STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION: Education Secretary Johnny Key and State Board of Education Chairwoman Diane Zook. Brandon Markin

Amid all the moral and political arguments for why the state should return the Little Rock School District to local control, it’s worth digging into the criteria the state and State Board of Education are using to judge how well the district (and all others across the state) are doing: The results of the ACT Aspire test, administered to students annually. No other state in the country uses ACT Aspire, which was strongly opposed by past State Board of Education members across the ideological spectrum and which doesn’t directly match the curriculum teachers across the state are required to teach.

Little Rock grades

The “grades” assigned to schools under the state accountability system are largely based on the ACT Aspire test. The 2018-19 grades haven’t officially been released yet, but schools in the Little Rock School District know what letter grade they earned, and I’ve learned that the LRSD will still have eight “F”-rated schools (four of them will be new).

Three of Little Rock’s five high schools remain on the list: J.A. Fair, Hall and McClellan. So, too, does Washington Elementary. Newly in the group are Henderson Middle School and three elementary schools — Baseline, Meadowcliff and Watson. Aside from Hall and Henderson, all of those schools are located south of Interstate 630 in neighborhoods, and all the schools have high concentrations of blacks and/or Latinos living in poverty.

Three elementary schools — Bale, Romine and Stephens — and Cloverdale Middle School will no longer be “F” rated.

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The shifts in scores could mean that only two LRSD schools would fall under a state plan to put certain district schools under different leadership than the rest of the district. Here’s why:

In September, the State Board of Education approved a framework for the future of the LRSD. The board dissolved the LRSD’s locally elected school board and took control of the district in 2015 because of low test scores at a handful of schools. The new framework establishes three categories of LRSD schools: Category 1, which includes all schools with a 2019 score “D” or higher; Category 2, which includes all schools “undergoing reconfigurations”; and Category 3, which includes all schools with a 2019 accountability grade of “F.”

A nine-member school board will be elected November 2020. Under the framework, it would oversee Category 1 schools. Category 2 schools would likely include the new Southwest High School scheduled to open in 2020 and other schools south of Interstate 630 that are scheduled to be reconfigured as part of the LRSD’s Community Blueprint. The framework says those schools “may operate” under the new school board. Category 3 schools would operate “under different leadership,” which many education observers believe will be a private charter management company.

J.A. Fair and McClellan will close at the end of this year and their students will attend the new Southwest High School in 2020. Governor Hutchinson has said he would hope it would be included among the Category 2 schools. The LRSD Community Blueprint calls for Fair to be reconfigured as a K-8 school that brings in students from Henderson Middle School and Dodd and Romine elementary schools. It also calls for McClellan to be repurposed as a K-8 school that brings in students from Cloverdale Middle School and Baseline and Meadowcliff elementary schools. The new K-8 at the former home of Fair is scheduled to open by 2020. McLellan is slated for demolition. The earliest a K-8 could be built on its site would be 2022 and that would require the district fo find significant new money, either through a millage election or by setting up another second-lien bond.* Meanwhile, the English language learner center at Hall High School will be relocated to the Southwest High School and the district is working to align Hall with Forest Heights, a K-8 school that was recently reconfigured into a STEM magnet school.

The framework lacks specifics. More details are expected to be revealed at the State Board’s Oct. 10 meeting, though education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell tells the Times that the department will not provide a recommendation to the board on where in the three categories LRSD schools should fall. But, if all of the schools slated to be reconfigured in the LRSD Community Blueprint are considered Category 2, only Washington and Watson elementary schools would fall into Category 3. That the framework says the local board “may” operate Category 2 schools might suggest that the Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board would select some of those schools to be operated under the as-yet-unspecified different leadership.

Where do the “grades” come from?

The grades are the distillation of Arkansas’s take on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Obama-era accountability system that replaced No Child Left Behind. Arkansas’s ESSA School Index takes into account a number of factors: standardized test achievement, standardized test growth, graduation rates (for high school students) and a composite “School Quality and Success Indicator,” which includes a number of factors, including grade-level reading levels, science achievement, absenteeism and, for high school students, “postsecondary readiness,” computer science coursework and community service/service-learning. For grades K-8, 35 percent of the index comes from achievement, 50 percent from growth and 15 percent from “School Quality.” In upper grades, 35 percent comes from achievement, 35 percent from growth, 15 percent from “School Quality” and 15 percent from graduation rates.

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Here’s a deep and complicated explanation of the scoring and how it’s calculated. And a supplementary one on the growth score, which makes up such a large portion of the elementary grade.

In grades K-8, aside from absenteeism, every point of data comes from the ACT Aspire test, administered once annually over the course of four hours. (Students earn 1 “point” in the absentee portion of the “School Quality” score for being absent, for any reason including sickness, less than 5 percent of the year, or 8 days — which sure isn’t much for elementary school kids —  and .5 for being absent 5 to 10 percent, or 9 to 18 days.) In high school, more than 70 percent of the school “grade” comes from the ACT Aspire or, for 11th and 12th graders, the ACT test.

Background on ACT Aspire flaws

Arkansas’s use of the ACT Aspire is decidedly fraught. We’re the only state in the country to use it, as many have noted in recent weeks. The State Board of Education voted in 2015 to switch from the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test to ACT Aspire after only one year of using PARCC. But the board was initially unified against approving the change, which Governor Hutchinson supported after a council headed by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin recommended the switch. Griffin was combative about the recommendation when questioned at the time by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock).

The State Board initially rejected the change in a 7-1 vote in June 2015 that unified the more liberal board members at the time, including Jay Barth and Mireya Reith, and so-called education “reformers,” including Kim Davis and current board chair Diane Zook. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also opposed the ACT Aspire in an editorial. State Board members objected to the process for coming to the recommendation and Barth, in particular, noted that the ACT Aspire was not aligned with state curriculum and presciently worried how it would affect the State Board’s decision-making in terms of whether to take over school districts. Michael Mills, an education professor at the University of Central Arkansas who specializes in accountability, has noted more recently that state curriculum and the ACT Aspire aren’t aligned. The federal government officially requires the test to be aligned; here’s the most recent alignment report from the state. Mills has found flaws with that report.**

The board pushed the change through a month later after three new Hutchinson appointees (all still on the board) — Charisse Dean, Brett Williamson and Susan Chambers — took their seats and voted for ACT Aspire. The vote was 4-2 with those three and a Beebe appointee, Joe Black, switching his previous vote. Zook and Reith voted against the switch. Barth and Vicki Saviers abstained in voting in protest of the process. Dean, who served on Griffin’s Common Core council that made the recommendation to switch to the ACT Aspire before joining the State Board, made the motion to switch tests.

The state’s critique of its own accountability system

Further critiques of Arkansas’s accountability system came earlier this month from an unlikely place: the state.

On Sept. 10, the day before the State Board held its first working session to talk about the future of the LRSD, the nonpartisan Bureau of Legislative Research released a report on Arkansas’s education accountability system. The BLR presented the report to a joint Education Committee meeting as part of the committee’s annual adequacy review of public education in the state.

The BLR report notes, as many critiques of the state’s treatment of the LRSD have mentioned, that mountains of research show that test scores strongly correlate to demographics. (New Stanford research released earlier this week confirms that poverty is entirely to account for the racial achievement gap in the U.S.).

“These factors include such things as little to no access to nutritious meals or health care, living in violent neighborhoods, and less availability of stimulating learning opportunities outside the classroom,” the report outlines. “Therefore, demographics are input measures that for the most part are not within the schools’ control …”

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DEMOGRAPHIC DISPARITY: From the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research’s report on educational accountability.

More from the report:

“Schools with a lower than average percentage of black students are six times as likely to receive As than schools with larger than average percentage of black students. That same comparison with low-income students shows that schools with lower than average percentages of free-and-reduced-lunch students are almost eight times as likely to receive As than are schools with higher than average percentages of students in that category.”

It also notes that the same disparities are found in the state’s educational Rewards Program that provides financial rewards to schools with the top test scores and test growth scores, which is something we’ve frequently reported.

According to the report, the federal ESSA law, which is considered “next generation” accountability in the wake of the rigidity of No Child Left Behind, requires states to track students in a number of subgroups, including blacks, Latinos, English language learners and students receiving free or reduced lunch. The idea is that different subgroups should be held accountable in different ways.

As the report says, “The use of single index scores and their associated letter grades — though called for by Arkansas statute — veers from the intent of some next-generation accountability thinkers because the single score can mask the differences of both the inputs and outputs of school.” In other words, if students come to school hungry or dealing with trauma or homelessness, we shouldn’t expect the same test results from them as we do from others.

Relying on one letter grade for a school also masks the range of student test performance. There’s a lot of overlap between the students in A, B and C schools and B, C, D and F schools. The highest achievers are just grouped into A and B schools and the lowest are in C, D and F schools.

RANGE OF SCORES: In A-F schools.

A 2019 state law allows students in “F” schools to utilize school choice and transfer to a different school. So, as the report notes, parents might mistakenly believe that they’re moving their child from a “failing school” when they’re actually leaving a school where students are performing above expectations.

The BLR report also notes how uneven the state’s treatment of school districts with “F”-rated schools has been. Governor Hutchinson and other education leaders have said that the state Supreme Court’s Lake View court ruling that the Arkansas Constitution requires the state to provide an adequate and equitable education would prevent the state from returning LRSD schools that score “F” to local control.

The state divides its involvement in school districts into five Levels, from Level 1, which is general support, to Level 5 intensive support, which allows the state to take control of operation of the district. There are four school districts in Level 5 support: Dollarway, Pine Bluff, Earle and Little Rock.

Most of the districts with “F” schools are under Level 2 “Collaborative” support, which involves minor assistance from the education department — far from the punitive steps the state has taken and is threatening in the LRSD. The state hasn’t considered the percentage of schools ranked “F” in its determination of what level of intervention to provide either.

BREAKDOWN OF ‘F’ SCHOOLS: Most in level 2.

This post has been updated to clarify the timeline for opening new K-8 schools. **It’s also been updated to include the state’s alignment study and a link to a critique of alignment from UCA Education Professor Michael Mills.