University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for 2021|Yearly archive page

These Schools are ‘Super Growers’!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a long(er) look at proficiency change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statewide 2-Year Change in Reading Proficiency by Grade Cohort

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


Statewide 2-Year Change in Math Proficiency by Grade Cohort

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


Statewide 2-Year Change in English Proficiency by Grade Cohort

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


Statewide 2-Year Change in Science Proficiency by Grade Cohort

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


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

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

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

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

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

https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/office.for.education.policy.university.of.arkansas/viz/PercentagePointChangeinProficiencyovertheyears/2YrPercentagePointChange

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

Grade 11 ACT Scores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AR % US %
All Students1226
Black26
White1733
Hispanic614

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

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

Some Schools Show BIG Gains

In The View from the OEP on August 18, 2021 at 11:59 am

While anxiously awaiting the mid-October release of Arkansas’ growth scores (which we think are the best measure of how well a school is educating its students academically), here at OEP we are developing tools to help stakeholders interpret the recently released ACT Aspire scores.

Although we have reported that proficiency rates declined at every grade level in every subject in 2021, when we examine school level data, we find some bright spots to celebrate! Some schools made gains in proficiency during the challenging learning context of the last year and a half. For example, in 2021, 3rd graders in Deer K-12 were 27 percentage points (pp) more likely to be proficient in math than the school’s 3rd graders in 2019.

We present the top proficiency gaining schools for each grade and subject below:

MathReadingEnglish Science
3rd gradeDeer K-12
+27pp
David O. Dodd ES +22ppKingston ES
+29pp
Ouachita ES
+28pp
4th gradeMountainburg ES
+31pp
Yellville-Summit ES +26ppCollege Station ES +25ppWeiner ES
+28pp
5th gradeOuachita ES
+24pp
Garfield ES
+29pp
Viola ES & Cedarville ES
+25pp
Parkers Chapel ES
+31pp
6th gradeGosnell ES
+31pp
Carnall ES
+22pp
Bradley ES
+28pp
Carnall ES
+23pp
7th gradeHoratio HS & Augusta HS +21ppOden Schools
+28pp
Oden Schools
+30pp
Oden Schools
+27pp
8th gradeKingston HS
+44pp
Kingston HS
+24pp
St Paul HS
+30pp
Palestine- Wheatley SHS +29pp
9th gradeConcord HS
+31pp
Oark HS
+33pp
KIPP Blytheville HS +29ppConcord HS
+34pp
10th gradeBradley HS
+24pp
Bradley HS
+39pp
Augusta HS
+27pp
Rural Special HS
+24pp

Want to see how your school’s proficiency rates changed?

Last week we released a school-level data visualization that allows educators and parents to examine how performance has changed in a school or district since 2019.

Our newest data visualization allows educators and parents to examine how a specific grade-level’s performance has changed in a school or district since 2019. You can compare, for example, 4th grade math performance in 2019 with 4th grade math performance in 2021. It is important to understand that in this visualization we are comparing two different sets of students from two different years, and there may be important differences between those student groups that are related to achievement. Comparing within a grade level, however, is important because we know that historically there are differences in proficiency rates by grade and subject.

It is important to remember that two different sets of students from two different years are being compared in this visualization, and there may be important differences between those student groups that are related to achievement. Comparing within a grade level, however, is important because we know that historically there are differences in proficiency rates by grade and subject.

We hope that these resources are helpful as educators and parents are planning for the school year. In most classrooms, students are entering with lower skills in math, reading, English, and science than those who came before them. It is critical to reflect on our practices and measure our success.

Be sure to check back next week as we share information about how proficiency rates have changed since 2016 by district and school for grade-level cohorts!

Time to Hit the Ground Running

In The View from the OEP on August 11, 2021 at 1:06 pm

Last week. we discussed the large declines in test scores across the state. This week, we dig into the numbers more and try to put them into context.

First of all, we don’t have a good explanation for why the scores dropped so consistently throughout the state, and for every student population. While the challenges associated with the pandemic seem likely to be involved, it isn’t clear to us what the specific cause was. Regardless, we need to get focused on teaching like never before starting on DAY ONE of the school year.

The critical need for a renewed focus on teaching reading, math, English, and science is obvious in the table below that estimates how many months of content knowledge the average Arkansas student fell behind since 2019.

Grade Fall 2021MathReadingEnglishScience
Incoming 6th graders-8.1 months-5.0 months-3.0 months-7.7 months
Incoming 7th graders-9.5 months-3.4 months-5.6 months-7.3 months
Incoming 8th graders-4.1 months-5.7 months-1.5 months-5.7 months
Incoming 9th graders-4.4 months-4.0 months-9.9 months-4.2 months
Incoming 10th graders-14.6 months-6.7 months-23.9 months-4.4 months
Incoming 11th graders-21.2 months-9.0 months-12.0 months-7.3 months
Months Behind in Learning, on Average, for Incoming Students

For example, incoming 6th graders completed the ACT Aspire in spring of 2019, when they were in 3rd grade, and most recently in spring of 2021 when the vast majority of those 3rd grade students were finishing 5th grade. These students, who will be entering 6th grade this fall, are, on average, almost a full year behind in math (8.1 months), 5 months behind in reading, 3 months behind in English, and nearly 8 months behind in Science. We can’t estimate the learning deficits for incoming Kindergartenrs-5th graders, since the only completed the ACT Aspire last spring or not at all, but we do know that rising 4th and 5th graders they scored lower on across all content areas than previous cohorts.

We addressed more details about the test score declines during our interview on Ozarks at Large. We also created an interactive data visualization so educators and stakeholders can see for themselves how students in different schools and districts performed on the 2019 and 2021 ACT Aspire assessments compared to the percentage of students eligible for Free/ Reduced Lunch.

If you would like us to help you interpret your data- just send us an email: oep@uark.edu.

Leave us a comment about how you are going to ensure that your students are catching up during the school year. We know there is a lot going on in schools right now, but it is more important than ever that we focus on student learning.

Note: For these calculations we examined the average scaled score for students in grades 3-8 that completed the ACT Aspire in the Spring of 2019, and for students in 5th-10th grade that completed the ACT Aspire in Spring 2021. We compared the typical 2-year growth for students, based on national norms, to the actual growth of these students. We then transformed the difference into a ‘school month’ base, assuming 9 months of learning per school year.

School Starting With Our Students Way Behind

In The View from the OEP on August 4, 2021 at 12:52 pm

Here at OEP, we’ve been digging into the recently released state assessment scores and, unfortunately, a greater percentage of Arkansas students are beginning the school year performing well below grade level expectations. We are not unique. Other states throughout the country are reporting similar declines on the state assessments completed by their students last spring. Unlike in other states, however, Arkansas students at risk for academic challenges don’t seem to have fallen farther behind relative to their peers, which could be due to the high percentage of our students that were able to attend school in person last year.

We are going to hit the highlights here, but if you want to dig into the data for your school or district, you can get the data here: http://www.officeforeducationpolicy.org/arkansas-school-data-act-aspire/.

Statewide results from 2019 and 2021 are presented below. The 2021 results show that students are less likely to have met readiness benchmarks in all subjects than they were in 2019, the last time state assessments were administered. The greatest decline was in Math (-12 percentage points), but also evident in English (-5 percentage points), Reading (-5 percentage points), and Science (-6 percentage points).

Declines were consistent across grades, although were somewhat more pronounced in 3rd grade. Math proficiency by grade is presented below, and the pattern is consistent across the other subjects as well.

When we examine different student populations, however, we don’t find consistently larger declines for specific student populations as have been reported by other states. Students with Disabilities and Gifted/ Talented students generally demonstrated the smallest declines, which makes sense given that the assessment is less able to measure changes for students that tend to perform well above or below typical grade level performance.

In the graph below, we present math proficiency rates for various student groups, in order of 2019 achievement. The darker bar represents the 2021 achievement, while the lighter area indicates 2019 achievement, While all groups demonstrated lower proficiency in 2021, Military Dependent students and Female students evidenced the greatest decline from the 2019 levels at -14 and -13 percentage points, respectively. In contrast, Students with Disabilities’ math proficiency dropped by only 5 percentage points.

Proficiency, however, can be a blunt measure of student learning, so we examined changes in the percentage of students at each performance category. Students who are determined ‘proficient’ score in the top two categories: Ready and Exceeding. Students that score in the bottom two categories, In Need of Support and Close, are not meeting the grade-level performance benchmarks. We compared the percentage of students in each performance category to the percentage in the same category in 2019. The results for math are presented below:

The red bars indicate the increase in the percentage of students in the lowest performance category. In 3rd, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grades the increase is between 9 and 11 percentage points. In contrast, we also see declines in the percentage of students scoring at the highest level, represented by the blue bars. Across all grades, there was a 5 percentage point decrease in the percentage of students Exceeding grade level expectations in math.

The same information for Reading is presented below. In this case we can see that there are many more elementary students in the lowest performance category than in 2019. For older students, the change in reading proficiency was less dramatic.

When we examined the relationship between these declines and district characteristics, we found essentially no relationship between the magnitude and percent of students participating in Free/ Reduced lunch programs, the district size (as measure by enrollment), or prior achievement. This means that schools serving a higher percentage of students that are economically disadvantaged did not consistently experience greater declines in achievement than school serving more economically advantaged students, larger districts did not experience declines that were consistently different than those evidenced by smaller districts, and districts that had experienced higher performance in the past did not experience greater or smaller declines than districts with lower achievement historically.

Weird huh?

So, we are all in this together.

It’s up to all of us to do everything we can to support Arkansas students as they continue to learn and grow. This may take a while to turn around. Hopefully, we will see many more students meeting grade level expectations next year and the year after.

Do Students in Arkansas’ Gifted Programs Perform Better?

In The View from the OEP on May 12, 2021 at 12:56 pm

You might have heard lately that gifted programs don’t provide much of an academic benefit. The study, by Christopher Redding and Jason Grissom, was based on a nationally representative sample, and examined student test scores in addition to other student outcomes like attendance and engagement in school. The findings have caused some to question the value of gifted programming.

Here at OEP, we have been digging into gifted education in Arkansas. Our previous research found that 30% of the highest achieving 3rd graders are not identified as gifted, and that the biggest factor in a high-achiever not being identified is an economically disadvantaged background.

In our newest research, we examine how the longer-term achievement of high-achieving Arkansas students who are identified as gifted compared to similarly high-achieving students who are not identified as gifted. We operationalize high-achieving as scoring at or above the 95th percentile statewide on the 3rd grade state assessment. We follow five groups of these high achieving 3rd graders through 8th grade, and examine how their scores change over time.

You can read the policy brief or the full paper for more details, but we find large, statistically significant gains in academic achievement for high-achieving students who were identified as gifted. The relationship was more pronounced in mathematics achievement than in literacy achievement. The findings are consistent across our five independent cohorts.

For the purpose of illustration, check out the graphs below which represent the average statewide achievement percentile for the group of high-achieving students who were in 3rd grade in 2013-14 and 8th grade in 2017-18. The top graph (orange lines) shows mathematics achievement, while the bottom graph (blue lines) shows literacy achievement. In both content areas, although student performance was similar in 3rd grade, students who were identified as G/T consistently demonstrate higher achievement in every year that follows.

Average Percentile on Mathematics Assessment, Cohort 5. N=1,688
Average Percentile on Literacy Assessment, Cohort 5. N=1,615

A couple things are important to note:

  • The average achievement percentile for G/T and Non-G/T students drop in both math and literacy before rising again. When examining performance over time for a sample selected for very high achievement on the third grade test, we expect that the sample’s average score will move somewhat closer to the statewide average (the 50th percentile).
  • Students in our study completed three different exams over the time period examined: Benchmark, PARCC, and ACT Aspire. Although we standardized the scores to z-scores to allow comparison over time, the PARCC results for all of our groups are consistently lower than the preceding or subsequent scores. This group of students took the Benchmark exams in 3rd and 4th grade, the PARCC assessment in 5th grade, and the ACT Aspire in 6th through 8th grades.
  • These graphs are simple illustrations of descriptive trends, and do not control for any student or district characteristics.

In order to account for other factors that we believe would impact student achievement, we conduct multivariate regressions by year and subject for our 5 cohorts of high-achieving 3rd graders. We find G/T identification is associated with math scores that are between 10% and 39% higher (depending on the grade and year) than those of similarly high-achieving students who were not identified as G/T. In literacy the relationship was somewhat less pronounced, as G/T identification is associated with literacy scores that are between 4% and 24% higher (depending on the grade and year) than those of similarly high-achieving students who were not identified as G/T.

Even though this study does not provide causal inferences, it highlights a consistent positive association between gifted services and longer-term student academic achievement for those students that perform in the top 5% on third grade state assessments of literacy and mathematics. This is in contrast to other studies that have found little to no impacts (e.g., Adelson et al., 2012; Redding and Grissom, in press).

The association between academic growth and gifted education may range from curriculum, peer effects, to teachers’ ability to identify the right students who are most likely to benefit from gifted services provided, the motivational or labeling effect of being identified as gifted, in addition to the basic set of individual differences in characteristics or aptitudes that selected students may bring. While we cannot identify what aspects of gifted education in Arkansas casually contribute, individually or in combination, to increased student achievement, our findings are valuable because they provide an academic window into what happens from the 3rd through 8th grade to high achieving students across Arkansas who are and are not identified as G/T.

We note that state assessment scores do not address all the aspects of Arkansas’ G/T model and thus the associations we pick up may not necessarily capture those aspects of identification and programming.

However, it seems like the current G/T process in Arkansas is working for students. School districts at the minimum should keep their G/T practices to help high potential and ability students until any causal mechanism is detected. Though G/T seems to be associated with positive academic outcomes for students, this does not rule out improvements or expansions to the identification or programming processes that might be useful, such as using mathematics and literacy measures as selection tools not just as evaluation tools. Additionally, the success of Arkansas, in a sense, may illuminate useful strategies that may lead to more effective educational opportunities for high achieving students in other states and regions.

Addressing the Teacher Shortage

In The View from the OEP on March 10, 2021 at 11:30 am

On Monday, TNTP released a report examining Arkansas’ teacher shortage and providing some suggestions for how to ensure that every student in Arkansas has a high-quality teacher in their classroom. Here at OEP, we agreed with most of their suggestions, and have some of our own!

According to the report:

  • Statewide, 4% of public school teachers are uncertified, with another 3% teaching out of field.
  • Shortages are concentrated in districts in the southern part of the state and in the Delta region.
  • Students of color are more likely to have uncertified teachers.

Recommended solutions are to:

  • Create a supportive pathway to certification for paraprofessionals, long term substitutes, and classroom aides.
  • Raise average teacher salaries.
  • Improve communication about pathways to licensure and related financial incentives.

One recommendation that we felt was missing was removing barriers in the hiring pipeline. In order to apply for a job, teachers have to go to individual district websites and apply. That’s why we created ARteachers.org, a free resource designed to make it easier for teachers to find great jobs, and for school districts to find great teachers. ARteachers.org uses a common application format that is customized for teachers. Teachers can also indicate that they are interesting in long-term substitute opportunities and that they would like to be contacted by districts looking for teachers. Districts can recruit the teachers they are looking for, instead of waiting for them to find their website and apply. In addition, the site will provide the state better information about how many teaching positions are open each year, and how many teachers are looking for jobs. Having this information is vitally important to developing policies that will be effective in ensuring every student in the state has a great teacher. If you know teachers looking for jobs, or districts looking for teachers, please let them know about ARteachers.org.

We think the report’s recommendation to create more opportunities for unlicensed members of education communities without a degree to obtain certification is great. Here at OEP, we suggest that the programs need to be designed with the understanding that these future teachers continue to work in the school while pursuing a degree and licensure. In addition, although the report suggests eligibility for loan forgiveness after the teacher has taught for five years, the up-front costs would likely be a significant barrier. To reduce the financial barrier, we think Arkansas’s colleges and universities should offer scholarships to support these local educators on their path to licensure.

The report’s recommendation to raise the average teacher salary, however, will be expensive and likely ineffective. As we have said before, all districts receive the same per-pupil funding from the state, and local priorities determine how it is spent. Each district sets their own teacher salary schedule. In our research, we find that teacher salaries are mostly driven by student-teacher ratios; teachers with fewer students receive lower salaries. Arkansas has very low student: teacher ratio of 14:1. In our research into teacher supply, we found that a districts’ average salary was not related to the number of applicants. The largest drivers were district size and location, and raising the average salary statewide wouldn’t change that.

We agree with the report’s recommendation that there needs to be improved communication about pathways to licensure and financial incentives. We feel like DESE has been working on communicating pathways to licensure through the Teach Arkansas campaign. We have been talking about the issues with incentives for a while. It is important to research if these dollars are making a difference for Arkansas students, and continue to learn more about how to effectively recruit and retain teachers in our schools.

Effects of School District Consolidation in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on March 3, 2021 at 12:34 pm

School district consolidation has been one of the most prevalent education reforms over the last century. As a result of consolidation efforts, the number of public school districts in the U.S. declined from 117,108 to 13,551 between 1940 and 2018. Despite the scale of this reform effort, relatively little rigorous research ‎explores the effect of district and school consolidation on student achievement. In this blog post, we summarize a new Arkansas Education Report that investigates the impact of a recent district consolidation law in Arkansans.

The latest round of school consolidation in Arkansas arose in response to school finance litigation that occurred throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. The decade-long litigation culminated in 2003 with the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional in Lake View School District vs. Huckabee.

Governor Mike Huckabee responded to the court’s decision in part by proposing large-scale school district consolidation to reduce district administrative costs and provide greater educational opportunity for students. In early 2004, the legislature passed Act 60, which required the consolidation of any district with average daily attendance of fewer than 350 students for two consecutive school years.

The new law resulted in a substantial number of district consolidations in the years that followed. Table 1 presents the number of district consolidations occurring each year beginning with the 2004-05 school year. In the first year the law was in effect, 59 school districts were required to consolidate. Although Act 60 continues to have an impact as enrollments decline in rural districts, only a few districts have been required to consolidate since the initial wave in 2005.

Figure 1 shows the geographic location and district borders of the 99 districts that were either a consolidated or a receiving district in the 2004-05 school year. The map depicts district borders in the year prior to consolidation and districts are color-coded to indicate which districts combined due to Act 60. The initial round of consolidations was relatively widespread across the state, affecting districts in every region. Districts subject to Act 60 enjoy some autonomy in determining which other district to merge with; however, the overwhelming majority have merged with adjoining district.

Studying consolidation is challenging because, in most cases, districts voluntarily choose to consolidate for any number of reasons such as perceived cost benefits or to take advantage of state financial incentives. Districts that choose to consolidate are likely different from those that don’t in many observable and unobservable ways. These differences can lead results from simple comparisons of consolidated districts to unaffected districts to be biased.

Fortunately, Act 60 provides an opportunity to overcome this common challenge. In our analysis, we compare districts whose enrollment was just above or below the enrollment cut-off designated by Act 60. Students in districts with enrollment of less than 350 in the two years immediately prior to the passage of Act 60 are assigned to the treatment group and students in the remaining districts represent the control group. Given that the cutoff was not known in advance, comparing districts right around the consolidation threshold approximates random assignment, yielding two groups of students which should be quite similar except for the treatment group gets consolidated.

We estimate the effect of district consolidation on student performance on the state’s standardized test in math and English Language Arts (ELA). Our results are based on individual student-level data that allow us to follow students across years and school districts. We find small positive effects in both subjects. In math, the average effect is 4 percent of a standard deviation and is only marginally statistically significant. The average effect in ELA is slightly larger, 6 percent of a standard deviation, and is statistically significant. We also investigated how these effects varied over time, finding inconsistent results for mathematics but consistent positive and significant results in ELA. Overall, it appears that consolidation had a positive, albeit small impact on student performance in Arkansas.

While student achievement is important, the primary motivation that policymakers articulated for consolidating smaller school districts in Arkansas was to achieve cost savings through economies of scale. Even if consolidation only had small positive effects on achievement, Act 60 would still be considered a success if consolidation reduced administrative and other spending outside of the classroom, freeing up resources for additional classroom spending or to be redirected toward other important public purposes.

To investigate whether districts affected by consolidation experienced positive economies of scale we compare district-level spending trends before and after consolidation occurred. Table 2 presents a summary of financial information for districts affected by consolidation and Arkansas averages for even numbered school years between 2004 and 2008.

In 2004, prior to consolidation, districts that would be forced to consolidate by Act 60 spent $1,098 more per student, on average, than the state as a whole.  In addition, these districts spent  a lesser share on classroom teachers, and a greater share on other certified staff like administrators than did other school districts in Arkansas (see Columns 1-3 of Table 2). On the surface, these discrepancies support the argument that consolidation had the potential to deliver improvements through greater economies of scale. 

However, when we compare expenditure trends for districts affected by consolidation to unaffected districts, we find little evidence that affected districts meaningfully deviated from broader state trends after consolidation. Columns 4-7 of Table 2 shows that Act 60 affected districts exhibit consistent resource allocation over time to both classroom staff and other certified staff (see last two rows of Table 2). 

While affected districts experienced increased spending per pupil, that trend did not deviate significantly from the overall state trend. State average spending per pupil increased by $1,781 between 2004 and 2008, while spending in consolidation affected districts increased by $1,694.

School district consolidation has been an important and sometime contentious reform in Arkansas. Overall, it appears that the first wave of consolidations under Act 60 may have had small positive effects on achievement but did little to improve the efficiency of the state’s smaller school districts. These findings are relevant today because Act 60 continues to impact Arkansas’s school districts and district leaders and policymakers continue to discuss the value of consolidation/annexation. 

In 2015 the legislature passed Act 377 which allows the State Board of Education (SBE) to grant waivers to the consolidation requirement under Act 60 (see page 11 here). As recently as the fall of 2020, the SBE granted waivers to four districts that were subject to Act 60. In addition, the SBE has used consolidation/annexation as a tool to address consistently poor student performance and/or financial distress. In December, the SBE approved the annexation of the Dollarway School District, which was previously taken over by the state, into the Pine Bluff School District. 

Our research indicates that district consolidation is not likely to result in dramatic improvements in student performance or district efficiency, but small improvements are possible. However, these improvements must be weighed against the legitimate concerns of the communities whose schools are facing consolidation/annexation. If Arkansas is going to continue to use consolidation/annexation as a tool to improve district performance, it is important that we continue to conduct research to determine if these policies are making a positive difference for students and if they make sound fiscal sense.

New Research on Arkansas Challenge Scholarships

In The View from the OEP on February 17, 2021 at 12:30 pm

The Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship (ACS) has awarded over 600,000 college scholarships to Arkansas students. ACS is a state-financed merit-aid program with relatively low eligibility requirements, and there is no expectation of repayment. Governor Asa Hutchinson has expressed interest in enhancing ACS funding for students demonstrating a financial need, and results from new research out today highlights the fact that the timing of receiving money may heavily influence student behavior and postsecondary outcomes. Researchers find that receiving ACS funds initially while already in college resulted in small, negative impacts on short-run outcomes such as GPA and credit accumulation, but large statistically significant declines in the likelihood of graduating within four, five, or six years of entering college.

While a version of the ACS dates back to the 1990s, legislation passed in 2008 dramatically expanded the program by tying funding to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. Expansion of the Academic Challenge Scholarship allowed some students who were already enrolled in college to become eligible for the scholarship. In the current study, researchers examined how receipt of the scholarship impacted students’ college GPA, credit accumulation and likelihood of graduation. For more details about the research, you can read the full paper, or the shorter policy brief, but we wanted to share the highlights:

  • Overall, students who received the scholarship funds while already enrolled in college earned lower GPAs, accumulated fewer credits, and were over 40 percentage points less likely to graduate in four, five, or six years relative to their peers who did not receive the scholarship.
  • Compared to their peers, students who began receiving funding during their sophomore year of college enrollment:
    • earn lower GPAs and accumulate a staggering 18 fewer credits within the first year of receiving their scholarship
    • earn GPAs, on average, 0.75 points lower, and accumulate 24 fewer credits two years after receiving funding,
    • were 53-62 percentage points less likely to graduate in four, five, or six years.
  • Compared to their peers, students who began receiving funding during their junior year of college enrollment:
    • appear to have few significant changes in their GPA, or credit accumulation after one or two years,
    • experienced no statistically significant change in their likelihood of graduating within four, five, or six years.
  • Compared to their peers, students who began receiving funding during their senior year of college enrollment:
    • experienced small declines in their credit accumulation and GPA,
    • were 54 percentage points more likely to graduate within six years than students who did not receive funding.

It may seem counter-intuitive that receiving scholarship money would have a negative effect, but the research on college merit aid have found mixed effects of such programs on student outcomes. In the only study of randomly assigned aid offers, Angrist and colleagues (2016), find that being assigned to receive merit-aid increases both the probability of enrolling and persisting in college and demonstrates that students with relatively low academic achievement and those who enrolled in less-selective four-year institutions generated the largest gains in both outcomes. However, this same study also indicates that students appear to delay graduation to a fifth year in order to maximize scholarship funding if the program is renewable beyond four years.

We need to continue to research how the ACS funds effect outcomes for Arkansas students, including longer-term workforce outcomes. If the timing of the money matters, awarding the scholarship funds in the most effective way will lead to better outcomes for our students and our state.