We have been wondering why Arkansas’ most recent ACT Aspire scores are essentially the same as they have been for the past two years. As seen in Figure 1, the preliminary scores from the spring 2019 ACT Aspire show that statewide, student performance is flat, with fewer than half of Arkansas’s students meeting grade-level expectations in math, science, and reading.
The lack of improvement in these scores is confusing because funding for Arkansas public schools continues to increase (currently $6,899 per student annually), class sizes are small (an average of 15 students per class), and teachers are being provided professional development, particularly in how to teach reading. We don’t have any other states to check in with and see how they are doing on the ACT Aspire since we are the only state administering it right now.
Figure 1. Percentage of Arkansas students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire, by content area, 2016 to 2019.
Is anyone improving?
Although statewide scores have not changed, we wanted to highlight some school districts that have demonstrated consistent growth across subjects over the past years. Table 1 highlights these districts, the percentage of students who met or exceeded grade-level expectations in 2018-19, and the percentage point increase in the percentage meeting expectations since the 2015-16 school year.
Table 1. Districts demonstrating consistent increases in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire, by content area, 2016 to 2019.
It is interesting to note the percentage of students in the districts participating in the Free/ Reduced Lunch program (FRL- a proxy measure of student poverty). Generally, districts serving more economically advantaged students have higher rates of students meeting expectations, but we can see variation even among these districts with consistent improvement in performance. For example, Booneville, Cross County, and Jessieville all serve student population in which 72% of students are eligible for FRL, but proficiency rates vary between them.
Dig into the Data!
There’s so many different variables to consider as we try to make sense of the most recent ACT Aspire scores. We know you want to dig into the data yourself and see how your district or school is doing so we have created interactive data visualizations. Maps are available for both district and school-level, and you can select specific districts/schools and see how they scored and whether they have improved performance over last year. There are subject-specific maps available (tabs above the main map) if you want to see one content area in particular. You can also use filters to find schools/ districts with similar rates of economically disadvantaged students enrolled and serving students in similar grade levels.
In these maps, we use the OEP GPA as the overall indicator of performance. The OEP’s GPA is a weighted measure of student performance that gives the most credit to students who have exceeded expectations and the least credit to those that are in need of support. In this GPA measure, we treat the ACT Aspire test scores similar to the familiar grade point average for individual students: 1.0 is the lowest score, indicating that all students in a districts were In Need of Support, while 4.0 is the highest score, indicating that all students in a districts were Exceeding Expectations on the ACT Aspire. OEP’s GPA is more sensitive to changes in student performance than the % Met Expectations value, and although calculated slightly differently, OEP’s GPA is highly correlated with the ESSA Weighted Achievement measure (r=0.98 in 2018), and the overall ESSA index score (r=0.96 in 2018).
As you can see in the maps above, schools in the upper left hand corner of the state are more likely to be blue, indicating a higher OEP GPA. This is not surprising since we are showing performance on the ACT Aspire, which is correlated with the percentage of students in the school participating in the Free/ Reduced Lunch program (a proxy measure of student poverty), so more economically advantaged areas of the state generally have higher scores.
Digging Deeper Into ACT Aspire
We now turn to examining each content area by grade level.
While overall ACT Aspire results did not change, there were some changes by grade level within each content area. Although we prefer the OEP GPA, here we use the percent meeting or exceeding benchmarks so we can compare Arkansas performance with national results. When interpreting National Averages, however, it is important to remember that Arkansas students make up an ever increasing percentage of the “national” three – year rolling average. This is because Arkansas is the only state currently administering the ACT Aspire in grades 3-10. Alabama and South Carolina, the other states with significant representation in the norming sample, stopped administering the ACT Aspire in 2017 and 2015, respectively.
Figure 2. Percentage of Arkansas students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire Math, by grade, 2016 to 2019.
Math: We see consistent increases in the percentage of 3rd, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders meeting or exceeding expectations. The increases in 3rd grade performance are important as they might foreshadow higher proficiency levels in later grades (although that pattern isn’t evidenced so far). The continued improvement in 8th-10th grades is great news, since these grades returned the lowest math proficiency rates in the first year of testing.
Figure 3. Percentage of Arkansas students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire Science, by grade, 2016 to 2019.
Science: Performance in science was generally consistent with prior performance, although there was a slight increase in 9th grade proficiency. The proficiency of 6th grade had been declining, but held steady this year.
Figure 4. Percentage of Arkansas students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire English, by grade, 2016 to 2019.
English: Performance in English was generally consistent with prior performance, although there were slight declines in some grades.
Figure 5. Percentage of Arkansas students meeting or exceeding expectations on the ACT Aspire Reading, by grade, 2016 to 2019.
Reading: We can see consistent increases in the reading proficiency in grades 3-5, although these gains are offset by performance declines in the high school grades.
We got to wondering about the performance of the Outstanding R.I.S.E schools from 2018, and if their training in and successful implementation of the R.I.S.E strategies would be evidence in increased reading proficiency for the third graders assessed in 2019. The 3rd grade students tested last spring would have been 2nd graders in the first year of R.I.S.E Arkansas. Figure 6 displays the 3rd grade reading performance of these R.I.S.E. schools and the state overall since ACT Aspire testing began in 2015-16.
Figure 6. OEP GPA for the ACT Aspire 3rd grade reading, 2016 to 2019.
In 2015-16, schools that would be identified in 2018 as Outstanding R.I.S.E. schools had the same 3rd grade reading performance as 3rd graders across the state as a whole. This is great because it shows that these RISE schools were scoring no better or worse that the average school across the state. The reading performance in the schools that would be identified as R.I.S.E schools in 2018, began to decline in 2016-17 and 2017-18, while the statewide 3rd grade reading performance continued to increase slightly. In 2018-19, however, there was improved reading performance among 3rd graders in the R.I.S.E schools. Although we can’t say for sure that the recent increase in 3rd grade reading performance is due to the implementation of R.I.S.E strategies, it is a positive sign that there is improvement in these schools!
So- what are the big takeaways from the preliminary 2019 ACT Aspire results?
- Performance in all subject areas is generally the same as last year (and the year before..), although some districts are demonstrating consistent improvement.
- Performance on the ACT Aspire is related to school/ district poverty rates.
- OEP GPA is highly correlated with Weighted Achievement and ESSA Index scores.
- You can use the data resources from OEP to see overall district and school values.
- Data visualizations can help us see statewide patterns in performance and compare performance to other schools/ districts of interest.
We are happy to be able to share these resources with you and looking forward to seeing the Growth Scores (our favorite!) on the ESSA reports in October. Stay tuned to OEP for more info, and let us know if there’s something you want us to check out!