Two academics from different backgrounds have pointed out flaws in the state’s grading system and the state’s handling of the Little Rock School District.

Sarah McKenzie is executive director of the University of Arkansas’s Office of Education Policy, whose research and writing often favors school choice initiatives.

In an interview Tuesday, she echoed a column two of her colleagues recently penned on state takeovers of local school districts.

“As a strategy, it hasn’t seemed to make the kind of improvements in the way districts function that I think everyone hoped it would,” she said.

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“There are cases where there is improvement. There are cases where there hasn’t been. At some point state control has to end. Districts are set up to be controlled by their community, and local control is a pillar of our local school district system.”

What about the framework the State Board has approved for the future of the LRSD, where some schools that scored “F” would operate under different leadership from the rest of the district? Because the students who attend those schools are overwhelmingly poor and black and Latino, the plan has been labeled as “resegregation.”

“I think the optics are really bad,” McKenzie conceded. But she said she’d also been hoping those schools might be treated like one might with students who are persistently struggling to understand a math concept. Instead of keeping them with the rest of the class and letting them fall farther and farther behind, the better path would be to pull them aside and give them additional support and resources. “I just don’t believe that was the intention, to resegregate the district,” McKenzie said. “Because of the way school grades work and because of the way school zones are set up, that’s what it looks like.”

Meanwhile, Michael Mills, professor of education at the University of Central Arkansas and a parent of an LRSD student, has written a long paper on why the State Board should reconsider its framework plan.

He notes alignment problems in the state curriculum standards and the ACT Aspire. The state is obligated by the federal government to demonstrate that the test and standards do align. McKenzie said she hadn’t studied the alignment, but she said was pleased that the ACT Aspire was sending the same messages the widely respected NAEP Test did. “When I weigh myself on the scale at my house and at my doctor, I’m getting the same result,” she said by way of comparison. The old Benchmark test showed something like 78 percent of kids in the state were reading on grade level, while the NAEP indicated somewhere closer to 30 percent, she said. “That kind of info can be harmful for kids,” she said

McKenzie said she was pleased the state has signed on for the ACT Aspire for seven years and not constantly switching assessments.

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But Mills and McKenzie both note, as we have explored previously, that state school grades largely correlate with race and poverty.

“We know achievement is so highly correlated with the demographics of students that attend the school, particularly poverty and race,” McKenzie said. The school report cards are largely defined by achievement scores on the ACT Aspire. How a student performs from year to year is represented as a Growth Score, which is generally seen as a fairer way to measure school success. “Growth, just because the way it’s calculated, it’s really hard to get the same bang for your buck even if you’re growing really, really well,” McKenzie said. “Achievement is still the main driver.”

“Some of us in education feel like the letter grade is an oversimplification of all the things that go on in a school,” McKenzie said. But she also noted that a Yelp review is also an oversimplification of a hotel, for instance, but absent comprehensive knowledge of what makes a hotel work well, we need some sort of indicator or distillation. “I do think for the general public there’s value in letter grades,” McKenzie said. “In my perfect world, schools would have a letter grade for achievement or growth.”

Mills developed the following chart based on how LRSD schools are expected to fall in the state’s framework to show how it would further segregate students by race.

McKenzie also had praise for Mayor Frank Scott’s proposal. She and her colleague Josh McGee penned an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette advocating for mayoral control of the district a month ago. Scott’s plan is decidedly not that. Nonetheless, McKenzie said, “It sounds like a reasonable idea. I think that it’s great that he’s so interested in what’s going on in the school district and to support all the kids in the district. I think marshaling all the resources together is a really good idea.”