Arkansas ranks 36th, receives C- in revised education report card

Arkansas ranked 36th among 50 states in a newly released national report card on education that two years ago listed Arkansas as fifth in the nation.

But the rankings aren't comparable because the ranking system changed, said Sterling Lloyd, a senior lead research associate with the Education Week Research Center and project manager for the 2015 report.

The national publication Education Week gave Arkansas an overall score of 70.2 out of 100 points, the letter grade equivalent of a C-, while the nation as a whole received a score of 74.3, or a C, in the 19th annual Quality Counts report released Thursday.

"There is room for improvement," Lloyd said. "We find that for a lot of states."

Previous Quality Counts reports in 2012 and 2013 ranked Arkansas fifth in the nation. That score was largely because of three of six categories that focused on states' education policies, Lloyd said. Those three policy-related categories are no longer included, and the three remaining categories graded for the 2015 reports are ones in which the state has not scored as highly, he said.

This week, Gov. Mike Beebe's spokesman released a brief statement from the governor on the new report card.

"During our rise in education rankings, Gov. Mike Beebe always said that while we should be proud of the progress we've made, there is still much work to be done," Matt DeCample said. "With this year's rankings focusing solely on the categories in which Arkansas needs to make up more ground, the need for that continued effort is brought into sharper detail."

Arkansas Department of Education spokesman Kimberly Friedman said the department welcomes the feedback from the new Quality Counts report and that the department will review the information.

A fifth-place ranking is an overstatement of the education system in Arkansas, just as a 49th or 50th place ranking for education would be an understatement, said Gary Ritter, faculty director of the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Arkansas tends to rank slightly below the middle of the country on comparisons of states in education, including on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Ritter said. The exam, considered the Nation's Report Card, tests a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading in each state in odd-numbered years.

The Office of Education Policy has released blog posts and policy briefs for several years criticizing how Quality Counts measures states on overall performance. The overall grade isn't meaningful, but the individual components of the grading system provide useful information on the state's standing compared with other states, Ritter said.

Grading states

The 2015 Quality Counts report assesses the nation and each state using results from three indexes: a chance-for-success index, a school finance index and a K-12 achievement index.

This year's report also includes an early education index that did not count toward the overall grade. The state earned a ninth-place ranking and a C grade in early education. The national grade was a D+.

The state received a C- in chance-for-success, a 46th-place ranking; a C in school finance, a 28th-place ranking; and D+ in K-12 achievement, a 37th-place ranking, according to the report.

"We're trying to help identify strengths and weaknesses across the states, and to give education policymakers and the general public a way to compare outcomes and results across states," Lloyd said.

The chance-for-success index uses 13 indicators that measure the role of education from early childhood through adulthood, Lloyd said. The index is intended as a gauge of the opportunity young children have early in life, the academic achievements and graduation rates of school-age children, and the abilities of residents to financially support their families.

Among those indicators, Arkansas ranks 12th in the number of adults with full-time, year-round jobs. The state ranked last in number of families with incomes above 200 percent of the poverty level, number of adults with two- or four-year college degrees, and number of adults with incomes above the national median.

Nationally this year, the chance-for-success index shows a slight uptick in family income and parental employment, signs that the economic recovery is starting to help families, Lloyd said.

In school finance, the nation and Arkansas scored higher this year in how states distribute local and state revenue equitably in regard to student spending, Lloyd said. Arkansas ranked in the top third of the nation on most of the eight school finance indicators.

"That's a strength," Lloyd said. "We don't see big spending disparities between districts in Arkansas."

On the K-12 achievement index, 14 of 18 indicators relate to student achievement on the 2013 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Lloyd said.

Ritter criticized the use of the three indexes to gauge education because states with low achievement, high spending and wealthier families would rank higher than states with high achievement, low spending and poorer families, Ritter said.

States in the latter category would have more efficient systems but would rank low on the overall Quality Counts evaluation, Ritter said.

Strengths and weaknesses

The report shows some Arkansas strengths, said Sarah McKenzie, the University of Arkansas Office of Education Policy's new executive director. She is preparing a policy brief on the new report.

The analysis of early childhood education ranks Arkansas first in the percentage of children attending full-day preschool, McKenzie said. In the chance-for-success index, the state ranks in the top quarter in the percentage of children enrolled in kindergarten.

"If you have students engaged in rigorous and enriching learning experiences before they get to kindergarten or first grade, then they start school ready to learn," McKenzie said.

The percentage of adults with steady employment -- 73.8 percent -- and the percentage of parents with full-time employment -- 71.5 percent -- are positive signs, she said. Arkansas was among the top five states in the country in seeing gains in eighth-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one indicator on the K-12 achievement index.

Despite the improvement in eighth-grade math scores, student achievement on the assessment remains a concern, with the state ranked 40th and 42nd, respectively, in the proportion of the state's eighth-graders earning proficient scores in reading and math, McKenzie said.

"Our academic achievement is not where we would like for it to be," McKenzie said. "That's a continuing discussion we're having in the state."

NW News on 01/11/2015