The Arkansas Department of Education on Wednesday posted letter grades for the state’s more than 1,000 schools, awarding A’s to 163 of the campuses, B’s to 290 campuses and F’s to 33 schools for the 2016-17 school year, the most recently completed school year.
A “C” grade was the most common given at each of the school organizations: elementary, middle and high schools. More than 37 percent of all schools, a total of 384, received C’s on the newly released 2017 School Performance Reports.
There were 170 D’s, according to the Education Department. The agency based the letter grades on the new “ESSA School Index Scores,” which are numerical scores calculated using formulas developed by state education leaders and approved by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year — all in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is the school accountability law that replaced the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which called for every student to achieve at grade level on state math and literacy tests by 2013-14.
To that end, schools had to meet yearly achievement goals or be labeled as needing improvement, which then would require them to set up tutoring programs or let students transfer to other schools.
The Every Student Succeeds Act puts more responsibility for improving schools at the state and district levels.
Arkansas is one of 34 states with an approved plan for complying with the new federal law.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the new letter grades in the Arkansas plan aren’t meant to define a school or a district.
“It’s a measure. It’s an important measure,” Key said, “but it’s a snapshot in time of where the schools are in this new school accountability system that is based on data that [school leaders] didn’t know a year ago was going to be used.”
Key said there are no sanctions or penalties for the schools that received D’s and F’s.
For the first time, the rating includes a school’s state accountability score and resulting letter grade. The accountability score is a calculation developed in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. It takes into account student achievement and improvement on the ACT Aspire tests as well as graduation rates and other factors. The grading scale varies. For example, the lowest A for a high school is a score of 75.4; for a middle school, it’s 78.37; and for an elementary school, it’s 80.35.
The overall scoring scale is as follows:
High School: A, 75.4 or greater; B, 69.58-75.39; C, 62.78-69.57; D, 54.48-62.77; F, 54.47 or lower
Middle School: A, 78.37 or greater; B, 72.58-78.36; C, 65.93-72.57; D, 56.24-65.92; F, 56.23 or lower
Elementary School; A, 80.35 or greater; B, 73.47-80.34; C, 65.98-73.46; D, 58.97-65.97; F, 58.96 or lower
When broken down by institution, Magnolia schools scored three C’s and one D.
East Side Elementary scored a 64.32-point D, while the remaining schools – Central Elementary, Magnolia Junior High School, and Magnolia High School – all scored C’s of 70.36, 66.09, and 65.65 points, respectively.
Even as the largest public school district in Columbia County, Magnolia Schools kept with the state average. But the county’s smaller district of Emerson-Taylor-Bradley (ETB) fared better in both scoring average and letter grade.
Emerson Elementary scored an 84.46-point A, while Taylor Elementary scored a B of 80.19, and Bradley Elementary scored a C with a 71.23 score. All schools house grades K-6.
Emerson and Taylor’s elementary campuses were so highly rated for the 2016-17 school year, the state announced Thursday each finished in the top 5 percent of Arkansas school performance. By earning these honors, each school was awarded $100 per student in additional funding. Emerson Elementary will receive $17,045.28 and Taylor will receive $23,078.16.
“This is about more than extra cash for a school,” said Governor Asa Hutchinson. “Your devotion to teaching and learning now ensures a strong workforce and well-educated leadership for Arkansas tomorrow.”
As part of the same state reward program, Magnolia High School received $29,446.20 ($47.88 per student) for finishing in the top 6-10 percent in terms of growth to graduation rate.
The ETB trio of high schools, however, all scored higher in performance rating than Magnolia. Each seventh through 12th-grade institution received B ratings. Bradley High School edged out Taylor High by scoring 73.25 compared to 73.16, and Emerson was not far behind with a 71.47.
Regardless of where the local high schools were rated, Columbia County schools mostly scored better than neighboring Ouachita and Union County public institutions.
Both Camden and El Dorado High Schools received D’s. El Dorado High scored 61.86, while Camden saw the lowest rating with 60.43. El Dorado Middle Schools also saw better scores than Camden, with Washington Middle School and Barton Jr. High receiving C’s, while Camden Fairview Middle School scored a 62.31, giving it a D.
El Dorado elementary schools varied widely with two K-4 schools receiving F’s, one receiving a D, and one scoring a B. Camden Fairview Elementary and Primary schools both rated as “C” schools, while the local intermediate school scored a D.
Haas Hall Academy of Rogers not only scored highest for all state high schools but topped the whole of Arkansas with a 98.30-point A. Bright Field Middle School of the Bentonville School District scored highest for middle and junior high schools, with an 89.12-point A, and Park Magnet School of Hot Springs School District topped all elementary schools with a 91.05-point A.
The lowest rated schools all scored F’s. The bottom school in the state for 2016-17 was Hall High School of Little Rock School District with a 47.39 score. Robert F. Morehead Middle School of Dollarway School District scored 52.40, while Southwood Elementary School of Pine Bluff School District was the lowest rated Arkansas elementary school by scoring 52.11.
All four high schools in the Pulaski County Special School District and North Little Rock High received D’s. An “F” grade was also given to campuses such as McClellan and Fair high schools, Jacksonville High, Pine Bluff High and Lee County High.
Rounding out the top-scoring schools were J. William Fulbright Junior High in Bentonville and Valley Springs Middle in Boone County. Salem Elementary in Salem and Baker Elementary School in the Pulaski County Special district were the second and third top-scorers among the elementary campuses.
“The letter grades are information that we hope will generate conversations at the school and district level,” Key said. “In the past, there were sanctions. If you were an F school you didn’t qualify for certain funding opportunities.
“That didn’t make sense because a lot of those schools were the schools that needed more assistance,” he said. “We really tried to make this a tool that drives conversation for improvement rather than a designation to be afraid of.”
The letter grades and the numerical ESSA School Index Scores on which the letter grades are based are an addition for 2016-17 to the already data-laden annual School Performance Report, which is now available for viewing at myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov.
Arkansas Code Annotated 6-15-1402 calls for the department to annually prepare and publish on its website by April 15 a performance report for each public school in the state. The report by law is to be easily understood by parents who are not professional educators.
It is to include three years of measures on student achievement, school safety, teacher qualifications, spending per student, student poverty or eligibility for subsidized school meals, student attendance, average teacher salaries, graduation completion rates, college entrance exam scores, and dropout rates.
The new ESSA numerical scores take into account not only student performance and improvement over time on the state-mandated ACT Aspire exams, but also the progress of English language learners on the state required tests, high school graduation rates and multiple factors related to school quality and student success — such as student attendance, science achievement, reading at grade level, grade-point average, college entrance exam results and community service by students.
In addition to a school’s overall ESSA School Index Score and letter grades, the annual School Performance Reports include ESSA index scores for a school’s student subgroups. The subgroups include black, white and Hispanic students, as well as students who are not native English language speakers, students from low income families, and students who receive special-education services. It takes a least 15 students to make up a subgroup.
The reports show how a school’s overall student body and its subgroups did compared with state averages.
The state average ESSA School Index Score for high schools was 67.43, which is a C. The state average for white students was 69.93, a low B. The average for low-income students statewide was 63.49, a C.
For black students, the average was 57.66, a D. For Hispanic students, 62.42, also a D. For English language learners, the average in the state was 59.94, a D. The average score for special-education students in high school was 50.92, which is an F.
Reaction to the letter grades from school system leaders was mixed Wednesday.
John Bacon, chief executive officer of eSTEM Charter Schools Inc., used his Twitter social media account Wednesday morning to congratulate eSTEM’s three campuses for receiving A’s.
Janice Warren, interim superintendent of the Pulaski County Special district, noted the variety of grades in the district’s elementary schools, some pleasing, some not.
She said she was disappointed with the grades for Robinson, Mills, Sylvan Hills and Maumelle high schools.
“We’re better than D’s,” she said, adding that steps are already underway to strengthen instruction, particularly in math.
Jim Tucker, superintendent of the El Dorado School District, said the letter grades that were applied to his schools — two F’s, two D’s, two C’s and one B — are an inaccurate representation of the district.
“We have excellent teachers and a very rigorous curriculum,” he said. “It breaks my heart for the teachers” who have invested everything they have into their work with students.
“Our students leave El Dorado School District, and they are successful. They are successful in the workplace. They are successful in college and the military.”
He said 85 percent of the high school’s graduates go to college, a rate higher than the state and national rates. And of those, 75 percent continue into their sophomore years, an indication of their preparedness.
Tucker also pointed out that the district’s four elementary schools received varying grades — despite the fact that they all have the same curriculum, and they all have outstanding teachers who receive the same professional development.
“Parents don’t really understand the meaning behind the grades. They may move their child to a school that is an A school, but that doesn’t mean it is a better school,” he said.
Elizabeth Johnson, a longtime employee and now the new superintendent of the Lee County School District — where both the elementary and high school received F’s — said plans to address the scores include a four-week summer school for first- through 11th-graders this year, a reorganization of grades to group sixth- through eighth-graders together to better meet their academic needs, and a stress on math and literacy skills in the lower grades.
The district is in the Arkansas Delta.
“We have good children who need to be taught,” Johnson said about a part of the state where communities struggle to provide sufficient jobs that will result in more parents and other adults becoming motivated to invest in the local schools.
Larry Bennett, the superintendent of the Newport School District — where the system’s two schools received C’s — said he wished the grades were better.
“We’ll have conversations and see if we can’t all pull together and get those grades higher,” Bennett said, noting that students in Newport and across the state are currently taking the latest round of ACT Aspire tests.
“If our graduates are leaving here and being successful, then I can accept a C,” Bennett said. “I don’t like it, but I can accept it if our kids are leaving here for good careers.”
In the Little Rock School District, the state’s largest school district, the schools received five A’s and six F’s, as well as 16 D’s, 11 C’s and four B’s. Forest Park and Don Roberts elementaries had the highest scores of 89.39 and 89.36, respectively.
In Fayetteville, there were eight A’s, five B’s and two C’s. In Jonesboro, there was one A and one B, three C’s and four D’s. In Pine Bluff, there were three D’s and four F’s.