The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is publishing today the 2023 state-applied A-to-F letter grades and the 2022 and 2023 Every Student Succeeds Act numerical scores for each of the state's more than 1,000 public school campuses.
The letter grades and the numerical scores on which the letter grades are based are intended to be a gauge of school success in regard to student achievement and academic growth. They are a means by which the state and federal governments hold the public schools accountable for their work.
The latest 2023 ACT Aspire test and the A-to-F letter grades mark the end of an era in Arkansas. The Aspire exams, used since 2016 in grades three through 10, are being replaced by the Arkansas Teaching and Learning Assessment System, or ATLAS, starting next spring. And the criteria for the A-to-F letter grades are on the table for some tweaks.
But Aspire and the current A-to-F system aren't exiting without packing an extra punch: the schools that netted D and F grades in 2023. There are 334 of them or about a third of 1,035 schools. Those schools stand to see their students opt for other schools in the 2024-2025 school year -- including private schools.
Those students in the D- and F-graded schools or in districts in Level 5 intensive support in the state's accountability system can qualify for thousands of dollars in state aid to go toward tuition and other costs for private schools.
Act 237 of 2023, or the LEARNS Act that was initiated by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, established the Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account Program that authorizes the expanded use of taxpayer-funded state funds by eligible students for private schools, including church-affiliated schools.
In this first year for the Educational Freedom Accounts, students who attended F-graded schools in 2022-23 are eligible for the private school tuition money -- an amount equal to at least 90% of the state funding for public school students. That is $6,672 per student that can cover or at least go toward tuition costs this school year.
Students are also eligible for the Educational Freedom Accounts this year if they are kindergartners, have special education needs that require an Individualized Education Program, are children of active military personnel or have experienced homelessness or foster care. Students who have special education needs and previously participated in the smaller, now-discontinued, taxpayer-funded Succeed Scholarship Program qualify for $7,413 this year for private school costs.
This school year, 1.5% of the public school enrollment of the past 2022-23 school year can obtain vouchers. That amounts to almost 7,000 students.
In actual numbers, 5,094 students used Educational Freedom Account funding in the first quarter of this school year. Of those, 640 were previous recipients of Succeed Scholarships, 57 had attended F-graded schools or Level 5 school districts this past year, and 1,516 were kindergartners. Ninety-seven private schools were approved by the state to accept the state voucher money and 94 are actually doing so.
In the upcoming 2024-25 school year, the student eligibility requirements for the vouchers are broader. Accounts will be available for up to 3% of the public school enrollment. Students who are attending D-graded as well as F-graded schools will be eligible for the state funding for private school costs. Also eligible will be children of military veterans and emergency responders, as well as active military service members.
In the 2025-26 school year, there will be universal eligibility -- all Arkansas students will be eligible for the vouchers to pay for tuition and other costs at state-approved private schools.
PROS AND CONS
Sarah McKenzie is the executive director of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Office for Education Policy, where she leads monitoring and analysis of state education data.
McKenzie said there are both challenges and opportunities presented with the retirement of the ACT Aspire.
The novelty of a new testing program will require adjustments.
"Maybe they haven't seen those kinds of test item types before. They aren't used to the technology and teachers aren't exactly sure what the test is going to look like," McKenzie said about the new testing system. "Then that will also lead to challenges in the interpretations of the scores, and what they mean and is this really a good measure of what kids know? How does it compare with what we knew from the ACT Aspire?
"That has the potential to delay decision-making about changes we need to make in instruction for students."
But McKenzie also said a new test -- one well aligned to state education standards -- can provide a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of students.
Hope Worsham, assistant commissioner for public school accountability at the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, is leading a monthslong review of the school accountability system that is required by federal and state law. The A-to-F school grades are part of the state requirement.
Worsham said she anticipates that the revision work will continue well into 2024 and that the next round of letter grades -- based on the new ATLAS tests in the spring of 2024 -- will be announced in January or February of 2025.
Changes in the state's accountability plan for complying with federal requirements for calculating the Every Student Succeeds Act numerical scores for each school will be done earlier and could be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in early 2024, she said.
Under consideration are changes in the elements that make up the numeric Every Student Succeeds Act scores, on which the A-to-F grades are based.
"Like attendance," Worsham offered as an example. "We know student attendance is important but schools have said, 'We have no control over that.' So rather than putting attendance into our A-to-F formula, is there a way we could allow a school to demonstrate to the department that 'We have made a concentrated effort on attendance? We have this and we have done this kind of training and we have this kind of incentive.'"
That could lead to a "badge" being awarded to the school, she said.
The state could display a school's letter grade and its badges on the same screen for public viewing, she said.
The badges could highlight aspects of a school beyond the letter grade, Worsham said.
DOLLARS AND PESOS
McKenzie said A-to-F letter grades can provide good information -- a snapshot -- about a local school, but it is only helpful if the letter grades represent what is valued.
She said she would like to see the letter grade calculation changed so the grades better reflect the academic growth of students versus the achievement or grade-level mastery.
Achievement scores are highly correlated to the poverty rate of the student body at a school and not so much to the quality of instruction. Growth measures the quality of instruction, she said.
Both achievement and growth are components of the current Every Student Succeeds Act numeric score and A-to-F calculation for a school.
"But because it's on a different scale than achievement," McKenzie said of the growth calculation, "it's kind of like mixing dollars and pesos. They don't weigh the same in the overall calculation."
As a result, it is "incredibly unlikely" for a high-poverty school to earn an A grade -- even with a tremendous amount of academic growth, McKenzie said. Just eight Arkansas schools with greater than the 59% average poverty rate received A grades this year. One school below the state's average 59% poverty rate received an F grade.
She called for a more accurate blending of achievement and growth in calculating the letter grades.
"We want growth for all kids, all day, every day," she said and called for a change in the way growth is "rolled into" the overall calculation so that "pesos are changed into dollars," putting them all on the same scale.
If school letter grades tell parents little more than the poverty rate at a school, it's not very helpful information because it doesn't convey well enough how students in a school may be growing, McKenzie said.
As school choice options grow under the LEARNS Act to include publicly funded vouchers for private school enrollment, parents and others will be making decisions without adequate or easy-to-understand information about the school's job of teaching kids.
"We don't have the same information about private schools that we do about public schools, particularly in terms of growth," she said.
The tests that private school students take will reflect achievement and not growth for all the kids at a school, she said, adding that there will be even less information about home-schooled students' achievement and growth.
"Parents are going to make choices for their children. My concern is that they are going to make it without the most valuable information being clear to them, which is how much kids are growing in their local public school," she said.
Arkansas' school accountability system was developed in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to hold schools and school districts responsible for student achievement. Signed in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama, the federal act is the current version of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In Arkansas, the Every Student Succeeds Act index score has taken into account the results from the ACT Aspire tests given last spring in grades three through 10 in math, literacy and science as well as the academic growth students made from the previous year.
Other factors in the calculation of the Every Student Succeeds Act score and ultimately the letter grades include numbers of students reading at grade level at a school, student absenteeism, enrollment in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, high school graduation rates, students participating in community service, and college entrance exam results.
Schools that serve only kindergarten-through-second graders who do not take the Aspire tests are paired with schools that the youngest pupils will eventually attend. The primary school is assigned the Aspire scores from the school that serves older pupils. That test result is combined with other factors to generate an Every Student Succeeds Act score for the primary school campus. Alternative schools that serve students who haven't been successful in traditional schools are not assigned letter grades.