University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

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!

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