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story.lead_photo.caption A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Arkansas' public school students will be excused from taking state and federally required end-of-year exams this school year, Secretary of Education Johnny Key said Friday.

The ACT Aspire tests -- which are given annually in literacy, math and science to pupils in grades three through 10 and serve as the basis for the state's school accountability and letter grade system -- are another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic that has closed all public school campuses to on-site student instruction through at least April 17.

Also canceled will be the different end-of-year tests for kindergartners through second graders and the assessments for students who have severe disabilities, Key said.

Key made the announcement on the same day that Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore said April events such as high school proms, banquets and districtwide award ceremonies will not be held this year in light of the extended school closures.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Decisions on high school graduations in Little Rock are yet to be made.

Additionally, Poore said that the district has ordered 500 new Chromebook computers this week to be distributed for students to use in doing schoolwork at their homes.

Key's decision to cancel spring testing followed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' announcement earlier Friday that the federal Department of Education will grant waivers to any state that is unable to administer the spring tests that are mandated for every state by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Different tests are given in the states, but all are subject to federal approval based on compliance with the federal law.

"Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time," DeVos said in announcing the simplified process for states to apply for the test program waivers in light of the pandemic emergency.

"Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment," DeVos said. "Our actions today provide turnkey flexibilities for state and local leaders to focus on the immediate needs of their students and educators without worrying about federal repercussions."

Any state that receives a one-year waiver of its testing program also can receive a waiver from the requirement that testing data be used in the statewide accountability system, DeVos said.

Several states -- starting with Washington and Texas -- earlier in the week had announced plans to cancel the mandated tests.

"I've spoken with many local education leaders in the past days, and I'm inspired by their efforts to help their students continue to learn and grow," DeVos said Friday. "We're going to continue to provide every flexibility possible to help make that as simple as possible."

Key had said earlier this week that Arkansas education leaders were weighing their options about the testing program and were in direct conversations with federal leaders.

State leaders said Friday that 100 Arkansans -- eight of them children -- have now been diagnosed with the virus. Key officially announced at an early afternoon news conference that Arkansas is canceling the high-stakes tests and will seek the federal waiver -- with assurances that it will be permitted.

"It is a waiver which -- when we submit it and check the boxes -- they will approve it," Key said of the U.S Education Department.

Forgoing the Aspire and other tests "will create some comfort and peace of mind for our educators," Key said. "They are not going to have to worry about preparing for the exam; getting the kids ready for the exam. This will give them an opportunity to focus purely on the students and maintaining an education process through the rest of the school year."

Key said Friday that the impact of canceling the testing program "is significant" in part because it interrupts the state's development of a longitudinal system that tracks individual student achievement over time and uses that to gauge the success of a school.

"When you take out one piece, which will happen now ... you are going to have a significant cascading effect," Key said. "We are just now analyzing what the effect will be long term but it is going to affect a number of things ... with respect to our accountability system."

The Aspire tests are typically given in mid-April to early May, with the exact dates set by each school district. The results from the tests are used by the state and federal government to hold schools and districts responsible for student learning. The results are a key factor in determining a school's federal Every Student Succeeds Act numerical score as well as an A-F letter grade. Achievement on the tests this year was expected to be a factor in determining whether the Little Rock School District can be removed from the Level 5/intensive support category of the state's school accountability system.

Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association of teachers and support staff in the state, said its members appreciated the efforts of state officials "as we navigate together through unchartered waters.

"We support the difficult decision to halt testing for the school year," Fleming said. "We know this decision will have ramifications; however, it will allow students, parents, and educators to focus on learning.

"Of all the things we teach our kids, the most important is a love of learning," she added. "Tests are not the only measure of student performance or teacher effectiveness. Kids learn best when educators have the time to focus on inspiring curiosity, creativity and critical thinking skills."

Canceling the test comes at a time when Arkansas' more than 479,000 public school students have already been out of their classrooms for four or more days this month and will not return until April 20 at the earliest. Gov. Asa Hutchinson's directive to close the school buildings is part of statewide efforts to slow the spread of the virus that leads to the covid-19 illness.

With the exception of spring break next week, students in nearly all the districts have been and will continue to do schoolwork at home, using materials that were either sent home in paper packets or assignments that are placed online. The state-approved alternative instruction plans call for teachers to be available to their students either online or by phone during regular school hours.

Arkansas law allows alternative methods of instruction for up to 10 days but that has now been expanded to 25 days by Key as the result of the governor's proclamation of a state emergency.

Key said Friday that he has heard feedback ranging from parents who say the at-home lessons take only 30 minutes a day to parents who are asking for relief because of the rigor of the lessons.

"That goes to show that we do have schools that have the capability of creating very meaningful educational delivery in an off-site situation," he said, adding that the state agency is working with Arkansas PBS, Virtual Arkansas and Arkansas Public School Resource Center to provide lessons for the three weeks after spring break. Those will be for the school systems that don't have the capacity to get teachers back in to develop those lessons and get those lessons out. At the elementary level, Arkansas PBS will reconfigure its morning programming to broadcast lessons.

Key also said that efforts are underway to create "safe zones," such as school and library parking lots where students will be able to access the internet if they can't do so at their homes. Further, state leaders are asking broadband providers to work with their school districts to create "hot spots" or otherwise expand their services into areas that are without service.

"It's messy," Key conceded, but "we are working with districts all over the state to make sure students are able to get an education that is as good as possible given these extreme circumstances."

Hutchinson noted that while Arkansas is asking for a waiver of the testing program, it is not alone -- that just about every state in the nation is doing the same. He applauded Key for looking for innovative ways to continue education offerings.

Education Department officials on Friday were not prepared to say how much it will cost the state to cancel the Aspire and other tests.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state has not yet made the application for the waiver and it was too soon to know the cost of cancellation.

Poore, the superintendent of the Little Rock district, welcomed the news of the canceled testing program, acknowledging that the test results were expected to have some role -- as yet not established -- in the district exiting from the Level 5/intensive support category of the state's accountability.

"We've been through a lot. I'm not sure how accurate it could have been from the get-go," Poore said about the results of the Aspire testing in a school year that was marked by student absences in October because of a threat of school violence, a one-day teacher strike in November, and the closing of schools in recent weeks for illness.

Poore also noted the difficulty the district would have in giving the online Aspire tests right after the district gives out its computer devices to students so they can do their school lessons at home over the next few weeks.

"That causes a huge problem in terms of then executing a huge high-stakes assessment," Poore said, voicing appreciation for the governor and education secretary for making the decision they did to calm students and staff members.

Also on Friday, Key issued a memorandum that contained additional guidance to school systems during the closure. The memorandum -- on the agency's website under the "Commissioner's Memos" link states:

• Districts can continue to teach elective courses but the focus must be on core academic subjects -- particularly in light of some anticipated staffing shortages from illness.

• Grading and attendance requirements for students are suspended for 30 days as a result of the governor's amended emergency proclamation.

• High school seniors who are in good standing at the conclusion of the third nine-week grading period will be considered as meeting graduation requirements.

• Students enrolled in courses for weighted credit, such as Advanced Placement, should still receive weighted credit regardless of the ability of a student to take an Advanced Placement or other assessment.

• Districts have broad flexibility in providing opportunities for employees to work modified hours or to work from home.

The agency's website is http://dese.ade.arkansas.gov.

A Section on 03/21/2020

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