Little Rock School District students showed achievement gains on the ACT Aspire exams in a majority of grades and subject areas in 2022 compared with the district's 2021 results, but they continued to trail below statewide achievement levels.
Students in grades three through 10 took the state-required Aspire exams in math, reading, English and science last spring. The preliminary results for the state and the school districts were recently released by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Little Rock and state test-takers generally did no better in 2022 than they did three years before, in 2019, before the covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and disrupted public education in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22.
But both the capital city students and students statewide showed year-to-year improvements, from 2021 to 2022, in 21 of the 30 tested grades and subjects.
Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key recently called the 2022 results for the state an indication of a recovery from "significant interruptions" in learning caused by the covid-19 global pandemic that began in March 2020.
Statewide, students achieving in 2022 at the desired "ready" and "exceeding ready" levels on the exams ranged from 25.99% in 10th-grade math to a high of 77.94% of test-takers scoring at the levels appropriate for their grade in seventh-grade English.
In comparison, Little Rock students achieving in 2022 at the desired levels on the exams ranged from just 17.47% in ninth-grade science to a high of 60.82% in seventh-grade English.
On many of the tests given in the different grades, three through 10, state achievement rates exceeded the Little Rock district results by 10 or more percentage points. In sixth-grade reading, for example, 29.98% of Little Rock test-takers achieved at the desired "ready" or "exceeds ready" levels. Statewide, 42.39 % of students scored at the desired levels.
Better than half of Little Rock test-takers achieved at the desired levels in only fifth-grade English, 51.22%; seventh-grade English, 60.82%; and eighth-grade English, 60.7%. Better than half of statewide test-takers scored at desired levels in nine subjects and grades, such as third grade math, 53.47%.
The Little Rock district's Aspire results quickly drew the attention of Jermall Wright, the 21,000-student district's superintendent since July 1.
"You do see some positive movement when you compare 2021 to 2022, although the percentages are still low, " Wright said about the results, specifically citing a nine-point improvement in third-grade reading. "You can see some momentum."
But he told parents, staff and others at a recent forum to introduce himself to the new district: "In order for us to be a great district, all students must succeed."
"We have a lot of work to do in terms of student outcomes," Wright said as he projected several years of Aspire results onto a screen. "I can guarantee you that is going to be my No. 1 priority and my No. 1 focus -- to focus on student achievement."
Wright is a harsh critic of the the state-required ACT Aspire tests -- at least in part because he said the tests aren't aligned to Arkansas' education standards, which are what students are supposed to be taught.
"But I will also say that if kids are prepared well, they should be able to perform well on any test that is put before them.
"My goal, at the very minimum is that we should be performing at the state average. We should be doing that if nothing else."
To that end, the Little Rock School Board on Thursday approved a revised set of overarching goals for the district under Wright's leadership.
The first goal is to improve student achievement in reading and math "aiming towards meeting or exceeding grade level performance for all students."
The goal calls for increasing academic achievement and growth in math and literacy by 2% or more every year compared with the previous year based on the annual state-required exams. The goal also calls for decreasing the achievement gap among subgroups of students in math and science by 2% or more every year.
Another of the goals centers on increasing by 5% a year the numbers of students enrolled in career and technical education and the number of students earning industry certification.
Still other goals focus on student recruitment and retention so that the district enrollment will reach 24,000 by 2030, and staff recruitment and retention. In 2017-18 the district had 1,983 teachers of whom 1,028 or 48.2% are still teaching in the district.
The School Board on Thursday also approved partnering with E.L. Achieve as a way to systematically increase achievement among students who do not speak English as their first language.
The School Board additionally approved a staff recommendation to use the Walker Wise Group, a professional services and strategy firm, for a year at a cost of $55,000 to restructure the district's educational program for students who are over-age for their high school grade and who are academically off track. One of the key purposes of the Walker Wise Group partnership is to improve what is generally an 80% high school graduation rate in the Little Rock district.
Individual school, district and statewide results from the ACT Aspire exams in math, reading, English and science are available for review on the state website: https://myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov.
Additionally, the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has compiled the Aspire data in a different format. The link to that Excel file is here: https://oep.uark.edu/2021-2022-act-aspire-data/.