Results improve on tests
More state pupils at ‘ready’ levels
Arkansas’ third- through 10th-graders did better on the state-required ACT Aspire tests this past spring than students did in 2016, Arkansas Department of Education leaders said Monday.
More than 287,500 students in the Natural State took the online tests in English, math, science, reading and writing in the state’s second year for the testing program developed by the same company that produces the ACT college-entrance exam.
Results improved in every subject and in every grade except sixth- grade science, fifth-grade English and third-grade writing.
The state Education Department staff highlighted in particular improvements in sixth- and eighth-grade math and double- digit percentage-point gains in fourth- through eighthgrade writing.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key called the overall higher achievement “a positive reflection of the work of our dedicated educators.”
“The increase in Arkansas’ scores can be attributed to the full implementation of the state’s rigorous education standards, high-quality professional development, and innovative and evidence- based teaching practices in the classroom that encourage student engagement and learning,” said Key, who also noted
that there remains room for more improvement.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who in 2015 directed a change in the state’s student testing program, issued a statement Monday congratulating students, teachers and the Education Department “for the notable improvement on the 2016-2017 ACT Aspire.”
“While we want to see continued improvements in the future, the increased scores in math and writing bode well for our state in our efforts to attract more industry with a strong workforce,” Hutchinson said. “In addition, these advances further underscore the hard work our teachers put forth every day and indicates that our students are responding well to the department’s new vision to provide a student-focused education.”
The Aspire results, which are to be presented to the Arkansas Board of Education at its meeting Friday, will be used by schools and districts to develop academic improvement plans for students who did not achieve at the desired “ready” or better levels on any of the tests.
Achievement at the “ready” level indicates that students are on track to be prepared for college and/or careers when they take the ACT in 11th or 12th grades. Other categories of performance on the tests are “exceeding,” “needs support” and “close to ready.”
The state is using the Aspire testing program to comply with the federal Every Child Succeeds Act that calls for states to hold schools and districts accountable for student learning — including subgroups of students identified by their race or ethnicity, family poverty, learning disabilities and English language speaking skills.
The Aspire results released Monday are considered preliminary until data are reviewed and corrected. Once the results are finalized, the state will use them as the basis for the Arkansas School Recognition Program and to determine whether schools that were earlier classified as priority schools, for scoring among the lowest 5 percent of campuses, can be removed from that classification.
Additionally, the Aspire results for the state’s more than 250 traditional and charter schools, as well as districts and charter systems, will be posted on the state’s annual School Performance Report Card.
The data released Monday show that students did the best this year on the English tests. The percentage of students scoring at ready or better levels in English ranged from 58.5 percent in the ninth grade to 78.6 percent in the seventh grade.
The national Aspire results in English ranged from 61 percent ready at the ninthgrade level to 75 percent at the seventh-grade level.
Students made the greatest improvements in 2017 compared with 2016 on the writing tests, showing gains of as many as 15, 19 and almost 22 percentage points in some grades over results from the previous year.
The percentages of students scoring at ready levels ranged from 19.17 percent in third grade to 59.29 percent in sixth grade. The sixth-grade result was 15.2 percentage points higher than the percentage of sixth- grade test takers scoring at the ready level in 2016.
State Education Department staff attributed the gains in writing scores to a combination of factors, including an extension of time provided to students to complete the writing test, as well as teacher training, classroom instruction focused on writing, and a growing familiarity with the online testing format.
Nationally, the writing percentages ranged from 17 percent ready in third grade to 52 percent in 10th grade level.
In math, the percentages of Arkansas students scoring at ready or better levels ranged from 24.72 percent in the 10th grade to 62.05 percent in the sixth grade. Nationally, the percentages ranged from a low of 32 percent in the 10th grade to a high of 60 percent ready in the third grade.
In science, the percentage of Arkansas students scoring at ready levels ranged from 32.14 percent in the ninth grade to 48.95 percent in the sixth grade. That compares nationally to a range of 32 percent ready in the ninth grade to 47 percent in the sixth grade.
In contrast to the higher achievement levels in English in Arkansas, the reading percentages are lower, ranging from 36.38 percent ready in the 10th grade to 48.99 percent in the eighth grade. Nationally, the reading score percentages ranged from 38 percent in third and 10th grades to a high of 50 percent in eighth grade.
Gary Ritter, a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville professor of education and public policy and the founder of the Office for Education Policy at that campus, said Monday that, because this is only the second year for the use of the Aspire test, there are limited areas for comparison.
“It looks like slight increases at nearly every level,” Ritter said of the state results. “The overall data right now suggests that as a state, it’s roughly what you would expect with a new exam. We are learning it. The fact that the writing had bigger jumps, there was an explanation — they did extend the time.”
Ritter also said that rule-making for writing and writing practice for the test were likely emphasized in classroom teaching.
While the state doesn’t have a good comparison group, Ritter said, the newly released results are still useful, particularly to school districts that can compare themselves to surrounding districts or districts that have similar demographics.
“There is lots of good information to be pulled from here, but at the state level it’s not a lot,” he said. “Paying attention school by school seems like a useful thing.”
Yolaundra Williams, director of special programs for the Pulaski County Special School District, was pleased with the results in that school system.
“We had gains in all areas except two in the elementary grades, and those were slight drops,” Williams said. “I thought it was really good considering this was the second year of the test in the district and the state.
“Last year, we were dealing with a new format, dealing with a new technology and testing online. This year, I think students did an excellent job and teachers really amped up instruction. I do believe next year, with us being more familiar with the format and students being more comfortable with the online platform, that achievement will continue to increase,” Williams said.
In the Pulaski County Special district, the combined English, reading and writing scores ranged from a low of 31.9 percent ready in the ninth grade to 52.8 percent in the fifth grade. Combining math and science, the student performance ranged from 12.7 percent of ninth-graders scoring at ready levels to 42.3 percent in the fourth grade. Individual schools scored much higher or much lower.
In the Little Rock School District, the state’s largest district, the percentage of students scoring at ready or better levels ranged from 34.2 percent of third-graders in English/ language arts to 41.4 percent in fifth grade. In math and science, the results ranged from 17.3 percent ready or better in 10th grade to 34.1 percent ready in fourth grade. Again, individual schools had much higher percentages or much lower.
At eSTEM Public Charter Schools, one of the largest charter school systems in Pulaski County, the percentages of students scoring at ready levels in English/ language arts ranged from 51.6 percent in fourth grade to 75.4 percent in eighth grade. In math and science, the percentage of students achieving at ready levels ranged from 34.4 percent in the ninth grade to 62.06 in the fourth grade.
Before the Aspire test, the state administered in the 2014-15 school year the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, tests. One of the complaints about the PARCC test was the amount of time it required. The Aspire test averages 4½ hours while the PARCC required 12 hours over a period of days.