By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate
It’s been a decade since Arkansas legislators passed a law creating a school rating system, and some administrators say it’s time for a change because it doesn’t take into account difficult-to-measure factors like poverty that can affect school performance.
“None of us really like the A to F system because there are flaws in it…because the data is so massive that there are mistakes in it,” Mena School District Superintendent Lee Smith said.
Differences in data reporting can negatively affect a school’s score. For instance in Mena, Smith said a reporting error resulted in not receiving credit for students’ community service hours.
Inconsistencies among buildings on the same campus can cause unintentional harm by resulting in a school dropping down a letter grade, Smith said. Oftentimes districts discover how they should have reported something after the fact, when it’s too late to fix it, he said.
Although it’s a flawed system, Smith recognizes “it’s the best thing we could come up with.”
“One of my sayings is we’re all misinformed about learning because we all went to school, and a big part of school is that A, B, C, D, F,” he said. “So we’ve reverted to that system because everyone understands it.”
But not everyone understands the many factors that determine those scores, and the lay person isn’t going to examine intricate details like a reporting error; they just see a letter grade, he said.
“When you dig deep into what an A means, it becomes convoluted and complex,” Smith said.
How we got here
The law creating the A-F scale went into effect in the 2014-2015 school year. Then in 2017, Act 930 and Act 744 aligned the state’s accountability systems with federal requirements and permitted the use of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) School Index score as the universal score for accountability, Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said.
ESSA required states to include at least five indicators for success: achievement, growth, English learner progress toward English language proficiency, graduation rate, and school quality and student success. Evaluation of these indicators includes factors like attendance rate and community service credits.
“The goal of the Arkansas School Rating system is to provide a public-facing picture of school performance based on statewide measures,” Mundell said. “The letter grades are meant to convey, on a standardized rating scale, how schools are performing overall. Just like with students, the grades are not the only measure of success; however, they do provide some insight into the rate at which schools are meeting student needs.”
A school’s letter grade is calculated by evaluating indicators that have weighted scores. Weighted achievement and academic growth scores are derived from grade-level assessments for math and English language arts and account for the largest percentage of the overall score.
ADE is developing a new assessment to replace the ACT Aspire test for grades 3-8 in the spring of 2024. The department, educators and others involved in education will develop proficiency scores for the new exam next summer, and Mundell said they will use a panel of national experts to “provide a smooth transition” in the school rating system across the two assessments.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education legislation, the LEARNS Act, makes several changes to the state’s education system, and Mundell said the new law provides an opportunity for ADE “to take a thorough look” at the state’s current accountability system. Stakeholders will be able to provide input on what should remain versus what might need to be changed within the system through surveys, meetings and conference sessions, she said.
“The emphasis of the department is to have a seamless and aligned system that publicly reports the effectiveness of our schools,” Mundell said. “The opportunity to align our new academic standards with our new assessment provides a foundation for a stronger and more transparent accountability system.”
In addition to accountability, a school’s rating can affect eligibility for programs like the new Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account. Created under the LEARNS Act, the voucher program will provide state funding for allowable education expenses, including private school tuition. The program will be phased in over three years with students at “F”-rated schools having access in year one. Students in “D”-rated schools will be eligible in the second year.
Ratings are included as part of School Report Cards published on ADE’s website. The rating system was suspended for the 2019-2020 school year when annual assessments were not administered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Act 89 of 2021 continued the suspension through the 2020-2021 academic year.
Ratings may provide a level of accountability, but they can be stressful, and don’t include things that affect a child’s performance or learning, Bismarck School District Superintendent Susan Kissire said.
“We have been blessed to remain one of the highest achieving districts in the state, but the letter grading system does cause a lot of anxiety,” she said. “I think by including more factors to better reflect the diversity of all school districts, it would be a better representation of what we work to achieve every day.”
Ratings should include interim assessments as well as items from the standards for accreditation, such as licensed teachers and student-teacher ratios, Kissire said. The current system also does not measure things like the availability of health and wellness services or social and emotional services, nor does it evaluate student success in areas like band, agriculture and other career and technical courses, she said.
Smith said clubs and athletics also contribute to engagement by keeping kids in school. Lots of learning and personal growth happens in extracurricular activities that can be hard to measure, he said.
In the traditional classroom, Kissire said, the current system doesn’t take into consideration that some students aren’t good test takers or may be having an “off” day during annual assessments, and that can have “quite an impact” on students and the district.
Outside factors such as lack of sleep, hunger or home life can also affect how students perform on end-of-year assessments, she said.
“It’s so much pressure for our students. They work so hard to do their best, but sometimes various factors can just be overwhelming,” Kissire said.
Chronic absenteeism is another issue that’s often out of a school’s control. Smith said younger students especially can suffer because they depend on their parents to make sure they attend class.
“They can’t help it if they’re not getting that at home, but it really delays them academically to miss and then that hurts the school,” he said. “We do what we can and we try to help, offer help, but if they don’t come to school, they can’t learn, and many times it’s out of our hands, out of the students’ hands.”
Kissire said changing the system to incorporate terminology focused on whether a district is meeting standards — using words like “advanced” or “meets expectations” instead of letter grades — could be beneficial.
“I realize that we need to have some kind of ranking or grading system to help parents when it comes to choosing the right school for their child,” she said. “Our elementary school utilizes standards-based report cards. This allows us to break things down into ‘learning targets’ with a 1-4 scale. Perhaps something like this might work.”
Smith also suggested collecting post-graduation data to see where students end up and evaluating if districts met their needs. Allowing local communities to determine whether districts are doing well instead of state officials is another possibility, he said.
“That’s what the legislature is all about in accountability is really following the tax dollars,” he said. “If our local community feels like it’s getting its money’s worth, then why not just accept that in Little Rock and let’s move forward on progressing the state instead of bashing schools.”
Poverty is a major factor that affects a child’s education but can be difficult to measure. Nearly one in four Arkansas children live in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2022 Kids Count Data Book. Arkansas ranked 43rd in the nation in overall child well-being in the foundation’s analysis.
An Advocate analysis of the state’s 92 “F”-rated schools found that 51% are located in counties with a poverty rate of 20% or more. Five schools are in Phillips County, which has a 35.7% poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Helena-West Helena School District in Phillips County has the state’s highest poverty rate for 5 to 17-year-olds with an estimated 47.1% of students living in poverty.
Twenty-two Arkansas school districts have a child poverty rate of 30% or higher. Of those, 16 have at least one “F”-rated school.
Census Bureau school district data does not include charter school districts.
Olivia Gardner, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families’ education policy director, said lower-income students often have fewer resources at home to complete homework or engage in activities that equip them for success during the school day.
In addition to lacking access to technology or broadband, which is common in the state’s rural areas, Gardner said parents may not be available to help with school work because they’re working long hours or multiple jobs.
“All that adds up to students in poverty facing more challenges to being high academic achievers,” Gardner said. “We also know from research that many teachers in high-poverty schools are more inexperienced and often less effective than their more experienced peers who get recruited and targeted for being hired by high-income schools.”
This can lead to an achievement gap between high-income and low-income districts and the way to combat that, Gardner said, is to address the effects of poverty by improving access to health care and social safety net programs, creating better housing policies and “structuring our public education system so that it works for all Arkansas students.”
“We have that lofty feeling that education is supposed to be the great equalizer, and certainly we all aspire for it to be, but right now we have to acknowledge…we’re just not quite there yet and that is due in part to the incredibly high poverty rate in the state,” Gardner said.
Arkansas’ poverty rate of 16.3% is higher than the national rate of 11.6%.
Making long-term investments in improving high-poverty schools is important, Gardner said, and strategies could include advancing policies that support well-trained teachers and incentivize them to remain in high-poverty schools.
The LEARNS Act raises the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000, so that could help attract educators to low-income areas, but time will tell, she said.
“There are things that we can do that are within our power while we still are a high-poverty state. It’s not a hopeless situation,” Gardner said.
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