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Arkansas Online: Poverty, Race and Arkansas’ School Grades

In 2013, the Arkansas Legislature passed a bill that required the Department of Education to assign a single performance indicator--a letter grade--to all schools within the state.

Chris Goering opined in a 2014 blog post that the state was going to learn more about concentrations of poverty in Arkansas, but not much more about its schools. In that original piece, he sarcastically proposed counting the number of garage doors on houses in any given school's attendance zone and arrive at a school grade that would be very similar to what the state might produce.

In 2015, Jason Endacott and Chris Goering effectively put the "garage door" theory to the test with an analysis of Arkansas school grades from the first year of the program published in Teachers College Record. The analysis revealed a modest negative relationship between school grades and eligibility for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a commonly used indicator of poverty. What this means is that schools with more students eligible for free and reduced lunch received lower grades. This led us to conclude that oversimplified measures of school quality, such as letter grades, often detract and distract from the good things that schools accomplish. Citing Jones Elementary in Springdale, a school nationally known for excellence which received a D from the state's grading system, we argued that the current path of grading schools is both problematic and misleading.

We--now including William Davis--analyzed the most recent batch of school grades and found that they are even more closely related to poverty than they were the year before. Again, the more poverty at a school, the lower the grade and standardized test scores. Thirty-two percent of the differences in school grades can be explained by poverty alone. That's a 14 percent hike from the previous year and easily the largest single factor. The "garage door" theory is gaining traction; more wealth predicts higher grades.

Our analysis also revealed that the relationship between school grades and race are concerning as well. In fact, the 10 Arkansas schools that received an A have an average non-white population of 15 percent while the 20 F schools' average non-white population is over 78 percent. B and D schools lean significantly in these opposite directions too. This is accompanied by a growing school choice movement in our state, and the grading system was touted as a tool for parents to make informed decisions about the schools their children attend. Yet choosing an A school is quickly becoming synonymous with choosing a school that is predominantly wealthy and white, turning the grading system into a potential tool to re-segregate our schools.

A new wrinkle in the grading scheme for 2014-2015 included bonuses paid out to top performing schools and those that made up ground in achievement gaps from previous evaluations. At a glance, this seems like a positive move, incentivizing and rewarding schools for their improvement. Unfortunately, our analysis revealed that the bonus program disproportionately benefited schools that were majority white and had fewer students eligible for free and reduced lunch. For example, the richest school district in the state--Bentonville--received the most bonus money, nearly $1 million of the $7 million paid. Meanwhile, 174 of the poorest schools in Arkansas collected only $14,703 combined.

Certainly the state intends for the school grade plan to serve as a source of information for parents when they choose where to live or send their kids to school. But providing an oversimplified, and in many cases flat out wrong, evaluation of a school's worth could serve to further marginalize all of the things that schools (such as Jones Elementary) do very well for their unique student populations. The school grades are closely related to each school's standardized test scores, which in turn are closely related to class and race.

Our analysis led us to wonder whether the state Legislature has inadvertently created a system that will lead to greater segregation of Arkansas schools. We don't believe that was the intention of the law or its supporters, but frankly these early results make us more than a little wary. For example, by choosing an A or B school, there's a 92 percent chance that the students in that school will be majority white. The question of "Who wants to send their child to a D or F school?" could be rewritten to mean "Who wants their child to attend a minority, poor school?"

We are quick to acknowledge and applaud Governor Asa Hutchinson and Commissioner Johnny Key for pausing the grading system for this year in last year's special session. The concerns we've raised here will not go away. Let us be so brave as to call for a permanent halt to the current school grading and bonus system.

While it is too early to tell what, if any, impact this will have on the school populations, there's an excellent possibility that school grades will exacerbate issues of race and class and further segregate our schools. It most certainly has and will continue to bring badges of shame--in the form of publicly posted letter grades--to schools across our state. Worse, the dedicated and resilient teachers and students in our schools will have the vast majority of their good work ignored. School quality means so much more to students, parents, and teachers than a simple letter grade. Stopping this practice altogether seems like the best way forward.

Chris Goering and Jason Endacott are associate professors in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas, where William Davis is a graduate assistant. The opinions expressed are their own.

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Christian Z. Goering

Chris Goering is an Associate Professor of Secondary English Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.Ed. in Cu...

William Davis

William Davis is a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas.

Jason Endacott

Jason Endacott is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.S. (2001) ...