University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Growth, Poverty, and the Recognition Blues

In The View from the OEP on April 17, 2018 at 4:17 pm

school moneLast week, the ADE released a bunch of information about Arkansas schools, including A-F letter grades, state report cards, and ESSA reports.  Here at OEP, we feel that growth scores are the most important piece of information that was released, and today we want to share some more details about why growth is so important, and why some deserving schools may have missed out on the recognition and reward money.

Growth and Poverty

Growth is so important because it gives a different perspective on how well students are learning in a school, and is not as correlated with student demographics as achievement is. In the graph below, we present the weighted achievement scores and the % of FRL students enrolled at the school (a proxy for poverty).  Weighted achievement scores range from 2 to 105, and FRL rates range from 100% of students eligible to fewer than 5% (note: Haas Hall does not report FRL %ages and so are excluded from the graph).

The values are related in the way that we would expect (a lower percentage of FRL students= higher achievement), and are correlated at R=0.52.  There are some schools that have much higher than typical achievement given the % FRL in their student population, which is awesome, but in general, schools serving more FRL-eligibile students have lower achievement scores.


By contrast, below we present the content growth scores and the % of FRL students enrolled at the school.  You can see that the values are not as related  (fewer FRL students doesn’t always mean higher growth), and have a lower correlation at R=0.21.  This is a good thing- because we want kids in all schools to be making growth in learning from one year to the next!


You will also notice that the content growth values are all clustered around 80, making it is hard to tell a difference between ‘high growth’ and ‘low growth’ when the axis is scaled from 0 to 125 like the weighted achievement graph.  This is exactly what we mentioned in the OpEd last week– the growth values have a relatively small range (very small standard deviations) compared to the achievement scores.  Below we share a version of the content and a FRL graph with an ‘adjusted axis’ that runs from 70 to 90, so you can see differences in the growth scores.


With the adjusted axis, you can see differences in content growth scores! There are some schools with low-FRL percentages with high content growth in the upper right corner of the graph.  One example is Willowbrook Elementary in Bentonville, with 15% of students eligible for FRL and content growth score of 89.35.  There are also some high-FRL schools with high content growth scores which are in the upper left corner of the graph. One example is Jones Elementary in Springdale where 98% of students are eligible for FRL, 84% are identified as limited English, and a content growth score of 88.96.  Despite the differences in the student populations served by these two schools, students at both schools demonstrated high growth scores. This is something to celebrate!

The Recognition Blues

Arkansas’ School Recognition Program provides funds for “outstanding schools”.  Schools are rewarded for being in the top 5% (or the 6th to 10th %) in achievement and/or growth.

Given what we know about the relationship between achievement and FRL rates, it should not be surprising that Willowbrook Elementary (with 15% FRL) received reward money for being in the top 5% for achievement, and that Jones Elementary (with 97% FRL) did not. However, both Willowbrook and Jones Elementary received a reward and recognition money for being in the top 5% of content growth among Arkansas schools.

When we were examining who else was rewarded, we noticed that most of the money went to elementary schools. In fact, 59% of the performance rewards, and 65% of the growth rewards went to elementary schools. This made us scratch our heads.

We know that elementary schools are different from schools serving middle and high schools in many ways, but school level also matters when it comes to achievement and growth. In the powerpoint that summarizes the ESSA Indicators, descriptive statistics for each indicator is provided by school level: Elementary, Middle, or High.  You can find the rules for how schools were assigned a level here.  There are substantial differences between the school level groups on achievement scores. For example, let’s examine the achievement score received by schools in the top 5% of each school level.

  • Elementary level = 93.79,
  • Middle level = 91.85, and
  • High school level = 76.53.

The top 5% of elementary schools have higher achievement scores than middle schools and much higher achievement scores (+17 points  or greater than 1 standard deviation) than high schools. It makes sense, then, that about 7% of elementary level and middle level schools were rewarded for highest 5% achievement, but only 1% of high schools received reward money for achievement.

The differences for growth scores between the groups are not as glaring as achievement differences, but remember that the standard deviation is only about 3, so the top 5% of elementary schools have growth scores again about 1 standard deviation higher than middle and high schools.

  • Elementary level = 87.09,
  • Middle level = 84.71, and
  • High school level = 83.94.

We expected to find the top 5% rewards again dominated by  elementary schools, but were surprised to find that 7% of elementary level schools were rewarded for growth along with 5% of high schools. Interestingly, NO middle level schools were rewarded for growth.

We saw that the top 5% of middle schools and high schools have similar growth scores, so why are middle schools not getting recognized?  The recognition program for high schools includes graduation rate, (70% for growth and 30% graduation rate), which generally increases the growth score because graduation rates are typically higher than growth rates. With the deck stacked against them, not even J.O. Kelly, the highest growth middle level school in the state ( J.O. Kelly from Springdale) could crack the top 5% for growth.

The legislation for the reward program clearly states that schools will be rewarded for being in the top tier “of all public schools”, but here at OEP, we would love to see schools  awarded recognition and reward money based on their ranking WITHIN their school level.  Making this change would be more equitable for all schools, and would align more closely with the state’s ESSA plan. If we want to incentivize schools to achieve and show growth, we have to make sure schools in all levels have a chance for rewards and recognition.

Hey! If you want to see how your school ranks within schools serving similar grade levels , check our database. We ranked schools within their school levels, making it easy to identify the elementary schools with the highest achievement scores as well as the high schools with the highest growth scores.

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