Only 71% in grades 3-10 took district test

Data from the Pine Bluff School District's latest District Common Formative Assessment is revealed during a board meeting Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
Data from the Pine Bluff School District's latest District Common Formative Assessment is revealed during a board meeting Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Student participation in a district-designed test battery is lower than Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree would like.

Only 71% of students in grades 3-10 have taken the District Common Formative Assessment, a quarterly test that determines how much a student has learned in each subject and also prepares them for the coming ATLAS (Arkansas Teaching & Learning Assessment System) summative test later in the school year. Barbaree said during Monday's PBSD board meeting she set an expectation for every teacher in these grade levels to administer the district assessment.

The State Board of Education cited the PBSD in March for failure to test 95% or more of its eligible students for the ACT Aspire -- the previous state assessment -- during the spring of 2022. A second violation would have resulted in accredited-probation status, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"The District Common Formative Assessment is a district-created test using an assessment that is rigorous," Barbaree said, adding it is a true reflection of the ATLAS. "It is based on priority standards and pacing. It's going to take many weeks to teach it."

A bigger problem with the low participation rate in the district assessment, Barbaree said, is whether students are in school the days the test is administered. As few as 64% of 10th-graders took the DCFA for the first nine-week grading period, and only 67% of fourth, seventh and eighth-graders were tested.

As many as 82% of fifth-grade students were tested, and that was cause for celebration on the part of one principal, Barbaree said.

"We're trying to use this as another data point to say, are we tracking attendance?" Barbaree said. "The biggest eye opener is that, maybe our kids aren't attending the way we need them to."

On Monday Barbaree told the board that some classroom teachers did not understand offering the district assessment was an expectation and that they would be held accountable for it. Barbaree said she has asked principals to follow up with teachers who have not given the assessment and ask them to reach out to parents if their children are not present on the testing dates.

"We communicated with teachers earlier and we extended the window, reached out to our instructional facilitators on each campus to make sure they understand the platform," said Lutonya Rauls, the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction. Rauls clarified ATLAS is taken on a computer platform.

Scores from the district assessment showed an approximate average of 48% of district students were "not ready yet" to meet performance standards in English language arts, while 49% were "not ready yet" in math standards.

"What I would say is the gaps in learning, like in math, it may be some things they didn't get in sixth grade and now they're in Algebra I," Rauls said. "So, with some of our programs we have in our WIN [What I Need] time, we're able to go back and close some of those gaps. It's going to take time. With this first assessment, we did interventions and remediation. Some of those skills are going to be on the next assessment. So, we're going to monitor and see in a year how our students have grown. So, this is not the end."

Star Academy pilot

Board members voted 6-1 for a Star Academy pilot program to help ninth-graders who have experienced learning loss or are lacking credits be established at the Pine Bluff Junior High Academy for the spring semester.

Star Academy is a curriculum designed by NOLA Education of New Orleans and is used at Explore Academy, a cooperative junior high school of the Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel districts and the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative based at the old Dollarway High School.

Barbaree said 80 students were identified as in intensive need for instruction to address learning loss. She had hoped at first the entire ninth grade in the district could utilize the program, but she added the board expressed concerns about it. (Board member Lori Walker Guelache cast the lone "no" vote.)

If the pilot program proves successful, the district can opt to purchase the Star Academy services for three years.

"We will monitor the program at the beginning of implementation, and we'll look monthly," Barbaree said. "By April of next spring, I'd like to know what our plans are for the fall."

How the Star Academy pilot works may determine how many seats the PBSD will continue to purchase for the Explore Academy, which serves grades 7-9.

Special education teachers

In need of hiring five special education teachers according to Barbaree, the district filled two slots Monday, although one comes at a steep per-hour cost.

One of the teachers will receive a standard contract and will be paid based on the district's schedule, but the PBSD is hiring another through a purchased service agreement with The Stepping Stones Group. That firm provides therapeutic and behavioral health services for students and will provide the teacher, who is said to be coming out of retirement, at a rate of $67 per hour for the next 28 weeks, per the agreement.

The teacher through The Stepping Stones Group did not want a standard contract and will not receive the same benefits as a contracted teacher would, Barbaree said. She added she was not sure how much the firm would receive out of each paycheck for the teacher.

"By whatever means, we just need teachers," Barbaree said.

The agreement with The Stepping Stones Group was approved by a 4-2 vote, with board members Ricky Whitmore and Guelache dissenting.

Personnel moves

The district hired James Norman as a special education teacher at Pine Bluff High School, effective Monday.

Resignations include Clem Bilgischer as a music teacher at Southwood Elementary (effective Dec. 1), Patricia Jones as a classroom teacher at Southwood (effective Dec. 20), and Marquetta Randolph as a security officer at 34th Avenue Elementary (retroactive to Oct. 19).

A classified personnel addendum from full-time to part-time was granted to junior high custodian Kendyl Richardson, retroactive to Oct. 26.