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Arkansas schools study finds problems, promise

by Cynthia Howell | February 9, 2023 at 6:55 a.m.
Teacher Valkyrie Holmes (center) helps Emeri Hurley (left), a sixth-grader at Holt Middle School, as she and other students do calculations Tuesday at the Harps grocery store on Wedington Drive in Fayetteville. The students, led by teacher Kacie Travis, were learning how to calculate unit prices for groceries, which allows shoppers to decide what purchase gives the best value. An eight-month study by Forward Arkansas showed there are achievement gaps among students living in different parts of the state with Northwest Arkansas students outperforming their peers in other parts of the state. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

LITTLE ROCK -- Academic achievement is inadequate and students are graduating from Arkansas' high schools unprepared for college or for careers that provide livable wages, an eight-month study by the nonprofit Forward Arkansas concluded.

But the state has "promising initiatives" in place that can be the foundation for accelerating achievement and student well-being, the study authors also said. They pointed to changes underway in reading instruction, expanded industry-aligned career preparation and efforts for enlarging the teacher pool.

The study authors also offered a set of priorities and collective next steps for improving schools.

Ben Kutylo, executive director of Forward Arkansas, unveiled the study for the Downtown Rotary Club in Little Rock on Tuesday.

Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and chief executive officer of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Sarah Moore of Stuttgart, a member of the Arkansas Board of Education and holder of a doctorate in education policy, joined Kutylo in a panel discussion of the report. Television news anchor Craig O'Neill served as the panel moderator.

The newly released "State of Education in Arkansas 2023: Growing Together for a Stronger Future" is a followup to the organization's initial 2015 report.

Kutylo said Tuesday that as the state and nation emerge from the covid-19 pandemic that began in early 2020, it is critical to assess the state of education.

Forward Arkansas began that work last June, he said, drawing on economic data, national research and the insights of some 3,500 students, parents, educators, business people and community members from all parts of the state.

"Every finding, every priority, every recommendation in there is based on data, research and, really, input from thousands," Kutylo said.

Moore said the report sets a baseline from which everyone can work with urgency for improvement and to fix what is broken. Moore also highlighted the report's emphasis on the importance of teachers and school principals to student learning, and called for doubling down on professional development, support, resources and salaries for educators.

Kutylo said the conversations held in preparation of the report created not only a sense of urgency but also a new openness to address the issues that affect students.

"We have this collective energy and momentum ... and the opportunity to harness that and move forward differently," he said, adding that no one person or group has to do that work alone, as there are partners eager and willing to work collaboratively with state lawmakers.

West-Scantlebury said that the findings in the most recent report are about the same as in the organization's first report that was done before covid.

She called for bold action -- not tinkering -- to produce desired outcomes for students and the state. That can be done by acting on the Forward Arkansas priorities and recommendations, she said.

"If we want to continue to produce low-wage workers, this [current education] system is working perfectly," she said. "If we want ... to make Arkansas a world class state, the system has to change the way it is currently functioning," she said to audience applause.

The report's first finding is that before the start of the pandemic, Arkansas third-graders had shown modest annual improvement in literacy and math achievement on state required exams. Forty-one percent of third-graders were proficient in reading at the end of the 2018-19 school year. But that was worsened during the pandemic to 36% proficient or better in the 2020-21 school year and 38% proficient or better in reading at the end of the most recent 2021-22 school year. Similarly, only about a third -- 34% -- of third-graders met or exceeded expectations in math on the ACT Aspire exam this past school year.

Those test results also showed persistent and significant achievement gaps among subpopulations of students based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and special needs. And there are achievement gaps among students living in different parts of the state with Northwest Arkansas students outperforming their peers in other parts of the state.

Older students are graduating in good numbers -- 88% -- but in large part without adequate skills, Kutylo continued.

For nine in 10 graduates in 2019, only three had earlier met eighth-grade reading level expectations on the Aspire tests, he said.

Kutylo said that for the past several months Arkansans were asked what do students need to learn in school to be prepared for high-demand jobs.

"Largely, regardless of who we were talking to and regardless where they lived, they agreed. Arkansans consistently said the same thing until eight priorities emerged from this process to dramatically improve education," he said.

Those priorities included expanded access to high quality early childhood education; a continued focus on reading strategies that are based on scientific research; integration of "durable skills," such as communication and creativity, into the school day; and expanded access to high-quality career pathways.

Still other priorities are student health and well being, great teachers and leaders, meeting the needs of small school districts and rural communities, and galvanizing communities to invest in their students and schools as the drivers of economic growth.

To that end, Forward Arkansas recommended "next steps to guide our collective efforts as a state:"

• Set focused, ambitious, measurable goals.

• Continue to enhance data and share it.

• Integrate initiatives so programs are not created and used in isolation or silos.

• Use existing resources more effectively.

• Assist community-led change for the statewide priorities.

The full report can be found at

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