Tens of thousands of third-through-10th graders began taking the state-mandated ACT Aspire tests in math, literacy and science this week after the covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the tests last year.
"More than 44,000 tests were given on Monday," the first day of a six-week window of testing for the ACT Aspire, Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said.
"That shows we are getting back to normal and we are doing the things that our kids expect, that our families expect and that the things that our teachers need, and our schools need, so they can understand what the impact that the covid-19 situation has done to the learning on the student level," he said.
But there are changes in the testing protocols, Key also said.
Those are a nod to the slowing, but still existing, spread of the virus and the reluctance of some parents to send their students -- particularly those who have been learning online from their homes all school year -- onto a campus for the Aspire exams.
About 20% of Arkansas' more than 470,000 public school students are remote online learners this school year. That percentage varies from district to district and from school to school. More than half of Little Rock Central High's 2,400-student body, for example, are virtual learners this year.
State leaders have been adamant that students cannot take the Aspire tests at their homes where testing conditions can't be controlled.
"We have been very flexible with our schools in setting up alternative sites," Key said, "so that any parent who has chosen virtual learning for the entire year could take their child to a setting that was not necessarily a traditional school setting but would have reduced numbers.
"We are allowing weekend testing," he said. "We are allowing options that were not available in the past so that any fear could be remedied by those options."
Key also said he did not see the recent relaxing of mandates on wearing face coverings at school as a deterrent to test-taking by students. Some school districts are continuing to require masks while others -- such as the Benton, Mountain View and Russellville districts -- are making masks optional.
At Little Rock Central, where ninth-and-10th graders are in the pool of students who are supposed to take the online Aspire tests, the first round of tests were given Tuesday to on-campus learners.
Another round of tests will be given this coming Tuesday. The two days are designated virtual days for the school's 11th-and-12th-graders who do not take the Aspire and who will do their school work online away from the campus.
Additionally, Central's ninth-and-10th grade students who are remote, online learners this year are scheduled to take the test at the school Friday, which is a weekly virtual day for Central's on-site students.
Danyell Crutchfield Cummings, the Little Rock district's director of assessment and accountability, said similar steps are being taken at other schools in the 21,000-student system.
"We have offered our virtual students isolated, on-campus testing opportunities through virtual Fridays at the elementary and middle schools," Cummings said.
The large high schools -- like Little Rock Central -- are incorporating Tuesdays as well as Fridays into the testing calendar, Cummings said.
"Students who are not testing on those Tuesdays are asked to remain home to receive meaningful instruction virtually. Depending on the campus, these Tuesdays will be used to either accommodate our virtual families or to provide more space for our in-person testing students to spread out for their safety."
The district also prepared the former Wilson Elementary school building as an off-site testing location as an option.
"For those who are reluctant due to covid-19 concerns, our schools are communicating the safety procedures that are in place," Cummings said. "All buildings continue to receive a deep cleaning. Students and staff are still required to wear masks. And general CDC and Arkansas Department of Health guidelines are being followed. We are taking all precautions to make sure all of our staff and students are safe."
Javana McCall, special programs coordinator for the Camden Fairview School District, said that Saturday testing on campus is an option for virtual learners at the elementary level in the Ouachita County system.
The Camden Fairview district, like many in the state, has instituted weekly virtual Fridays for its students who otherwise attend school in person. Testing of the district's virtual middle and high school students will be done on campus on Fridays.
Virtual pupils in the elementary grades can choose between Friday or Saturday testing, McCall said. The Saturday test-takers will receive breakfast and lunch.
McCall said she believes the scheduling of Saturday testing eased parent reluctance to have their remote learning students take the on-site tests.
About 30% of students in the Camden Fairview district are remote learners this year.
Most of the testing this year is being done in the first two weeks of the testing window that stretches to May 21, a change for Camden Fairview that in past years would schedule tests for later as a way to give teachers more time to provide instruction to students.
"This time we went ahead ahead and started testing on the first day to give us time [later in the testing window] to do make-up testing -- in case there are quarantine issues," she said about the possibility of students and staff missing school due to cases of covid and covid exposures.
The Marion School District is giving virtual students -- about 31% of the school district's enrollment -- options for test settings, Julie Coveny, the Marion district's federal programs director, said Wednesday.
• On-campus testing while the in-person students are taking their assessments.
• An after-hours testing event that is being held in the evening hours.
• A Saturday testing event.
"We started testing this past Monday morning and will finish on Friday. Our face-to-face students are taking one assessment a day this week, and each evening this week we are administering the same assessment to our virtual students," Coveny said. "The district felt it was important to offer the same assessment to both our face-to-face students and our virtual students. We wanted both groups of our students taking the same assessment each day."
The third option for testing this Saturday, however, is a popular one. More than 200 students are scheduled for the weekend session, Coveny said.
Most parents of virtual students have been agreeable to the district's testing plans.
"I have had only a few calls and emails from parents letting me know they were not going to send their virtual students to school for testing," Coveny said.
She said she and other district staff listened to parent concerns and "let them know we respect their decision as a parent," but also telling them that the district is following the rules and regulations of the state on Aspire testing.
"We let them know how valuable this testing data is going to be for their students in the future," she said. "It will let next year's teachers know their child's strengths and weaknesses as they prepare for their classroom instruction," she said.
Key, the state education secretary, said this week that there is no penalty to be levied against individual students for not taking the ACT Aspire tests this year, but he hopes the students will take the tests just the same.
The state expects students to take the exams.
"We are encouraging everyone -- to have every parent have their student tested -- whether they are in-person or remote learners," he said. "Allow them to come on site, allow them to experience these alternative situations, so that they can test in a safe environment."
While there is no individual penalty for students, the schools, districts and the state are subject to federal requirements that at least 95% of eligible test-takers take the tests that would -- in a more typical year -- be a significant factor in evaluating a school and giving schools A-to-F letter grades.
Arkansas lawmakers have already passed a bill this year to suspend the school letter grade system for this 2021-22 school year.
"We will look to see where we are at the end of the testing cycle," Key said about federal standards. "We have been in contact with the U.S. Department of Education and we can determine then whether we need a waiver from the federal 95% requirement."