The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s veteran education reporter, Cynthia Howell, wrote this week about the third-year use of a new standardized test, ACT Aspire, for judging public school students. A key factor was missing in the discussion about Little Rock schools.

Howell reported that a change in the “cut” score, or what’s determined to be a passing grade in English, is likely to have a negative impact on school grades in the coming school year.


Use of the A-F scale to rate schools is already a folly. These grades mostly measure the type of student a school receives. Poor students have the lowest scores and race is a factor, too.

Howell noted that some schools, such as Baseline Academy and Stephens Elementary, struggle, with 11 to 12 percent testing at acceptable levels in literacy and 22 to 25 percent in math. She continued:


“Other schools such as Jefferson Elementary, Forest Park Elementary, Booker Magnet Arts Elementary, Don Roberts Elementary and Forest Heights STEM Academy reported much greater percentages in the ready and exceeding ready categories.

” ‘How do we get more of those?’ Jeff Wood, chairman of the Little Rock Community Advisory Board, asked about the high performing schools. ‘That’s what the community wants to see — those amazing numbers.’ “


I say only a bit facetiously that there’s an easy fix for low-scoring schools — more middle-class white kids. Stephens and Baseline are 3 and 7 percent white, against Jefferson, 71; Forest Park, 73; Roberts, 56; and Forest Heights STEM, 33, plus 6 percent Asian.

Booker Magnet is an outlier with only 8 percent white and worth a deeper look, as is any school where test scores defy expectations of demography.

The state doesn’t provide ready access to breakdowns of poverty percentages by school, but the LRSD is 67 percent low-income overall. It’s a safe bet the high-scoring schools have lower poverty percentages than Stephens and Baseline.

None of this is to say poor kids can’t learn. That children of color can’t learn. That there aren’t lessons to be drawn from how different schools perform. Some schools ARE better than others. The danger is to generalize.


The Democrat-Gazette article came with a tool to advance the charter school narrative so beloved by its publisher, but the facts proved inconvenient. A chart accompanying the story compared scores of the public school districts and charter schools in Pulaski County. Surprise! Whiter charter schools with lower percentages of poor kids did better overall.

But, here’s a funny thing. LRSD white kids outscored all the other schools’ white kids in English, and they were narrowly edged out in that category in math by only two charter schools, eStem and LISA.Yes, LRSD lagged overall, but the chart omitted context.

While Little Rock has a 67 percent poverty level, eStem’s is 40 percent and LISA’s is 52 percent. LRSD is 63 percent black, against 53 percent at eStem and 44 percent at LISA. We all can play games with numbers.

Remember Gary Newton, the Waltons’ $237,000-a-year charter school lobbyist and LRSD critic? He and Walton money started the Quest charter middle school in Chenal Valley as an escape for parents to avoid a nearby virtually all-black middle school.

LRSD white students and LRSD black students outscored Quest whites and blacks significantly in both literacy and math scores.

Newton might have a good explanation for the failure of Quest to outscore the despised LRSD, though it’s his gospel that choice is ALWAYS better. He can’t fall back on demographics. Only 21 percent of Quest students meet the poverty designation, against 67 percent in LRSD. As for race, Quest is 56 percent white, against 18 percent for LRSD.