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New review system aims to provide more support for Arkansas schools

by Cynthia Howell | August 13, 2017 at 4:28 a.m.

The 2017-18 school year will be one in which the state's system for holding schools and districts responsible for student learning will feature more state support for districts and less "gotcha," Education Commissioner Johnny Key said in marking the new year.

Classes begin Monday for most of Arkansas' more than 470,000 public school students.

It will be a year in which schools and districts will say goodbye to the longstanding Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, Key said last week in a presentation to the Arkansas Board of Education.

Gone or going will be "academic improvement plans," "adequate yearly progress" and school labels such as "priority," "focus" and "academic distress," he said.

"'Gotcha' didn't get us to where we wanted to be," Key said about the accountability system that is being replaced with one that emphasizes state support of school districts, a team approach to raising achievement and the flexibility to be innovative in crafting "success plans" for all students in eighth grade and above.

"Accountability has become a negative and it shouldn't be," the commissioner said of what he described as a demeaning "us versus them" system of labeling schools. "We're trying to change the nature of accountability."

The three prongs of the revised system are the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act, which is Act 930 of 2017, and the state's School Rating System Act, which is Act 744 of 2017.

The School Rating System law expands the criteria for applying A-F letter grades to schools. Those performance ratings for the 2016-17 school year will be announced in mid-April 2018.

Act 930 does away with the academic distress labels for schools and the requirement for individual academic improvement plans for students who score below proficient on state exams. Instead, the act calls for every eighth- through 12th-grader to have a success plan that sets out a path to college and careers. Still another component of the act establishes five levels of state support -- from general to intensive -- for school districts in their efforts to promote student achievement at their campuses.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act is the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act that called for all students to achieve at their grade level on math and literacy by the 2013-14 school year. It also required schools to make yearly progress toward that 100 percent or be penalized.

The new law requires states to set long-term achievement goals for schools, but that doesn't have to be 100 percent proficiency. Nor are schools penalized for shortfalls in annual progress toward long-term goals, under the new law.

The law continues to require schools to evaluate the achievement levels of subgroups of students at a school for their progress toward the long-term achievement goals. And the federal act continues to require states to intervene in the 5 percent of lowest-scoring schools in the state.

Arkansas' proposed plan for complying with the new federal law will be submitted for approval to the U.S. Department of Education by next month's deadline.

The proposed plan, which has been under development for about a year, will go beyond evaluating schools based on the results from a single test, Key said.

Student results from the annual Aspire exams in math and literacy will continue to be a factor in the new accountability system, but year-to-year achievement growth, high school graduation rates, and indicators of school quality and student success are also factors. Indicators of school quality and student success could include student absences, grade-point averages, college entrance exam results, community service credits, and earned credits in computer science, Advanced Placement or concurrent college courses, according to the state's draft plan.

The new school year is a transition year for the accountability systems, Key said.

The state's plan to the federal government needs approval. Act 930 just went into effect earlier this month. Schools must submit school improvement plans by Oct. 1 to the state, an old system requirement, and then schools must present their improvement plans to their local school boards by May 1 for the 2018-19 school year -- a requirement of the new accountability system.

The state Education Board will decide Nov. 9 whether schools previously labeled as priority schools for low achievement or focus schools because of large student achievement gaps qualify to be released from those labels.

Also as part of the transition, the state's two school districts that are under state control -- Little Rock and Dollarway -- have been newly labeled as Level 5 districts under Act 930. The act provides new options for dealing with districts under state management. Those options include permitting an elected school board to exist in the district with limits on its authority.

Education Board member Mireya Reith of Fayetteville asked if the state Education Board might decide on the future of the Little Rock and Dollarway districts at the Nov. 9 meeting.

Key said transitional support plans will be developed for those two districts in the coming weeks but no date has been scheduled for presenting those plans to the state Education Board.

"It is such a big task of doing that systems analyses for those two districts that we really don't have a set time for when we will bring that back to you," he told the Education Board.

Education Board member Susan Chambers of Bella Vista said the new accountability system "sounds like a big change" but a good one in that district ownership or buy-in of the system feels better than being directed to comply.

Chambers speculated that there could be a larger gap between high- and low-performing school systems as a result of the new system. She urged state leaders to be ready to spot that and address it quickly.

"We don't want to leave anybody behind," she said.

Key told the board that the change in the accountability system is not a de-emphasis on achievement.

"It's looking at it differently and not overemphasizing achievement while sacrificing all the other components of the school experience and learning opportunities," he said.

Metro on 08/13/2017

Print Headline: 'Gotcha' grades out for schools


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