion, and success criteria. Indicators include chronic absenteeism, science achievement, science growth, reading at grade level, high school GPA, ACT performance, and course-credit related measures. Districts and schools DO NOT pick and choose from the list of indicators- they are all included appropriately based on the grade level range (see the list and means and variability here). SQSS represents 15% of the ESSA school index for all schools.

Grade spans and grade configuration if you are confused about why you are labeled Elementary, Middle, or High School Level?

Comment your questions about ESSA and we’ll do our best to answer them!



OEP News and Another C- for Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on January 17, 2018 at 11:58 am




OEP News!


Our big news is that Gary Ritter is leaving us in August to take on the role of Dean of the School of Education at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO. Since OEP’s inception in 2003, Gary has been the driving force behind and director of the Office.  We are sorry to see him go, but excited for him to expand his excellent work to our neighbor state! Gary will continue to share his insightful perspective and passion for improving education as a member of the OEP advisory board, and OEP will continue to support for Arkansas education stakeholders under the direction of OEP Executive Director Sarah McKenzie.

Make plans to visit with Gary and Sarah at OEP’s conference this April in Little Rock- tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, April 24th.  We are focusing on Teacher Pipeline issues and have some great information that you won’t want to miss so save the date!

OEP is changing our weekly news roundup/ blog/ report releases from Wednesday to Tuesday. You can get these automatically by emailing with “Sign me up” in the subject line.


Quality Counts


Today Education Week released their annual Quality Counts report, which grades each state on their education performance.  This year Arkansas (again) received an overall grade of C- and is ranked 43rd overall.  Arkansas has received a C- for the last four years as our national ranking slipped from 36th in 2015, to 41st in 2016, to the current 43rd in 2017 and 2018.

As we have discussed in previous blog posts there are several issues with the grading system, and Arkansas’ scores have remained stagnant.This year’s report includes summative grades and rankings for states on education indicators.  The report finds “paints a portrait of middling performance overall with patches of high achievement, along with perennial struggles to improve on the part of states mired at the bottom.”

A state’s overall grade is the average of its scores on three separate indicators: Chance-for-Success, K-12 Achievement, and School Finance. Previous blog posts have discussed the flawed nature of the grading system, and this year’s grade is even less informative due to the use of old academic data (from the 2015 NAEP because of a delay in the release of the 2017 NAEP results), old financial data (2015 is the most recent year data were available), and the difficult-to-impact state data including annual income and percentage of adults with a two- or four-year degree.

Below are the most recent four years of  Arkansas grades in each of the categories considered for 2018.

Quality Counts Categories AR Grade 2015 AR Grade 2016 AR Grade 2017 AR Grade 2018
Chance for Success C- C-  C- C-
School Finance C C-  C- C-
K-12 Achievement D+ D  D*  D*

* Note: K-12 Achievement data are unchanged from the 2016 Quality Counts report

It is time to grade ourselves…


Quality Counts is EdWeek’s measure of educational quality, but here at OEP we don’t think it accurately captures all the strengths and areas for improvement.  ESSA allowed states to develop measures of student achievement that are meaningful to them, and Arkansas’ plan was approved yesterday!

Now that Arkansas’ ESSA plan is approved, we look forward to its implementation.  One of the first orders of business is to determine the details for how Arkansas will assign  school grades (A-F) to be used in the school rating system and the school recognition program.

We believe that if policymakers and education leaders focus on meaningful data, like student achievement AND growth, equity and efficiency in the face of disadvantage, and post-secondary transitions, students in Arkansas can continue to improve and reach greater levels of educational and lifelong success.