The drop in the student scores on the 2021 ACT Aspire tests was surprising in its consistency across the state and in its disconnect from any easily identifiable demographic characteristics, a statistician and researcher said last week.
"Just about everybody took a hit," said Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Office for Education Policy.
The decline was steepest in math.
In her review, McKenzie "collapsed" the grade-by-grade percentages of students who scored at "ready" or "exceeds ready" to one percentage result per subject per district, and compared 2021 results to 2019 results.
"We're 11 percentage points lower in math, 5 percentage points lower in English, five points lower in reading and 6 percentage points lower in science,"she said.
Looking at the state's regions also revealed few differences, with the southeast sector being slightly lower than the rest of the state, McKenzie said.
The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education last week released the results of the ACT Aspire tests given last spring to students in grades three through 10 in literacy, math and science.
The 2021 tests were the first since 2019, as the 2020 state-required tests were canceled when Arkansas schools were closed in March to on-campus instruction. That was done in the early days of the global coronavirus pandemic in an effort to stem the spread of the highly contagious and potentially fatal virus.
Arkansas schools were opened for all of the 2020-21 school year, but it was a year disrupted by illnesses, quarantine and online instruction for some 97,000, or 21%, of the state's 470,000 students who chose to learn away from the traditional classrooms.
"In general, our kids were in school most of the time -- unlike places that were closed," McKenzie said, comparing Arkansas to other states. "It was a little surprising to me how much lower the scores were and how consistent the declines were across the state."
In her preliminary review of the data last week, McKenzie said she did not detect differences in the achievement declines that could be tied to student poverty, the location of the district in the state or the size of the district.
Asked if the results are an indictment of online instruction, McKenzie noted that the majority of students were in school.
"I don't think we can blame it on remote instruction. I think maybe it is a deeper disruption; I don't know. Everybody was distracted by other things," she said.
"Everyone is going to be doing research into online instruction over the next several years. We'll get some better data about what works for whom and what was not effective."
For the time being, teachers at the local level know best how their students did with the different virtual instruction methods that were used.
"I don't have any great advice about technology right now except that if it didn't work, don't do it again!" McKenzie said.
McKenzie said she "looked for the sunshine" in the results.
While the drop in math scores was as great as 27 points in one or more districts, the Hillcrest School District, based in Strawberry, had a 5 percentage point gain in students who scored at "ready" or "exceeding ready" levels on the math test when compared to the 2019 results.
"We are blessed at Hillcrest to have some of the best math teachers," Rachel Netrefa, Hillcrest High assistant principal, said Friday about the district's math instruction.
She also said the district was diligent in equipping and serving students who were virtual learners or who had to be quarantined at home because of covid exposures.
"Core teachers zoomed frequently with students to ensure that no instruction was lost during this time,"Netrefa said. "Because of our focus on the use of technology in our classrooms over the last several years, our students and teachers were able to successfully transition in this new blended learning environment."
The percentage of students scoring at "ready" or "exceeding ready" levels on the reading test dropped by 18 percentage points in one or more districts in the state, McKenzie said, but 14 districts improved on their 2019 results, including the Rivercrest and Cross County districts that raised their "ready" and better percentages by 4 points.
Cross County Superintendent Nathan Morris also said hard-working teachers and the familiarity students and faculty in his district had with computer devices and instructional platforms gave a leg-up to teaching and learning this past year.
"We've been a 1-to-1 student-to-Apple [devices] district for over 10 years now," Morris said. "Do not quote me as somebody beating our chests like we are better than everybody because that is not the case ... but the [technology] was not as big an obstacle for us."
Stephen Prince, Cross County High School principal, highlighted the district's reliance on teacher collaboration through professional learning communities. He also cited the use of small-group field testing of strategies to ensure they work before rolling them out to the broader group of students and staff. Efforts to build student vocabulary was one of those strategies, he said.
In English, seven of the state's 262 school districts and charter systems showed increases and eight stayed the same as compared to their 2019 results, McKenzie said. The Rivercrest district and Arkansas Connections online charter school topped the gainers, she said.
There were eight districts that showed increases in science, including White County School District. according to McKenzie's review.
Mike Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock district, expected lower results, but the results particularly in math were "dramatically worse" than anticipated.
Only about 1 in 4 Little Rock students scored at ready or better levels in literacy and math.
"The results highlight the challenges of last year," he said, adding that it was a year in which students, teachers and parents gave it their best.
Poore noted that the district has a new math curriculum for the coming year and that district faculty will participate in training for it in the next few weeks.
"The positive is we have a solution we are working towards to be better," he said.
He also said that the coming year with the continued number of covid cases and not everyone eligible for or willing to be vaccinated "will be an equally challenging year."
Charles McNulty, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, said he was "pretty pleased" with the English test scores as they seemed to be at or above the state and national averages.
He said the pandemic and the use of full and part-time virtual instruction changes how progress in the district can be measured.
"I think that is how we are going to have to contextualize the results this year," McNulty said. "I don't think going back to 2019 will give us an idea of where our kids are. Coming out of the pandemic, there is really no baseline. Teaching from a blended environment, again, there is really no baseline. I think looking at state and national averages is a better comparison."
McNulty said the district had schools that scored below the averages and above. Much of that, particularly in math, can be attributed to the time students spent on tasks and to the feedback provided to the student by the teacher. A school that did exceptionally well was Baker Elementary, he said.
"Let me tell you, the pandemic did not slow them down at all," McNulty said in praise of Baker.
McKenzie said covid-19 can't be allowed to continue to devestate student learning like it had in 2019-20 and 2020-21, when Aspire results were knocked lower than 2015-16 levels.
"We really need to hit the ground running," she said, and urged that school districts consult with their communities, that there be testing done throughout the school year to track academic growth and that efforts be undertaken, monitored and measured regarding the social and emotional well-being of students.
"This is a great opportunity to say 'Okay, what would we change?' 'What could we try now?' But I'll say that just because you want to try it, you also have to be able to measure it to see if it is working for kids. We can't wait another four years to see any movement on ACT Aspire."