Little Rock School District headquarters

It appears local control of the Little Rock School District will come down to a single standardized test to be administered in April. Optimism wasn’t much in evidence during a discussion of the issue Friday before the state Board of Education. And while we’re talking school accountability, hang on for a charter school discussion.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning on a state Board of Education discussion of the “qualitative” and “quantitative” tests the Little Rock district must meet to exit state control, which began a five-year run in January 2015. Yes. Exit criteria set two months before the critical test after more than four years of state control. You think maybe Education Commissioner Johnny Key has put his thumb on the scale?


This is the key issue: Eight schools judged as failing must hit acceptable scores on the ACT Aspire Test to be administered in April.  Talk about high stakes testing.

First: The eight — Bale, Romine, Stephens and Washington elementaries; Cloverdale Middle; and J.A. Fair, Hall and McClellan high schools — must achieve a “growth” score of 80 on the test over the previous year. Only Hall High met that standard in 2018. 


Second: The number of students judged “close, ready or exceeds” standards on English and math test scores must exceed the number judged as “needing support.”  None of the eight met that in 2018 on English. Four did in math — Romine, Bale, Stephens and Washington.

Board Chair Jay Barth
of Little Rock commented:

“The odds are very long,” Barth said. “The criteria are logical but the goal is almost impossible to achieve in a short time,” he said.

The district was taken over for low scores in six of almost four dozen schools. Standards and tests have changed since and now eight are judged as failing. All enroll predominantly minority and poor students, many speaking English as a second language and many in need of special education. Board member Diane Zook said the shift to emphasis on improvement rather than simply an average score should level the playing field for those who cite demographics as a factor.


Maybe. I’d like to see statewide plotting of correlation — or lack of correlation — between poverty enrollment and academic growth rate. For one thing, there are outliers and THOSE are the schools to visit to see what’s working.

I hope, when the time comes to measure Little Rock that the state is ready with an easy to read list of ALL schools that don’t achieve 80 growth numbers and acceptable English and math sufficiency scores.  And that the state Board explains what it plans to do about those schools.

The standard shouldn’t be limited to only those districts held to be in academic distress — Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Dollarway and Earle. (It was not clear from yesterday’s meeting if standards will be the same for Little Rock and the three other districts. “Similar but uniquely tailored” criteria for return of local control in the other three was how the article put it.

And speaking of state Board of Education accountability: I wrote Thursday about rare state Board of Education unhappiness with a charter school, the academically excellent Haas Hall Academy. It’s compiled sterling test scores with student bodies lacking in minorities, poor students and students with language and disability issues. Board members said it had done an incomplete job in reporting on efforts to improve diversity. The school was called out for failing to fulfill a promise in 2016 by school superintendent Martin Schoppmeyer to hire a full-time diversity officer.  It has no such officer today. School blogger Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay, who spoke at the meeting, pointed out that the school HAD once hired a diversity officer, Caroline Proctor, but she left early last year and collected unemployment because she said she didn’t have enough work to do. Ballay-Lyon compiled the video clip above on the exchange about diversity.


A journalism note: The Democrat-Gazette, in the course today of running down the LRSD’s deficiencies and reporting revocation of another charter school’s permit, again didn’t have space to recall how Walton money and the charter school lobby saved the license to operate of the academically and financially failing Covenant Keepers charter school, over objections of department employees. Nor did it recount the checkered campaign financial history of Covenant’s former leader, Valerie Tatum, now under investigation for allegedly taking of $188,000 in operating money from the school. She was unqualified by residence to run for City Board last fall, but angry advocacy from an attorney who works for charter school causes kept her on the ballot. She was defeated by incumbent Director Ken Richardson, despite finacial support from the charter-friendly business community. It’s water under the bridge now, I guess, along with Covenant Keepers and its students and the state Board’s oversight failure.

If LRSD falls short on April test scores, will a Walton lawyer angrily  claim Joe McCarthy-style persecution to demand that Little Rock voters get their school district back (as Covenant Keepers did until theft complicated matters)? Or will the Board of Education continue to control the Little Rock district and parcel it out to private operators, with cheerleading and dollars from the Billionaire Boys Club and anguished peeps from Little Rock taxpayers who still believe in real public schools?