University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for 2021|Yearly archive page

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:

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:

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, a free resource designed to make it easier for teachers to find great jobs, and for school districts to find great teachers. 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

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.

ABC Pre-K Shows Benefits for ELLs

In The View from the OEP on January 27, 2021 at 11:50 am

Last week, OEP reported on the positive student outcomes associated with Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K attendance. Today, we add further insight to that report’s findings by offering evidence that the ABC program may be especially beneficial for students who enter school with limited English proficiency. These students, often called English Language Learners (ELL), face a unique set of challenges as they navigate K-12 education with the added task of mastering a second language. As we serve an increasing number of ELLs in Arkansas public schools, we must work to determine how to help these students achieve English proficiency as early as possible to mitigate the challenges associated with the language barrier. 

Arkansas’s state-funded ABC program provides tuition-free pre-K opportunities for qualifying families, and it is considered a high-quality program, as ABC teachers must have bachelor’s degrees and AR teacher licenses. Research that examines public pre-K programs in other states demonstrates that ELL students experience especially pronounced benefits from such programs (Gormley, 2008; Lipsey, 2018). We examine whether that pattern holds true for ELL students in Arkansas. In this analysis, we follow three cohorts of Arkansas students (those who began Kindergarten in the fall of 2011, 2012, and 2013) through 5th grade to see the long-term outcomes of ABC participants who enter school with an ELL designation. Our outcomes of interest are math and reading achievement, as demonstrated by statewide assessments, as well as the likelihood of students exiting the ELL program by 5th grade. Our research design does not allow us to make causal claims of the program’s impact, but we hope that these findings will inform us of the potential for ABC programs to serve the ELL student population. You can read the policy brief or the full paper for more details, but here are the takeaways:

•          Approximately 10% of ABC pre-K enrollment is comprised of ELL students, making this student group over-enrolled relative to its 8% of K-12 enrollment. This is a positive and unsurprising pattern, given that ABC targets its enrollment toward high-risk student populations. 

•          We find positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC attendance and math and reading achievement across 3rd to 5th grades in all three cohorts of analysis. Gains are large and meaningful, although they are too limited in most cases to close achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students. 

•          Evidence from our subgroup analysis shows that ELL students who attend ABC pre-K experience a differentially positive benefit in two of three cohorts analyzed. This means that ABC attendance is associated with greater achievement benefits for ELL students over and above the program benefit for English-proficient students. 

•          ELL students who attend ABC pre-K are less likely to remain identified as ELL in 3rd to 5th grades. The process for exiting the ELL program is complex and involves demonstrating English proficiency on a variety of measures. ELL students who attended ABC were 9 percentage points less likely to be designated ELL by 5th grade, compared to those who did not attend ABC prior to starting Kindergarten, in the second cohort of analysis. 

While ELL students are currently over-enrolled in ABC programs relative to their K-12 enrollment, it is clear that they experience especially positive benefits from ABC, over and above the benefits for English-proficient students. Based on the findings from this analysis, policymakers and community leaders should consider efforts to further expand ELL enrollment in ABC pre-K programs across the state. The current strategy for program advertisement is through communication with families in schools, churches, and other community spaces. Additional efforts could include outreach in organizations that include many linguistic-minority community members. Also, program organizers in school districts across the state should ensure that applications and program materials are available in all non-English languages represented in their communities, including Spanish and Marshallese. Education leaders should also brainstorm ways to provide sustained support to this student subgroup, as ABC pre-K participation alone does not seem to be sufficient for closing the gap between ELL/non-ELL achievement. While we would love to employ a causal research design in the future, the patterns presented here are encouraging and suggest that ABC pre-K is a promising early intervention for this vulnerable student group. 

ABC Pre-K Students Outperform Peers

In The View from the OEP on January 20, 2021 at 11:30 am

New research out of OEP examines the relationship between students who attend Arkansas’ ABC pre-K programs and later academic outcomes. We find positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC participation and 3rd grade math and reading achievement in three of our four cohorts, but also that the relationship diminishes by the time students are in 5th grade.

The Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program was launched in 1991, and legislation passed in 2003 outlined specific guidelines and requirements for pre-K programs serving students with ABC funding. ABC educators are required to have bachelor’s degrees and current AR teacher licenses. These are considered rigorous standards compared to many public and private pre-K centers. The ABC program meets eight of ten quality standards set by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

ABC programs primarily serve students at risk for low academic performance. Families with combined household incomes less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free tuition and priority enrollment. Students can also qualify for eligibility if they have other risk factors, including disabilities, developmental delays, or limited English proficiency. When there are additional spots in ABC classrooms unfilled by qualifying students, other children in the community can enroll and pay tuition on an income-based sliding scale. 

The new study from OEP describes the 3rd and 5th grade outcomes of students who enroll in ABC pre-K programs in Arkansas public schools. Our research isn’t causal, because students are not randomly assigned to ABC participation. In an attempt to understand how well these programs are serving students, we follow four cohorts of program participants through elementary school, and we compare their math and reading achievement test scores to those of similar peers who did not attend ABC programs.

You can read the full paper or the policy brief for more details, but here are the highlights:

  • Approximately 25% of each Kindergarten class for each of the four analytic samples attended an ABC pre-K program
  • ABC pre-K participants are more likely to fall into demographic groups that are considered at-risk for low academic performance: approximately 75% of ABC participants qualify for Free or Reduced Price lunch when they start Kindergarten
  • ABC students outperform similar peers on math and reading achievement tests in 3rd grade in three of four cohorts. After controlling for student-level demographic characteristics, there are positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC participation and 3rd grade math and reading achievement for three out of four cohorts of students
  • Relationships between ABC participation and 5th grade achievement are smaller in magnitude than those of 3rd grade and largely not statistically significant. The lack of significant findings in 5th grade is largely the result of declines in average z-scores for ABC participants since 3rd grade.

As Arkansas strives to improve academic outcomes for students, particularly the percentage of students reading on grade level by 3rd grade, positive results associated with ABC pre-K participation should be of particular interest to policymakers and advocates. The lack of significant findings in 5th grade math is largely the result of declines in average z-scores for ABC participants since 3rd grade. Our findings suggest that high-quality pre-K education may be a critical tool for ensuring all students have the opportunity to succeed. While ABC participants score demonstrably higher than similar peers on standardized tests in early elementary school, there are likely even more program benefits for these students. Prior pre-K research demonstrates that these programs can lead to positive social and behavioral outcomes in addition to academic and cognitive benefits (Gorey, 2001). Getting an additional year or two to learn classroom rules and procedures, socialize with peers, and adapt to the school routine should equip students with behavioral and social skills that will help them succeed in Kindergarten and beyond. Arkansas educators and policymakers have an opportunity to ensure that the benefits of high-quality pre-K endure into higher grade levels, and that all students are consistently provided the opportunity to learn and achieve their goals.

Parents/Guardians Share Opinions

In The View from the OEP on January 13, 2021 at 12:45 pm

In November, OEP partnered with DESE’s Office for Family Engagement to administer a survey to parents and guardians of K-12 public school students across the state. Our goal was to learn from the families of Arkansas students about what is working currently as well as future considerations. The report goes to the State Board this week, and we wanted to share the results with you too! Our key takeaways are that most students were attending schools in person (69%), most parents feel like their student is learning about the same or more than normal (62%), and most parents rated their child’s school as doing an “excellent” or “good” job on on the quality of teaching and instruction (72%), and on handling health and safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (71%).

Parents were informed about the survey through social media channels, and superintendents and principals were asked to share the link with the parents and guardians of students in their schools and 17,836 parents/guardians representing 30,381 individual students responded to the survey. We estimate this to be about 6% of the parents/guardians of K-12 students in the state. This is a sample of convenience and the results may not be generalizable to all parents in the state. Parents/guardians of white students were overrepresented in the sample by 15 percentage points compared to statewide student demographics, and the 42% of parents/guardians that reported their student was eligible for the Federal Free/Reduced Lunch Program (FRL) were underrepresented by 24 percentage points compared to statewide student demographics.

In the first part of the survey, parents/guardians responded about what schools should be focused on and their worries regarding COVID-19.

Survey respondents were asked to select which statement they agreed with more:

  • Schools should be focused on rethinking how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children moving forward as a result of the COVID-19 crisis
  • Schools should be focused on trying to get back to the way things were before the COVID-19 crisis as soon as it is safe to do so

We found it interesting that the parents/guardians were nearly evenly split in their opinions. 51% of parents statewide selected “rethinking how we educate students… as a result of the COVID-19 crisis” and 47% of parents selected “get back to the way things were before COVID-19.” Two percent of survey respondents did not answer the question. These results are more evenly split than the national sample, in which 66% of parents supported re-thinking education. When we compare the results of parents that indicated that their student was eligible for the Federal Free/Reduced Lunch Program (FRL) with those who indicated that their student was not eligible to participate in the program, we see differences along these socio-economic lines. Parents of FRL-Eligible students are 10 percentage points more likely to believe that schools should be focused on rethinking how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children moving forward as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Figure 1. Percentage of responses to the question regarding what schools should be focused on, by reported FRL-Eligibility

Overall, parents were most concerned about their child or children staying on track in school, that their child might miss important social interactions, or that someone in their family would get the virus. These were also the top 3 concerns in the national sample. Respondents who indicated that their student was eligible for the Federal Free/Reduced Lunch Program (FRL) reported higher levels of worry than the full sample in all areas except missing social interactions. Figure 1 displays the comparison between the full sample and FRL-eligible parents/guardians who responded that they “worry a lot” or “worry some” to each area.

Figure 2. Percentage of full sample and FRL-eligible parent/guardian responses of “worry a lot” and “worry some” to the question “With regard to the current coronavirus situation, how much do you worry about each of the following as a parent or guardian?”.

In the second part of the survey, parents/guardians responded individually about each child in public school regarding current instructional setting, how much the student was learning compared to the prior year, and perceptions of the student’s school.

Current instructional setting:

The vast majority of parents indicated their student was attending school in person only on their school campus (69%), which is much higher than the national sample, in which only 19% of parents reported that their student was attending school in person. Twenty percent of Arkansas students were reported to be attending online or remotely only, and 10% were reported to be attending part-time in person and part-time remotely. One percent of students were doing “something different” or didn’t respond. These percentages were similar to what DESE reported at the time of the survey: 64% in person, 22% virtual, and 14% part-time in person and part-time remotely.

Reasons for instructional setting selection:

Among parents that selected in-person learning on the school campus, the most popular reasons were worries that their child would not learn as much any other way (74%) and that their child would miss social interactions (52%).  Among parents that selected remote instruction, the main reasons were to reduce the risk of the child getting Covid-19 (84%), as well as health and medical concerns for students, their families, or the community.

Learning amount:

Parents were also asked to compare how much their student was learning this year compared to normal. The majority of parents (62%) felt that their student was learning more (8%) or about the same (54%) as normal, however, there was variation by instructional setting. Parents of remote only or part-time remote students more likely to report that their student was learning less than normal. Among in-person parents, 25% reported that their student was learning less than normal, compared to 38% of remote only parents and 47% of parents whose students were attending school part-time in person and part-time online.

Opinions on daily schedule:

Overall, parents reported that their student was getting about the right amount of time receiving instruction from their teacher(s) (72%), time to communicate directly with their teacher(s), and to ask questions, or get help with assignments (71%). A smaller percentage of parents reported that their student was getting about the right amount of time to interact and communicate with other students (64%). Again there was variation by instructional setting, with parents part-time remote students less likely than parents of in-person students to report that their student was getting “about the right” amount of time receiving instruction from their teacher(s), time to communicate directly with their teacher(s), and to ask questions, or get help with assignments, and to interact and communicate with other students. Parents of students who were only remote were the least likely to report students were getting “about the right” amount of time in all three areas, particularly relative to interacting with other students.

Opinions of school performance:

Survey respondents were asked to rate how well their child(ren)’s school was doing on a variety of measures. Over 70% of parents rated their child’s school as “excellent” or “good” on the quality of teaching and instruction (72%), and on handling health and safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (71%). Over 60% of parents rated their child’s school as doing and “excellent” or “good” job on assessing their child’s progress and level of learning (68%), communicating with parents (66%) and providing additional resources and support to help their child continue learning (62%). Schools received lower ratings in two areas: providing additional resources to support learning and to support students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Some areas received lower levels of agreement, Only 53% of parents felt that their child’s school was doing an “excellent” or “good” job managing online learning programs, and only 43% reported that their child’s school was doing an “excellent” or “good” job support student’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. In large part these lower ratings, however, were due to an increased percentage of respondents who indicated that they did not know how the school was performing in these areas.

Figure 3. Percentage of parent/guardian responses to the question: “How would you currently rate how your child’s school is doing on each of the following?” Full Sample

A challenge in interpreting the survey results is that we do not have the same information from parents before COVID, so we can’t determine if parents’ feelings about their schools have improved or declined as a result of COVID- related changes. Although we examine the survey results by geographic region in the full report, parents and guardians did not identify their school or district, so it is impossible to determine if these results reflect certain school systems or a more general perspective across multiple districts. In addition, certain populations are over- or underrepresented in the responses and parent perspectives may have shifted with the rising rates of COVID. Given these limitations, however, this is valuable information and the large sample indicates that parents want to share their opinions. Here at OEP, we recommend the state consider implementing an annual parent survey so that the opinions of these important stakeholders can continue to be heard and included in the discussion about the future of Arkansas’ public schools. You can find more details about the sample and the results in the full report.