Student achievement on the state-required ACT Aspire exams fell in all grades and subjects in spring 2021 compared with the results in spring 2019, the previous time the tests were given, Arkansas education leaders said Wednesday.
The state, district and school results from the spring's online tests were posted on the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education's website Wednesday morning, several weeks before the expected August release of the results. The test is given to students in grades three through 10.
"The results are not surprising and reflect a learning loss that was expected not only here in Arkansas but around the country," Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said in a statement.
The test results come after the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the March 2020 closure of all Arkansas public schools to on-site instruction and in the cancellation of the 2020 Aspire test.
Schools were reopened for on-site instruction in the 2020-21 school year, but the year was disrupted by the disease, by quarantines and by unprecedented methods of delivering instruction -- including full- or part-time online teaching for the tens of thousands of Arkansas families who chose to keep students at home. As many as 97,000 of Arkansas' 470,000 public school students were remote learners for all or for large portions of the past school year.
Despite the challenges of the school year, 97% of the state's students who were eligible to take the Aspire tests in math, literacy and science did so, Key said, adding that fewer than five states in the nation met or exceeded the federal 95% testing requirement.
The testing is part of the state's effort to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is meant to hold schools and districts responsible for student learning. The federal government requires a minimum of 95% of all eligible test-takers at a school to take the exams, or else a school's accountability score will fall.
Arkansas had prohibited giving the Aspire tests in students' homes. To get as many students as possible -- including virtual learners -- to take the Aspire tests at school sites in the spring, the state and school districts offered an expanded testing window of April 5-May 21, as well as opportunities to take the tests on Saturdays or after school hours to reduce the risk of spreading covid-19.
"We now have reliable, accurate data, along with other measures, to help us identify where the biggest impacts occurred," Key said Wednesday about the benefits of the high rate of testing.
"We clearly have a lot of work to do to accelerate learning this school year," he said. "However, we are committed to providing additional supports to assist districts in their efforts this school year."
Statewide, math results showed the greatest decline in 2021, falling 8 to almost 15 percentage points below the results in 2019, depending on the grade.
For example, 34.6% of students in fifth grade achieved at "ready" or "exceeds ready" this spring, compared with 49.17% who met the readiness standard in 2019.
In third-grade math, 48.7% of test-takers met the ready or exceeding ready levels. That was the highest percentage for math among the different grades, but it was a drop from 62.1% in 2019.
The literacy results -- a combination of reading, English and writing -- dropped 5 to 10 percentage points, again depending on the grade. Eighth graders had the highest result statewide, with 43.1% meeting readiness standards, which was down from 49.7% for the grade two years ago.
Only on the English test did more than 50% of students statewide score at ready or exceeding ready levels.
Students who achieve at the "ready" and "exceeding ready" levels on the online test -- as opposed to the "close" and "in need of support" levels -- are considered to be on track for meeting benchmarks for the related academic subject areas on the ACT college entrance exam.
"This is a day we knew was coming," said Ouida Newton of Leola, chairwoman of the state Board of Education and a retired math teacher. "We were prepared for it ... but it's still not pleasant. As a teacher, this would have been one of the days in the past where I would have a good cry and then get up and do what you have got to do."
She said teachers, administrators and state leaders are up for the challenge of raising achievement for students.
"Even though these aren't the results we had hoped for, it gives us a starting point," she added. "Educators across the state will be asking, 'What do we need to do?' and they will start making a game plan."
Newton made the comments during an Education Board special meeting Wednesday to consider proposals from school districts on digital instruction plans for their remote learners in the coming 2021-22 school year, which starts Aug. 16.
Key announced the Aspire results at the special meeting, praising the high 97% test rate but also saying that the lower Aspire result "pains us all."
He said he had held out some "crazy optimism" that the results would be better. He said he continues to hope that individual schools and districts will have some good results and that their strategies will be models for other schools.
The unexpectedly early return of the test results gives educators extra time to dive deep into the data to determine what to address with students, Key said. The results eventually will be broken down to show the test results for full- and part-time online learners and in-person students at schools.
Typically, the Aspire test results are a component in calculating and assigning A-F letter grades to schools. However, legislation earlier this year waived the A-F state rating scale for the 2020-2021 school year, so schools will not receive letter grades for this past year. Letter grades were not given for the 2019-20 school year, either.
The Aspire results are the basis for millions of state dollars in rewards paid to schools that scored in the top 10% in the state or showed significant year-to-year gains.
To help provide a better understanding and explanation of the Aspire results, the state education agency is partnering with ACT Inc., maker of the Aspire test, and with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Office for Innovation to determine the effect of various factors on test scores.
Key warned Wednesday that the impact of covid-19 "is going to equally be devastating this school year if the numbers continue to go the way they are going now," referring to the recent surge in the number of virus cases. There were 1,309 new cases reported Wednesday. Active cases were up 70% over the previous week.
"Let's just face the reality. We have fewer tools available to us right now. The one big tool we have is the vaccine, and we need a stronger participation rate there," Key said. "With the trends we are seeing now, we are preparing for another difficult year. We agree that teachers will find ways ... to get their students what they need. We want to support them in that. The analysis of this data will be an important step to help them as we move forward."
Because the Aspire tests were not given in 2020, the 2021 administration of the ACT Aspire marked the first time third and fourth graders took the online assessment.
In the Little Rock School District of 21,000 students, the literacy results ranged from 22.3% ready or better in the third grade to 31.5% in eighth grade. In math, the capital city results ranged from 15% ready or exceeding ready in the 10th grade to 32.4% ready in the third grade.
Aspire results for the state, districts and schools are available at https://bit.ly/3AZALod.