2022 Aspire test results show gains over 2021 but lag below pre-pandemic levels

They fall short of pre-covid state students marks of ’19

File Photo
File Photo

Student results on the Arkansas-required ACT Aspire exams -- given last spring in literacy, math and science -- fell short of 2019 pre-covid-19 pandemic results in nearly all grades and subjects.

The new 2022 results, however, did show some gains over the more recent 2021 student test results, prompting state education leaders to say that student achievement is on the rebound.

"The picture is not as gloomy as some may see it," Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key reported to the Arkansas Board of Education.

He called the 2022 results an indication of a recovery from "significant interruptions" in learning caused by the covid-19 global pandemic that began in March 2020.

The statewide results from the spring 2022 online tests were presented to the Arkansas Board of Education on Friday in advance of the school district, school and individual student results to be released later this summer.

"Overall, trends in data show positive progress toward recovery to pre-pandemic levels, state agency leaders concluded in a written report to the Education Board.

"[The] rebound [was] most pronounced for math and least for English," the report said.

Sheree Baird, state testing coordinator, said reading achievement, which didn't drop as much in 2021 as the math results, rebounded at almost every grade.

"That is really great news," she said.

The Aspire exams are given to students in grades three through 10. The testing is part of the state's effort to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is meant to hold schools and districts responsible for student learning. The Aspire results are also the basis for nearly $7 million in state rewards paid annually to schools that score in the top 10% in the state or showed significant year-to-year gains.

In math, the percentages of Arkansas students scoring at the desired "ready" or " exceeds ready" levels this past spring ranged from 25.99% at the 10th-grade level to 52.37 % in third grade. The 2022 math results improved over 2021 results in six of the eight grades that were tested.

Students who achieve at the "ready" and "exceeds ready" levels on the online exams -- as opposed to the "close" and "in need of support" levels -- are considered to be on track for meeting benchmarks for the related academic subject areas on the ACT college entrance exam.



In reading, the percentages of students scoring at "ready" and "exceeds ready" levels this past spring were well below half of the test-takers at each grade. But the 2022 results were better than the 2021 results in seven of the eight grades that were tested.

The 2022 results ranged from 30.99% at 10th grade to 48.17 % at eighth grade.

While the eighth grade result was the highest, it was the only grade in which the percentage of students at "ready" or better levels did not improve over results in the previous 2021 testing period. The percentage of ninth graders scoring at ready or better levels in 2022 in reading surpassed the 2019 percentage -- 39.2% in 2022 vs. 37.37% in 2019.


The greatest percentages of students scoring at ready or better levels this past spring did so on the English section of the Aspire tests. The percentages of students scoring at "ready" or better in English ranged from 73.94% in the seventh grade to 55.33% in the ninth grade. In 2019, the percentages scoring at ready or better on the English test ranged from 58.62% in ninth grade to 78.34% in the seventh grade.

In science, the percentages of students achieving at ready or better levels ranged from 30% at 10th grade to a high of 40.88% in the sixth grade.


The latest test results -- from the spring of 2022 -- are the second set of results to come after the coronavirus pandemic that caused the March 2020 closure of all Arkansas public schools to on-site instruction and the cancellation of the 2020 Aspire test.

Schools were reopened for on-site instruction in the 2020-21 school year, but the year was disrupted by the virus, quarantines and unprecedented methods of delivering instruction -- including full- or part-time online teaching for the tens of thousands of Arkansas families who chose to keep students at home. As many as 97,000 of Arkansas' 470,000 public school students were remote learners for all or for large portions of the 2020-21 school year.

The Aspire test was given in the spring of that 2020-21 school year and again in the spring of the most recent 2021-22 school year -- a year that was also affected by new waves of covid-19.

Key had warned back in July 2021 that covid had the potential to have an equally devastating effect on the 2021-22 school year -- as compared to the 2020-21 year -- because of ongoing surges of the virus.

Key more recently told the Education Board that it is the ultimate goal of the state to surpass the 2019 Aspire results but that the use of the 2019 data offers a way to measure recovery.

Denise Airola, director of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Office of Innovation for Education and a longtime consultant to the state agency on testing, said the 2022 scores moved in the right direction.

"Slow and steady wins the race," Airola said, adding later that she will be monitoring student test results elsewhere in the nation as they become available for a comparison to the Arkansas results.


For the first time in two years, the 2022 Aspire results will be a component in calculating and assigning A-F letter grades to schools. That will be done in the fall.

State legislation in early 2021 waived the A-F state rating scale for the 2020-21 school year, so schools did not receive letter grades for the 2021 Aspire results. Letter grades were not given for the 2019-20 school year, either.


The Arkansas Elementary and Secondary Education Division also released statewide results from the ACT college entrance exam given to the state's 11th-graders. Arkansas' 11th graders enrolled in public or charter schools are given the opportunity to take the ACT during the spring of their junior year.

Reading and science scores increased slightly from 2020-21 to 2021-22 on that 11th grade test. The state composite score -- the combination of all subject-area tests -- also increased. That was by one-tenth of a point, from 18.2 to 18.3.

The average English score on the 11th grade ACT held steady with no change, while there is a slight decrease in math, from 17.8 to 17.7, according to the state agency.

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