University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for 2022|Yearly archive page

It’s Time to Address the “F”

In The View from the OEP on May 25, 2022 at 11:10 am

As report cards are being sent home this time of year, we thought it was a good time to talk about course failure.

Over the past 10 years, high school freshman course failure rates have declined, but more than 1 in 5 students still fail a course in 9th grade. We have shared our earlier research on the statistically significant relationship between high school freshmen GPAs and high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. This led us to dig into the data, and find out which courses kids are failing, and which types of students are the most likely to fail.  We spent this spring semester analyzing ten different cohorts of Arkansas freshmen and from 2010-2019 to explore these three questions. You can read the whole paper or the shorter policy brief, but in this blog we will hit the highlights of what we found.

In 2018-19, the most recent year of data analyzed, we find that 22 percent of Arkansas high school freshman failed at least one course.

The demographic and programmatic characteristics of our Arkansas freshmen sample are below:

Male50.8%Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL)59.1%
White62.0%Gifted and Talented (GT)13.1%
Black19.2%English Language Learners (ELL)6.8%
Hispanic13.1%Special Education (SPED)11.6%
Other Races5.8%Total N35,180

And these groups of students have failure rates with respect to the average that look like this:

As you can see, freshmen demographic and programmatic groups with failure rates higher than average are Black, free-or-reduced lunch (FRL, our proxy for economically disadvantaged), English Language Learners (ELL), male, students receiving special education services (SPED), and Hispanic students. Black students have a failure rate almost 13 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

We then considered these failure rates might be different across the geographic regions of Arkansas. The failure rates by gender and race/ethnicity by region are are similar to statewide rates, but we find unexpected variation among the programmatic course failure averages by geographic region:

Overall, the Northwest region has the lowest failure rate at 18.7 percent, and the Southeast region has the highest failure rate at 28.5 percent. Among programmatic groups however, the FRL, GT, and ELL status course failure percentages are the highest in the Central region. Freshman students in the Central region that participate in the FRL program, or receive ELL or GT program services are more likely to fail at least one course than we would expect given the overall failure rate for the region and the statewide average.

Now that we’ve found Black students have the highest rate of course failures, the Northwest region has the lowest overall failure rate, the Southeast region has the highest failure rate, and programmatic groups are failing at the highest rates in the Central region, we need to investigate what courses Arkansas freshmen are failing. Below are the top ten most failed courses by Arkansas freshmen in 2018-19. We identify core content courses (mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies) with a check mark.

 Failure PercentageCore
Algebra I12.3
Spanish I9.2 
Physical Science9.1
Computer Business Applications8.9 
English 98.8
US History since 18908.4
Family and Consumer Sciences6.4 
World History since 14505.7
Oral Communications5.1 

Algebra I is the course with the highest failure rate for Arkansas freshmen, and this is consistently true statewide for all years examined. Spanish I is the highest failed non-core course for the 2018-19 group of freshmen, but other non-core courses like Computer Business Applications and Art are often in the highest failed non-core course spot.

Now, it might seem like we have addressed our questions, but not as mathematically confidently as we could. Econometrics has some handy mathematical tools that allow us to account for similarities and differences among the groups of students who share demographic and programmatic characteristics, who have similar prior academic achievement, who complete course work similarly their freshmen year, and who are in similar districts in Arkansas. This helps us find a fairer way to measure the effects of students across the state that aren’t skewed towards differences across regions and districts.

Using a logit regression analysis for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years to account for the differences of students across the state, we find statistically significant results below.

Initially, our Black student group had the highest course failure rate, but they are not necessarily most likely to fail a course their freshman year. After the regression that accounts and controls for differences and similarities,

  • White students are actually 1.5 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than Black students.
  • Economically disadvantaged students are almost 9 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year compared to more advantaged students.
  • White economically disadvantaged students are 11.2 percentage points more likely to fail than White advantaged students.
  • Among economically disadvantaged students, White students are 4.5 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than Black students.

Interestingly, among our four program statuses, FRL, GT, ELL, and SPED, three of the four denote a less likely to fail association. Students not receiving special education services are 13.1 percentage points more likely to fail a course their freshman year than students receiving special education services. Students not in the GT program or ELL program are also more likely to fail compared to those who are in the programs. Participation in these three programs and services is associated with a lower likelihood of failure, whereas participation in the FRL program is associated with more likely to fail.

This points us to believe SPED, ELL, and GT students are receiving services and assistance that helps them succeed and pass their courses, but that FRL status students are not getting the support that they need. So, what can we do with this information?

In general, programs that have been found to be effective for helping failing or at-risk freshmen are professional learning communities (PLCs), reviewing student data that focuses on the most at-risk students (lower grades and higher absences), arranging Freshman success meetings, and forming intentional relationships with lower GPA students.

To get to the core of the problem the quickest, Arkansas district leaders should consider enacting a “no-zero” policy or minimum grading policies (Feldman, 2019). When a 0-100 scale is utilized in public schools, the weight of the failing 50 points disproportionately harms students of color, low-income students, and English Language Learners. Feldman (2019) reports schools that implement a minimum grading policy, assigning each letter grade the same amount of points, decreased student failures, reduced grade inflation, and reduced achievement gaps. While this policy recommendation may be uncomfortable for teachers as it challenges the norm and the standard zero grade as a punishment, it is necessary to help eliminate the possibility of grading bias.

Malecki and Demaray (2016) suggest social mentorship programs for FRL students from teachers and principals as a support to help them succeed. Economically disadvantaged students feel more welcomed and like they have a place at school when they have a direct relationship with a mentor.

Overall, since freshmen grades and GPAs are associated with future academic success, and we have concerns that our economically disadvantaged students might not be receiving the supports they need to succeed, we need immediate attention brought to each district on grading policies. Identifying and removing barriers to student success is a step towards helping all Arkansas students experience better academic and social outcomes.

If you are interested in the freshman failure rates for your district, shoot us an email at! We would be happy to identify which students in your district are failing and see if we can help you remove barriers to your students’ success. We are presenting this work at the ADE Summit in July, and we hope to see you there!

OEP is Seeking Summer Interns!

In The View from the OEP on April 27, 2022 at 11:45 am

The Office for Education Policy (OEP) at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, is seeking two interested, enthusiastic interns to work on special projects this summer.
Projects include developing policy briefs and/or Arkansas Education Reports (AERs) on relevant education policy topics, as well as participating in educational program evaluation.
OEP specializes in education research and policy to support lawmakers and educators in thoughtful decision-making for PreK-20 education in Arkansas.

Required Qualifications
• Strong writing skills
• Interest in education policy issues
Preferred Qualifications
• Prior research experience
• Experience working with large datasets and statistical software programs
• Interest in pursuing a degree in education policy, preferably the Ph.D. program offered through the Department of Education Reform

Location: Fayetteville, AR (possibility of remote work for qualified applicants)
Compensation: $3,500
Timeframe: Six weeks with a flexible timeline between June 1 and August 31
Housing: We do not provide housing; however, we can assist in finding temporary housing for the summer in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

How to apply: To be considered for this opportunity, please submit a letter of interest and resume by May 11, 2022 to Sarah McKenzie at

2022 “Best” High Schools-

In The View from the OEP on April 27, 2022 at 11:30 am
US Badge

Yesterday, U.S. News & World Report released their annual “Best High Schools” rankings.  These rankings always make the news but here at the OEP, we want to make sure that you understand what the “best” title is based on. U.S. News changed their methodology, so we want to share what we like (and don’t) about the methodology, and examine what we think is a missing indicator of high school success- whether or not students are enrolling in college after graduation.

First, congratulations to those Arkansas high schools that made the list for 2022! Below are the US News Top 10 for Arkansas (for context, we noted the 2020-21 percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch provided in MySchoolInfo, which is used as an indicator of student poverty rates):

  1. Haas Hall Academy (6% FRL)
  2. Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy High (5% FRL)
  3. Bentonville High School (15% FRL)
  4. LISA Academy North High School (51% FRL)
  5. Rogers New Tech (61% FRL)
  6. Greenbrier High (34% FRL)
  7. Fayetteville High (33% FRL)
  8. Bentonville West High School (22% FRL)
  9. Bismarck High (47% FRL)
  10. Maumelle Charter High (21% FRL)

What makes these schools the “Best”?

U.S. News uses a methodology that changed in 2019 which includes six indicators to rank the nation’s high schools.  The indicators are combined to give each high school’s overall score between zero and 100 that represents what percentile position a school is in out of the 17,843 ranked schools across the nation. Listed below, along with how much weight each is given in the overall score calculation, the indicators represent advanced course taking/exam passing, performance on state assessments, and graduation rate.

  • Indicator 1: College Readiness (30% of overall score)  The proportion of a school’s 12th graders that took and passed Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate exams in 2019-20.
  • Indicator 2: State Assessment Proficiency (20% of overall score)  A simple measure of schools’ student performance on state assessments. This measure is a weighted measure of performance, where schools are awarded 1 to 4 points per student depending on their performance on the ACT Aspire math, English Language
  • Indicator 3: State Assessment Performance (20% of overall score)  A measure of how students in a school perform on state assessments compared to how U.S. News predicted a school would score given the demographic characteristics of its students.
  • Indicator 4:  College Curriculum Breadth (10% of overall score) A measure of how many 12th grade students passed multiple AP/IB exams. Earning a qualifying score is weighted three times more than taking.
  • Indicator 5:  Underserved Student Performance (10% of overall score) An evaluation of the difference between how underserved students (black, Hispanic, and low-income) scored on state assessments compared with the average for non-underserved students.
  • Indicator 6:  Graduation Rate (10% of overall score) The proportion of students who entered ninth grade in the 2016-2017 academic year who graduated four years later in 2020.

College Readiness, College Curriculum Breadth, and Graduation Rate are standardized nationally, while state assessment results were standardized within the state. The standardized scores were weighted, summed, and transformed into a percentile.

thumbs up

3 things we like about the U.S. News rankings:

1. Performance on state exams factors in the racial/economic background of the students served by the school.

Schools serving a lower percentage of students who are historically underserved (defined as Black/African-American students, Hispanic/Latin students, and students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) typically have higher test scores than schools serving a higher percentage of students from these groups, but the U.S. News ranking takes that into account.

2. Performance of historically underserved populations is considered.

Students who are historically underserved generally score lower on state assessments than white, Asian, and/or economically advantaged students.  Schools where the equity gap between historically underserved and non-underserved groups is smaller than the state average get higher scores.

3. AP passing rates are considered as well as AP participation.

Under Arkansas’ ESSA plan, the number of students taking an AP class is rewarded, but there is no consideration to how well students perform on the AP tests.  This is particularly important because, unlike students in most other states, Arkansas students do not have to pay to take AP tests, so we can consider the passing rates a more reliable measure of how well the AP content is being taught.

thumbs down3 things we don’t like about the rankings:

1. The data are OLD

The data used by U.S. News for the 2022 rankings are from the 2018-19 school year – nearly two years old and before the pandemic.  We hope that stakeholders will keep that in mind as they search for their school on the “Best” list.

2. Focus is just on College

Only ‘college ready’ indicators are considered.  We would like to see U.S. News including more indices of career readiness, because not everyone wants to go to college and the ‘best’ high schools should meet the learning goals of all of their students.

3. Focus is on Proficiency, not Growth

Here at OEP, we are strong proponents of student-level growth models.  We understand that it is impossible to compare this type of student growth across states because each state uses a different assessment, but we feel it is important to point out that even though they consider the demographics of the students served by the school, Arkansas’ growth model provides better information about how well students are GROWING academically from year to year.

grad cap

Does College-Ready Mean College Going?

With the focus that these rankings place on college-readiness, here at the OEP we felt like a big piece of the success of these schools was not included in the ranking.  We wondered,  “Are students from these ‘Best’ high schools actually going to college?”.

ADE releases the College Going rates for schools through the annual state report card, so we looked up the 2020-21 rates for the top 10 U.S. News schools. As presented in Table 1, between 25% and 76% of graduates from these high schools went on to enroll in college.

Table 1. College Going Rates for top 10 U.S. News High Schools, all students and economically disadvantaged students, 2020-21

SchoolCollege-Going Rate – All Students College-Going Rate – FRL Students
Haas Hall54Not Applicable
NWA Classical4333
LISA North5252
Rogers New Tech3630
Bentonville West4030

Does this seem weird? Only 54% of students from Haas Hall, the “best” high school in Arkansas, went on to college?  Well, the thing about the college going rates reported by ADE is that it only includes students going to college IN ARKANSAS.  Each year, about 5-6% of Arkansas graduates attend schools out of state.  Unfortunately, we don’t have national data including Arkansas students who attend college out of state.

We also want to point out that there are some high schools with much higher college-going rates: Emerson High had the highest rate with 81% of students going on to college, while Oden and Bearden followed with 71% and 70%, respectively. These schools don’t make the top 10 list, however, in part because they are so small that the scores for College Readiness and College Breadth were not calculated because fewer than 10 students were administered at least one AP assessment.

The schools identified as the “Best” in Arkansas in 2022 demonstrate high student achievement and lots of opportunities for college- level work. Students in those advanced classes are successful to the AP/ IB exams, and underrepresented populations seem to be performing better than expected. But the methodology used by U.S. News doesn’t tell us if students are going to college after high school, which is, in our opinion, and overlooked measure of a “Best” high school. Other indicators, such as industry certifications earned, completion of a coherent Career and Technical Education sequence, and employment after high school graduation are also indicators of a high school that is doing a great job to prepare students for their future.

OEP is working to gather information on these other indicators of how well our high schools are preparing students for success after high school. Stay tuned!

Building transitions lead to lower value-added growth for middle-school students

In The View from the OEP on April 6, 2022 at 1:18 pm

Today’s blog is written by Kathryn Barnes, a Graduate Researcher in OEP and former middle school teacher.

Picture this: It’s back to school open house and your student is making a big move from a small elementary school to the middle school. What questions do you think your student will ask the teacher?  in my experience as a former middle school teacher, no student or parent asks questions about curriculum or standardized tests.  Their questions revolve around things like schedules, locker combinations, class sizes, sports, transportation, and school lunches.  Open houses shed light on the idea that when school transitions take place, learning might not be the sole focus of students.

School transitions can present students with an overwhelming number of changes.  It almost seems expected that a transition to a new school building might have an impact on learning.  Educators who work with students during transition grades are cautioned to watch for changes in students learning.  Several studies have been done that show that transition years can negatively impact student achievement, however, no studies examine the effects of a transition years on student growth.  Our study seeks to answer the following question: Do students demonstrate lower academic growth after a transition to a new school building?

Growth vs. Proficiency 

To educators, the debate of growth versus proficiency is just as famous as the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (only educators are still waiting on a catchy musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda).  The simplest way to describe the difference between the two sounds like a quote from Jerry Garcia:  Proficiency is about the destination while growth is about the journey.

Proficiency: Proficiency is about a reaching level of achievement at a certain point in time. More specifically, proficiency is achievement that is considered “good enough” for that point in time.  Think about end of year standardized tests.  A student is proficient if they are at grade level.

Growth: Growth focuses on learning over time.  There is a greater emphasis placed on how much students learn over the course of the year, rather than what they can demonstrate at the end of the year.  A student who has high growth, but low achievement might not be at grade level but increased their math skills from a 2nd grade level to a 4th grade level in once school year. 

Here at OEP, we love using student growth as a metric for success.  Check out some of our other blog posts on this topic here and here.  

Our Study

In Arkansas, individual school districts make the decision about what grade levels require a transition to a new school building.  The table below shows the number of schools that make transitions at certain grades.  At 7th grade, for example, in 167 schools, students attend a different school building than they did for 6th grade.

Count of Arkansas Schools by Transition Year, 2020-21

To examine the difference in grade-level value added growth scores for students who transitioned to a new school compared to students who did not, we used publicly available mathematics and English language arts (ELA) grade-level value-added growth data for grades 3-10. The initial comparisons in grade-level value-added growth scores between transition years and non-transition years for the 2020-21 school year are shown in the graphs below.

After seeing these results graphically, we thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if there is a way to predict the value-added growth scores during a transition year.” Well, thanks to econometrics, there is a way to do this!  Using five years’ worth of data, we ran a regression analysis to predict school grade-level growth scores given specific student characteristics.  We conducted this analysis for the following student populations: White students, Black Students, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (a proxy for low socioeconomic status), and the combined student population. 

Our analysis returned results that were mostly not statistically significant, which ideally, is the result that we would want to see.  The exception were our results from 6th and 7th grade.  Most of the estimates from 6th and 7th grade over the span of 5 school years were statistically significant.  The results showed that a transition in the 6th and 7th grade is associated with a decrease in value added growth scores compared to students who do not transition.  In layman’s terms, our results tell us that based on past data, student groups who transition upwards to a new school in either the 6th or 7th grade show less growth when compared to 6th and 7th grade students who did not change buildings.  These results are similar for both math and ELA.   This can be concerning because, if you recall from the table earlier, 7th grade is the most common transition year in Arkansas. For more information, please refer to the full paper.   

Moving Forward

Our findings from this study indicate that policymakers and school district leaders should pay special attention to 6th and 7th grade students that experience a building transition. While overall trends do not indicate a substantial difference in value-added growth scores, students in the 6th and 7th grade who transition do show less growth compared to their peers who do not transition.  Based on our findings, we would recommend deploying an age appropriate and research-informed program to be implemented during schools that transition in the 6th or 7th grade that focus on academic and social-emotional health of young adolescents.  Examples of successful programs could provide activities that involve students, parents, teachers, counselors, and staff from the former to the transition school.  The goals of these programs would be to encourage collaboration among school stakeholders such as teachers, students, and families, to encourage school leaders to focus on concerns of middle level transitions, and to create a sustainable program that shows positive results over years.  Policymakers might suggest program evaluations focusing on schools with positive value-added growth scores during transitions to see if best practices can be identified and replicated throughout the state.

2021 School Report Cards for NWA and Pulaski County

In The View from the OEP on March 30, 2022 at 12:45 pm

Today we are pleased to release the 2021 Northwest Arkansas and Pulaski County Education Report Card.  These report cards provide an easy-to-understand overview of how students in the area schools performed in the 2020-21 school year.

The report cards are in a ‘dashboard’ format that makes it easy for educators, school administrators, parents, and policymakers to see how school districts and charter schools are performing. Performance on key measures is broken down by Elementary, Middle, and High School levels and compared to regional and state scores.  For large districts, the report cards also include individual school data, where percentile ranks make the achievement and growth scores easy to interpret.

The Report Cards put district-level information about academic growth, academic achievement, and school quality into a one-page context for quick interpretation. The performance data used in the report card are from the 2020-21 school year, the most recent data available at this time.

These key metrics of school performance are reported by the ADE at the school level in ESSA reports, but we feel they are important to consider from a district level to examine how effectively the school system as a whole is educating students, particularly compared to other districts in the same geographic areas. Information on ACT scores and high school graduation rates, which are important outcomes for students at the end of the K-12 journey, are also included.  To help make the connection between district resources and student success, we also include the district’s student to teacher ratio and amount of money that each district spent per-pupil.

That’s a lot of information!  What is the most important?

We believe that the growth scores are the best indicator that districts are doing what’s really important: helping all students learn. Growth scores are less related to student characteristics than achievement scores, as districts serving fewer At Risk students don’t always have higher growth scores.  The Growth Score indicates how much the district’s students in grades 3-10 improved over time on state assessments in English language arts and mathematics. This score also includes how well non-native speakers are progressing toward English language proficiency.

An average district, where students are growing academically just as predicted, will have a growth score of 80. In some districts, however, students are demonstrated greater increases in their academic performance from 2019 to 2021 than we would have predicted. To have a ‘good’ growth score, to be in the top 25% of schools in the state, elementary schools need a growth score of 83 or higher, middle level schools need a growth score of 82 or higher, and high schools need a growth score of 81 or higher.

How Are NWA Schools Doing?

Overall: Northwest Arkansas students demonstrated greater growth in achievement and earning higher scores on the ACT Aspire than are the students in the state overall. Schools in NWA also have higher School Quality and Student Success scores than other schools across the state.

Academic Growth: Bentonville School District had the highest overall growth score among the traditional districts, and was the only one where students demonstrated high academic growth at all levels: elementary, middle, and high school. Springdale students at the elementary and middle levels demonstrated the greatest academic growth in NWA, and 83% of Springdale schools are in the top 25% of schools in the state for academic growth. Haas Hall Academy students demonstrated the highest growth scores at the high school level. Many NWA districts had high growth at one or two levels, and we recommend they focus on identifying how they are supporting student learning at the schools where students are not demonstrating high growth overall.

Academic Achievement: Haas Hall Academy students received the highest point-in-time achievement in the NWA area, with both NWA Classical (now Founders Classical Academy) and Arkansas Arts Academy joining in outperforming traditional districts in achievement. Bentonville School District had the highest achievement score among the traditional districts, and students at the elementary and middle levels demonstrated the greatest academic achievement in NWA. Since point-in-time achievement is so reflective of student demographics, we want to point out that among NWA districts where more than half of the students are eligible for the free/ reduced lunch program, Gravette and Rogers School Districts reported the highest achievement.

School Quality: Prairie Grove School District had the highest School Quality/ Student Success Indicator Score at the Elementary Level. Gravette School District had the highest Indicator Score at the middle level and Haas Hall Academy had the highest School Quality/ Student Success Indicator Score at the high school level. Like achievement, many aspects of the school quality score are reflective of student demographics, so among NWA districts where more than half of the students are eligible for the free/ reduced lunch program, Hope Academy received the highest school quality score.

How Are Schools in Pulaski County Doing?

Overall: Pulaski County students are demonstrating lower growth in achievement than are the students in the state overall. Students in Pulaski County schools also demonstrated lower academic achievement, School Quality and Student Success scores, and graduation rates than students in the state overall.

Academic Growth: LISA Academy students demonstrated the greatest academic growth overall, with students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels all receiving above average growth scores. Jacksonville and North Little Rock School Districts had the highest overall growth score among the traditional districts, reflecting above average growth at the high school level. Students at Friendship Aspire had the highest growth at the middle level and students at Academics Plus demonstrated the highest growth at the elementary level.

Academic Achievement: Academics Plus also had the highest point-in-time achievement of the Pulaski County area schools. Pulaski County Special School District had the highest achievement score among the traditional districts, overall and across all school levels. Since point-in-time achievement is highly correlated with student demographics, we want to point out that among districts where more than half of the students are eligible for the free/reduced lunch program, LISA Academy reported the highest achievement.

School Quality: Academics Plus also received the highest School Quality/ Student Success Indicator Score overall. Pulaski County Special School District was the highest scoring traditional public school district in School Quality.

What’s the Takeaway?

In both the NWA and Pulaski County region, there are educational settings where students are demonstrating high growth by making larger academic gains than predicted based on their past performance. We want to point out that high academic growth can be found at all different types of schools from Willowbrook Elementary in Bentonville that serve few “at risk” students, to George Elementary in Rogers where 88% of students participate in the free/reduced lunch program and 60% are non-native English speakers. Students demonstrate high academic growth in schools like Haas Hall, which also has high academic achievement, and also districts like Decatur where academic achievement is relatively low.

Here at the OEP, we think growth scores are a meaningful reflection of increased student learning, and that high growth scores can be achieved by any type of school.

  • To have a ‘good’ growth score, to be in the top 25% of schools in the state, Elementary schools need a growth score of 83 or higher, Middle level schools need a growth score of 82 or higher, and High Schools need a growth score of 81 or higher.
  • If your school or district received a growth score of 80, students are demonstrating average growth in their academic performance on the state assessments in English language arts and mathematics.
  • If your school or district received a growth score below 78, students in your school or district are less likely to demonstrate academic growth than in the majority of schools in the state, and you should look for the reason.   Remember that unlike achievement, student characteristics like poverty are not highly related to growth.

If you want to know more about your school’s performance, check out myschoolinfo and type in your school name.  Under the “Reports” tab you can find the “ESSA report” for your school.

We hope that these report cards stimulate meaningful discussion about the educational settings within the communities, and look forward to hearing your thoughts. We invite you to share these report cards with those who are curious about the state of education in Northwest Arkansas or Pulaski County.

For more information about current education issues, check out OEP’s Policy Briefs and Blog.  If you are interested in digging into data, head on over to our website, where you can dive into all of the publicly available data on demographicstest scores, and finances.  The more we can be informed, share the good news, and look for ways to improve, the better Arkansas education will be.

If you would like a printed copy of a report card, please send us an email at and let us know which one and where you want it sent!

African American students experience low academic growth

In The View from the OEP on February 2, 2022 at 12:01 pm

Here at OEP, we love Arkansas’ growth scores as we think they are the best measure of how well schools are educating their students. Recently, we have been digging into publicly available school-level growth scores for student racial and programmatic populations. You can read the full policy brief for the details, but we’ll summarize our most important result here. We were surprised to find that African American students, on average, persistently experience lower rates of academic growth in ELA and math than other student populations.

The finding that African American students are, on average, consistently experiencing low growth relative to other students in the state with similar prior test scores is surprising. We would not expect this finding, as, unlike proficiency or achievement rates, growth scores are not strongly correlated with school characteristics such as the percentage of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. We found that growth scores are also not related to class size, or school expenditures.

We limit our racial analysis to Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic students, as these are the groups with the largest enrollment in Arkansas public schools. About 60% of the student population is Caucasian, 20% of students are African-American, and 18% of students are Hispanic. In Figures 1 and 2, we present the average school-level growth scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics by racial group for the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21 school years. Growth scores are not available for the 2019-20 school year due to COVID-related school closures.

Figure 1. Average school-level ELA growth score by race, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.
Figure 2. Average school-level ELA growth score by race, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

Hispanic students received the highest average school-level growth scores in ELA and math in each of the three years examined, indicating that Hispanic students in Arkansas schools are consistently making above-average growth in measures knowledge and skills from one year to the next. Caucasian students have a score just slightly above the annual average of 80, indicated by the red line. African-American students consistently receive the lowest growth scores in ELA and math compared to Caucasian and Hispanic students. In 2021, African-American students’ growth scores in ELA (77.8) and math (76.8) are statistically significantly lower than Caucasian and Hispanic students’ growth scores.

Further examination by grade level revealed that in all grades in the years examined, African American growth is lower than the annual state average of 80, indicated by the red line. Average school-level ELA and math growth scores for African American students is shown by grade in Figures 3 and 4, respectively. You will notice that in both content areas, growth scores are particularly low in the elementary grades. In addition, in 2021 African American elementary students demonstrated large declines compared to prior grade-level growth. In ELA, 3rd grade growth declined 2 points, while 5th and 6th grade growth declined about 1.5 points. In math, 3rd grade growth was down nearly 5 points and around 2 points in 4th and 5th grades.

Figure 3. Average school-level ELA growth score for African American students, by grade, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

Figure 4. Average school-level math growth score for African American students, by grade, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

The meager growth rates for African American students are particularly disconcerting, as African American students in Arkansas are less likely than other student groups to meet grade level standards on state assessments. In 2021, only 16.6% of African American students met or exceeded grade level standards in English Language Arts, and only 13.9% met or exceeded grade level standards in mathematics. African American students need to be growing at the fastest rate if they are going to reach grade level targets and have the skills needed to meet their post-secondary goals.

The trend we have identified don’t illuminate why African American students demonstrate lower growth in ELA and math, or why African American students in early elementary grades demonstrated such large declines in average growth in math through COVID, but the data do indicate that the growth of our African American students is an area of significant concern.

There are schools across the state, however, where African American students are demonstrating high levels of academic growth. We identified twelve schools that were consistently in the top 10% of the state for African American students’ growth. These schools ranged from 3% to 59% African American enrollment and from 24% to 70% economically disadvantaged enrollment.

School leaders and concerned stakeholders should examine the school-level growth rates of African American students and consider changes that could increase African American students’ growth and achievement in ELA and math.

You can check out our new data viz that shows school-level growth and achievement scores for student racial and programmatic groups like FRL and English Leaner students in 2017. We hope that you find it interesting and informative, and welcome your feedback about this important topic!