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Arkansas' plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos notified Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key that the state's plan -- a 200-page document that was nearly two years in the writing -- "satisfies" the requirements of federal law and "warrants full approval."

The plan in large part describes how the state will measure and report on its approximately 1,000 schools that serve some 479,000 students, using an "ESSA school index," to convey achievement levels, achievement gains and other indicators of school success such as graduation, attendance, and college entrance exam scores.

The plan's overarching intent is to guide the Arkansas Department of Education in realizing the agency's vision of a transformed Arkansas that leads the nation in "student-focused education." To that end, the department's mission is to provide leadership and support to schools and districts so that every student graduates prepared for college, careers and community engagement.

The baseline year for the plan to be fully operational is the 2018-19 school year, Key said.

"That gives us several months to help educate not just educators but parents and community members, and to provide resources so that schools can have helpful conversations so parents and patrons can understand better what is different from previous plans," Key said.

Compared with the former federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 that focused almost exclusively on student achievement -- calling for all students to achieve at grade level on math and literacy by 2013-14 -- the new law and state plan includes a much broader set of measures, Key said, but adding that achievement remains an important element.

The new achievement goal is to have 80 percent of students at each school scoring at "ready" or "exceeding ready" levels within 12 years on the state-required ACT Aspire tests that are given in grades three through 10.

"The added measures are really focusing on growth," Key said about the changes in the accountability system. "That is the biggest shift that educators are going to see. Part of ESSA was giving states the flexibility to determine what they wanted to emphasize, how they wanted to weight the various components.

"Our stakeholders consistently across the state said, 'Look, we want more emphasis on student growth because students don't start at the same place and they don't learn at the same pace. But if we are demonstrating growth, we are moving in the right direction.'"

A school's annual Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA school index will report on achievement, growth, graduation rate, the progress of English language learners in learning English and on school quality/student success indicators.

The different categories carry different weights and those weights vary, depending on whether a school is an elementary and middle school or a high school. Achievement and academic growth (including the progress of English language learners) will constitute 85 percent of the total score for an elementary or middle school -- 35 percent for achievement and 50 percent for growth. School quality constitutes 15 percent.

At the high school level, achievement and academic growth over time make up 70 percent of the score -- 35 percent for achievement and 35 percent for growth. Fifteen percent of the overall score will come from four- and five-year graduation rates. School quality/student success will constitute 15 percent of the score.

The school quality/student success indicator is a combination of several components -- such as student engagement in school as measured by chronic absences from school -- as well as science and reading achievement.

Indicators of school quality and student success at the high school level would also reflect grade-point averages, the performance of community service, Advanced Placement/concurrent college credit data, computer science course credits and ACT college entrance exam results.

"The important thing about the school quality/student success indicators is that they tie directly to student growth and achievement," Key said. "If you are working on chronic absenteeism and you make improvements, that means your kids are at school more and they are going to learn more and their achievement and growth scores are going to be higher.

"We want schools to be going through a continuous improvement cycle, where they are looking at their data and asking how can we move in a positive direction," he said.

The ESSA index will include an overall score for a school as well as scores for each category. Additionally the data will be compiled and reported in each category for student subgroups -- be they white, black, or Hispanic students as well as students who come from low-income families, who need special education services and students who are non-native English language learners.

Information on how the school is progressing toward its long-term goals is another feature to be reported annually.

The schools have just received draft ESSA index scores based on the 2017 ACT Aspire tests to review for errors, said Deborah Coffman, the Arkansas Education Department's assistant commissioner for public school accountability.

That finalized information will be publicly released in the spring as a way to get school and community members to talk about the information, how the schools earned their scores and how they want to alter their services and allocate their resources to improve their schools.

New ESSA index scores based on the spring 2018 administration of the ACT Aspire will be produced in the fall.

"We are really going to be stressing getting information out based on the 2017 data," Key said.

Waiting for the 2018 data will be too late to make changes in a school's initiatives and funding to better meet student needs, he said.

Schools no longer will be evaluated on whether they made "adequate yearly progress" toward long term achievement goals as they were under the No Child Left Behind Act. Failure to make that prescribed progress placed school improvement labels and penalties on schools.

However, results of this year's 2017- 2018 test data will be used to identify in the fall the lowest scoring 5 percent of federal Title I qualified schools in the state, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Specifically, the lowest 5 percent scoring elementary schools will be identified, as will the lowest 5 percent scoring middle schools and lowest 5 percent scoring high schools. Title I funds are used to enhance education services in schools that have high percentages of students from low-income families. The schools will be identified as needing comprehensive support. The identification of a school as being among the lowest 5 percent scoring schools in the state will be based on the performance of all students in a school, not one or more subgroups of students.

The identification of a low scoring school will trigger notice to the school district that they have a school in need of "comprehensive support and improvement." A school improvement plan and a district support plan will be crafted to improve student achievement. The state's role, Key said, is to work with the district. That's a change from the past when the state worked directly with an academically struggling school.

"There will always be a lowest 5 percent," Coffman said. "The idea here is lifting all schools. There is no shame in being there as long as you are continuing to improve. The shame would be to continue to not provide the best opportunities for kids."

Schools can also be identified as needing "targeted" support and "additional targeted" support based on the consistent under-performance of one or more of their subgroups of students, according to the newly approved plan.

"We'll identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of all students. There will be an ESSA score that is the demarcation point for the lowest 5 percent," Key said. "Then we'll determine the ESSA school index score for the lowest 1 percent. If you have a subgroup performing at that level [in each of three years] then you will be notified that you have a school in need of 'additional targeted support and improvement.'"

Initially, the state will simply alert the school district of a low-performing subgroup of students.

"We're going to say 'Hey, you better provide some targeted support and improvement for this subpopulation,'" Coffman said. "'It's a flashing light on your dashboard that says you might be low in fuel."

The requirement for additional targeted support and improvement could follow that.

The state's plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act also includes sections on academic standards, rigorous assessment system, education of migratory children, access to quality educators and education of homeless children.

"It all comes back to our vision of all kids being ready for college, careers and community service," Coffman said. "All of these other components are equally, if not more, important. Those parts make everything work. This [ESSA index] is just how we measure it."

A Section on 01/22/2018

Print Headline: U.S. gives OK to state's plan for student success

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