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The U.S. Department of Education has asked Arkansas to address parts of its plan for carrying out the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that deal with base-line achievement data and interim measures of student progress.

Jason Botel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the federal agency, acknowledged in a recent letter to Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key that each state has flexibility in how it complies with the law.

But, he said, "Based on the Department's review of all programs submitted under Arkansas consolidated state plan ... the Department is requesting clarifying or additional information to ensure the State's plan has met all statutory and regulatory requirements."

Leaders at the Arkansas Department of Education were working on the revisions and clarifications Friday and said they expect to submit them Monday, which is the deadline set by the federal agency for the changes.

"We are pleased with the U.S. Department of Education's feedback regarding Arkansas' Every Student Succeeds Act plan," Kimberly Friedman, spokesman for the Arkansas department, said after state and federal agency officials participated in a conference call about the state plan.

"We are confident that with additional information and clarifying statements, the U.S. Department of Education will approve Arkansas' plan. The feedback we received is evidence of the strength of the plan and a testament to the collaboration and input provided by Arkansas' stakeholders," Friedman said an emailed statement.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is the latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that dates back to the 1960s.

The updated act, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in late 2015, replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that called for 100 percent of students to score at their grade level on state math and literacy tests by 2013-14. Failure by students or subgroups of students to reach annual achievement goals resulted in penalties against the schools.

Arkansas' plan for complying with the updated law was sent to the federal agency for approval in September.

The proposed plan sets a long-term achievement goal of 80 percent of students achieving at "ready" or "exceeding" ready levels on state-required exams -- the ACT Aspire tests in math and literacy in grades three through 10 -- within 12 years.

The Arkansas plan also establishes "checkpoints for progress," set at three-year intervals, toward the long-term 80 percent goal.

A middle school in which 58 percent of pupils in grades six through eight are now scoring at ready or exceeding ready levels, for example, would have to improve at rate of 1.83 percentage points per year to reach 80 percent in 12 years.

The initial checkpoint would be 63.5 percent achieving at ready or better levels on state exams in 2020. The checkpoint in 2023 would be 69 percent of pupils scoring at ready or better, and 74.5 percent in 2026. Schools in which fewer students are currently scoring at ready levels on the Aspire would have to make larger gains yearly or every three years to meet the 80 percent goal.

"While aspirational in the long run, this goal accounts for students who might begin in elementary school far below grade level and, even with accelerated growth within the same school, may not catch up to grade level until middle school or later, depending on the students' learning needs," the Arkansas plan as initially written explained.

"By providing three-year checkpoints, the ADE is signaling to schools that year-to-year variation is expected and the overall improvement trend may take a longer time period than just one year as was implied by annual targets under No Child Left Behind.

"It is the ADE's intent that checkpoints are responsive to stakeholders and encourage schools to focus on what matters most for learning by acknowledging that deeper, sustained learning of more rigorous standards may take more time to be reflected in the achievement levels of greater proportions of students," the initial version of the state plan said.

The new federal law calls for base-line data and measurements of interim progress for all students and for each subgroup of students as shown by grade-level proficiency on the annual tests, the federal agency said in its response to the Arkansas plan.

But the Arkansas plan addresses achievement by grade spans -- not by grade -- and it doesn't specifically set achievement measures for different subgroups of students.

In Arkansas, the student subgroups are identified as white, black, Hispanic, poor, non-native English speakers or in need of special education services. The state's initial plan calls for all students to achieve.

"The ESEA also requires that a State's long-term goals and measurements of interim progress ... take into account the improvement necessary for subgroups of students who are behind in reaching those goals to make significant progress in closing statewide proficiency gaps," the federal response said. "Therefore, ADE does not meet this requirement."

The federal response also had concerns about base-line data and measurements of progress in terms of high school graduation for all students and each subgroup of students.

The Arkansas plan calls for combining different measures -- some given greater weight than others -- to produce a school quality or student success indicator. The federal agency asked for clarification of the calculations.

The Arkansas plan also includes provisions for identifying schools that need targeted or comprehensive levels of support because of low achievement by students overall or a subgroup of students.

The federal response questioned at what point a school would be so classified or how a school would be relieved of such a classification.

There are other concerns, as well, in the request for additional information or revision.

The federal reviewers asked the state to provide a definition for "languages other than English that are present to a significant extent in the participating student population."

The state plan initially responded that English is the established official language of instruction in Arkansas and instruction must be conducted in English.

"Therefore, Arkansas does not have a definition or threshold for determining the languages beyond English that are present to a significant extent nor does Arkansas administer summative assessments in languages other than English," the plan said.

A Section on 01/06/2018

Print Headline: U.S. asks state to tweak plan for student success

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