LITTLE ROCK — School superintendents across Arkansas say there is much to like — and much to complain about — in the state Department of Education’s new school accountability system.
The new system, created after the Obama administration granted the state’s request for a waiver from some of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, aims to give schools more realistic objectives than they faced under NCLB, which required 100 percent of students to be performing at a proficient level or higher by 2014.
Under Arkansas’ new system, each school is expected to reduce by half the percentage of students not scoring at proficient or above in math and literacy by the 2016-17 school year. High schools also are expected to reduce by half the percentage of students who fail to graduate. The reductions must be made both for the general student population and for a targeted subgroup of students that includes low-income students, students with limited English and students with disabilities.
Schools also have annual objectives to meet in performance, growth and graduation rates. The schools are classified according to how well they meet their objectives, with the top schools termed "exemplary."
Superintendents say that’s an improvement over the old system, which required each school to attain a certain percentage of proficient students each year, across the student body and in numerous subgroups, or be deemed not to have made adequate yearly progress.
"I like (the new system) because it allows us to get a pat on the back for the growth that we have," said Augusta Superintendent Scott Jones. "In the old accountability system, we were always behind and we were chasing the number. We made gains every year, but not enough gains."
But superintendents say the downside of the new approach is that high-performing schools can be classified as needing improvement if their proficiency rates do not sufficiently increase from one year to the next.
"I have some schools that had always been high achievers," said Fort Smith Superintendent Benny Gooden. "They were not in any kind of school improvement, and when the department ran them through their new filter, they are ‘needs improvement’ schools."
Rogers Superintendent Janie Darr said three elementary schools in her district have been classified as "needs improvement" even though two of them have proficiency levels greater than 90 percent.
"I’m trying to work with our board, our parents and our teachers (to explain) that yes, we need to improve, but just because we didn’t get that ‘achieving’ status doesn’t mean that our schools aren’t achieving," Darr said.
State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said it is important to understand that "needs improvement" is not the same as the old school improvement designation.
"What we’re trying to say is, you need to educate your patrons and your community and your media that this is a new system," he said. "You may be a high-performing school, but what we are trying to designate is there is a group of students whose needs are not being met."
Schools that have been placed in the bottom category, "needs improvement priority," include alternative high schools in Fort Smith and Springdale.
"I think that’s perhaps the hardest part of this conversation," said Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins. "An alternative school by definition is dealing with children who have not been successful in a traditional setting, thus many of them are non-traditional kids dealing with a myriad of major needs and challenges."
Gooden said putting an alternative school at the bottom of the new ranking system is "totally illegitimate."
"It’s kind of like going down to the intensive care ward at the hospital and saying, ‘All these people are sick.’ Well, yes they are. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t," he said.
Kimbrell said Fort Smith and Springdale are atypical in that their alternative schools are administratively categorized as separate entities from their traditional high schools. He said he is confident that both districts will implement improvement plans that will protect them from sanctions by the state.
Superintendents also have been frustrated by the system’s new method for calculating graduation rates. The rates are now derived by tracking at a cohort of students from ninth grade to 12th and seeing how many obtain a degree in that time.
"It requires that the student graduate within eight consecutive semesters," Gooden said. "You get a kid who falls a semester behind for whatever reason, comes back and finishes, you get no credit for that."
Kimbrell said the U.S. Department of Education mandated the method for calculating graduation rates. Arkansas officials have raised objections, and a federal task force is being created to review the guidelines, he said.
"I think they realize there are some problems," he said.
Under the new system, a school with at least 25 students in the targeted subgroup is held accountable for the performance of the subgroup. Under the old system, it took 40 students in a subgroup to trigger accountability, so more schools are now held accountable for the performance of their low-income, limited-English and disabled students.
Jones said that’s a good thing.
"We should be accountable for those kids," he said.
The Department of Education says the new system also allows it to focus money and resources on the schools and students that most need help. Pine Bluff Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services Beverly Ruthven said that help is welcome in Pine Bluff, where five of the district’s 10 schools are classified as "needs improvement priority."
Specialists assigned to the district by the Department of Education are working with school officials, teachers and parents on a weekly basis to turn things around at the district’s troubled schools, Ruthven said.
"I feel like it’s really going to help us as far as the direction we’re going to go," she said.