Arkansas Schools In Academic Trouble to Receive Help From Pilot Program

JONESBORO -- The countdown is on for Region 8 schools gearing up to take the Benchmark exams in April.  It's a crucial time for districts, teachers and students because of the weight placed on those tests.  But, a major announcement by the U.S. Department of Education last week comes to the aid of Arkansas schools struggling under the label of "school improvement."

And some in education believe it couldn't come at a better time.   Getting students ready for testing, mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act, is no easy task.

"We've challenged Annie Camp to a competition on test scores," said Dr. Brad Faught, Principal of MacArthur Junior High.  "Our test scores are good, but we feel like at MacArthur we can beat them."

A team of local radio celebrities squared off against MacArthur alumni to answer questions, much like what is found on a Benchmark test.

Most of the time, students were able to answer....  faster than the adults.   For MacArthur and other schools in the Jonesboro District, there's added pressure to do well on standardized testing.  Being placed on the list of schools in the state needing improvement is a label no one wants.

"I think one of the tough things for us as school people when you look at the state of Arkansas, there's not one school district in the state that's a large district with a diverse population that doesn't have the same problems we have," said Dr. Faught.  "So it's difficult.  It almost penalizes the large district."

Recognizing that, the U.S. Department of Education ruled just last week that Arkansas would join two other states participating in a pilot program called, "Smart Accountability."  The plan revises the system of labeling of Arkansas public schools based on Benchmark and end-of-course exams.

Basically, the Arkansas Department of Education will determine under-performing schools that are close to meeting federal goals and schools where larger numbers of students are "far" from meeting academic requirements.

"All students are supposed to meet standards by 2014, according to No Child Left Behind," said Dr. Jane Jamison, Director of Federal Programs and Testing for the Jonesboro Public Schools.  "And that's 100%."

Even students with disabilities would be required to meet grade level.  That Dr. Jamison says is a tough task.

"I think the issue that you'll see change in the federal law deals with students with disabilities because that's illogical,"  said Dr. Jamison.  "If a student didn't have a disability, he wouldn't be in special education."

In Arkansas, six sub-groups or student populations are monitored for achievement on tests: white, black, hispanic, poor, disabled, and non-native English speakers.  Under the new pilot program, the larger the school, the more sub-groups allowed and the more categories a student can fall into.

"You know language arts is an area that we've struggled with and there's some quirks in the law that made it difficult.  Actually at MacArthur five years ago, we showed too much growth in test scores which has made it tough," said Dr. Faught.  "The state says that you need to progress in increments..and they determine what that amount is and if you gain too fast, it can be tough on you, too."

Because of their school improvement status, Jonesboro schools receive federal money for after school-tutoring, transportation and supplemental education services.

"On both junior high campuses, we have an additional class that's funded by Title One, Test Prep that's open to any student having difficulty," said Dr. Jamison.

And when students perform better, district test scores climb higher.  Under the pilot program, schools whose students meet state standards in math and literacy, but up to 25 percent of the sub-populations fail them, will be labeled as a "targeted improvement school."