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State students' exams totaled at 1.2 million

Aspire-test count on track to meet federal requirement by Cynthia Howell | April 29, 2021 at 6:55 a.m.
An ACT Assessment test is shown in this April 1, 2014, file photo. The ACT Assessment differs from the ACT Aspire, which is a broader test that is both practice for the ACT Assessment but also an evaluation of how students are meeting standards of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

More than 1.22 million ACT Aspire tests in math, literacy and science have been administered to public school students in grades three through 10, a state testing program manager reported Wednesday.

"We appear to be in very good shape," Sheree Baird, program manager for assessment for the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the state's Every Student Succeeds Act steering committee. The committee is the Vision for Excellence in Education and Arkansas Accountability System Steering Committee and is made up of educators and interested residents.

The state is on track to meet a U.S. Department of Education requirement that 95% of eligible students take the exams that are at the heart of every state's school accountability system, Baird said.

In Arkansas , there are 296,208 students who are eligible to take the five Aspire tests for their grade level in English, reading, writing, math, and science during a testing window that began April 5 and will close May 20.

As of Tuesday, better than 75% of those eligible students took the tests, Baird said, leaving 3½ weeks to give tests to more students and to meet the 95% tested threshold.

"I am very pleased," Baird said and credited coordinators across the state for their efforts to get students to take the tests in a school year in which the covid-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional instruction and standardized testing.

"They have used the communication tools we provided [and] the flexibilities that we have offered to schools and to parents to get a lot of these kids tested," she said. "They have done a fabulous job so I want to give them credit," she said.

About 21% of the state's more than 470,000 students this school year have been remote learners, using online instruction full time at their homes. The ACT Aspire testing, however, is not permitted at a student's home, requiring students who have not been at a school because of safety concerns to go to a campus or other school-designated site for the tests.

The state and school districts have offered to allow those students to take the tests after regular school hours or on Saturdays, or during the school day when traditional in-person students are directed to stay at home for virtual instruction.

Failure by a school or district to give the Aspire tests to at least 95% of eligible students in a typical school year will result in a lower Every Student Succeeds Act numerical score for the school. In a typical year, the numerical score is the basis for a state-issued A-to-F letter grade for a school. The numerical score and letter grade are all part of the state's system of holding schools responsible for student learning.

Deborah Coffman, the Elementary and Secondary Education Division's assistant commissioner for school accountability, told the steering committee Wednesday that the state can ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver of the 95% requirement if that standard is not met. That could ease the effect of the lower testing percentage on a school's numerical score.

Coffman noted that the A-to-F letter grades for schools have been suspended for this one year. But the state will distribute award money, she said, to the top 10% highest-achieving schools and to the top 10% most improved schools.

Any decision about asking the federal government for a waiver of the 95% won't be made before August, Coffman said.

"We have the time we need to make data-driven decisions," she said.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said earlier this month that there is no penalty to be levied against individual students for not taking the ACT Aspire tests this year, but he hoped students would take the tests just the same.

Key and other education leaders have said that even though there won't be any A to F grades given to schools based on the Aspire tests this year, the results from the tests will be used to identify gaps in student learning to be addressed in the coming school year.

The ACT Aspire tests will be given again to Arkansas students in the spring of 2022, Baird said.

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, a steering committee member, said Wednesday that she was pleased that the Aspire testing could be continued this year after it was suspended in the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic.

"We have got to find a way to figure out where we are. I know a lot of states didn't want to [test] but I'm glad we did," English said.

Harold Jeffcoat, superintendent of the Van Buren School District and a steering committee member, said the 75% tested to date exceeds expectations.

"Good job," he said.

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