The Arkansas Department of Education has received largely favorable feedback on a draft plan for its implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a nationwide replacement for No Child Left Behind.
Last month, 114 respondents, mostly K-12 educators, gave input on the department’s second draft of the state’s accountability plan. More than three in four respondents said that overall, the plan lays out a clear vision for the state.
The majority agreed that the state’s education goals are achievable. More than half said the proposed accountability system aligns with their beliefs about how schools and districts should be held to account, and 48 percent said they thought the system would provide accurate information about student performance.
The Bush Administration era's predecessor to the new law, No Child Left Behind, was a bipartisan bill passed in 2002 that gave the federal government a greater role in holding schools responsible for students success. It strongly emphasized standardized testing and the performance of minority students.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, in contrast, shifts away from ranking schools based on standardized tests and towards state control along with a more diverse set of metrics.
Like in many other states’ plans under the new law, Arkansas is setting a goal of having 90 percent of students score proficient or better on state assessments by 2028. The Department of Education released 2016 ACT Aspire scores on Monday.
To track progress, the state proposes to weigh students’ growth as heavily as their test scores in school performance ratings. Standardized testing, once 70-80 percent of a school’s score, would be counted closer to 50 percent as part of an A to F grading system for schools.
Other factors that would be included in schools’ grades are high school graduation rates. The state will reach a 94 percent graduation rate by 2028.
The success of students who learn English as a second language will be considered, and scores will be broken down by demographics to show how students are performing within racial, socioeconomic, and gender categories. Chronic absenteeism is a new metric that did not exist before.
Teacher assessments would change too. Under the proposed plan, administrators will score teachers’ performances, but not until their fourth year on the job. Currently they are scored every year.
Schools with pockets of low-performing students will have three years to improve on their own before the district, and then the state, get involved. The worst performing five percent of schools will implement interventions with the department.
Brenda Robinson, President of the Arkansas Education Association, praised the federal law’s shift toward diversifying metrics for learning in a public comment to the department.
“The positive frame of ESSA is a dramatic shift away from the shame and blame focus of many parts of No Child Left Behind,” she wrote.
“AEA supports the strategies described in the plan to differentiate school-level data for each of the indicators as well as differentiating data by student subgroup. We have advocated for years to move away from a singular test score as a measure of student or school success,” said Robinson.
Among respondents, a nationwide pro-school choice group launched by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, recommended a more rigorous intervention plan for schools that aren’t improving.
The group also took issue with a proposed performance calculation formula that allots points weighted in favor of students that score well. It said that the current method, tracking the percentage of students performing at each level, is more straightforward.
“Such an outcome not only complicates transparency but also makes these students less likely to receive needed support to catch up to their peers,” the organization said.
Disability Rights Arkansas also raised concern that there may be unintended consequences from the proposed shift to weighting improvement along with achievement. In other words, shifting the focus away from students' actual achievement might allow schools to gloss over the low scores of struggling students.
“While the idea is to incentivize schools to move students from lower to higher levels by earning more points, the system of doing so could potentially inflate a school’s performance by not clearly showing those students performing at a lower level,” said Cassie Howell, Staff Attorney for the organization.
The Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading applauded many aspects of the plan but called for more discussion about pre-k and the transition to kindergarten.
“The plan appears to be mostly silent on early childhood education,” said Campaign Director Angela Duran.
“Kindergarten readiness is critical to reading on grade level by third grade.”
A finalized plan will be submitted to the Department of Education by September which is the final deadline for all states.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.