University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

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:

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.

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