August 25, 2011 by Sue Madison
By Senator Sue Madison, (D) District 7
LITTLE ROCK – Several members of the state Board of Education suggested newer and tougher standards for determining whether an Arkansas school district should be classified as being in academic distress.
At a recent Board meeting, members debated whether the current legal definition of academic stress is so diluted that it is meaningless. That would explain why some school districts never get placed on the academic distress list even though their students score very poorly on standardized tests.
It is more common for districts to be put in the fiscal distress category. When that happens, state education officials take over the administration of the local school districts until its finances are healthy again. If a school district in fiscal or academic distress cannot improve it may have to merge with a nearby district.
To be categorized as in academic distress, more than 75 percent of a district’s students must score below basic on standardized tests. The results are considered district wide, therefore a district with a few high performing schools can also have a school where the majority of students score dismally on standardized tests. Such a district would not be placed in academic distress because the good scores compensate for the bad scores.
It was suggested at the Board of Education meeting that a graduated system of standards and corrective measures replace the current system, in which a school district must perform extremely poorly to be placed on the academic distress list. The state Education Commissioner said he could have some new standards ready for the Board to study at its December meeting.
The new criteria would provide early warning signs that a local school district is on the path toward academic distress, allowing the state to intervene more promptly.
Benchmark exams are standardized tests with four levels of achievement – advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. Students who score at the top two levels are considered to be performing at grade level.
Also during the August meeting the Board approved a Public School Fund budget for the coming school year of almost $2.6 billion. Per pupil funding will increase from $6,023 last year to $6,144 in the 2011-2012 school year. Per pupil foundation funding for next year, 2012-2013, is projected to increase to $6,267.
In addition to basic per pupil funding, school districts get bonus funding for students with special needs and bonus funding for students from poor families and for students who are learning English.
Grants Available for Rural Communities
The Arkansas Rural Services Department has opened a new grant cycle to accept applications for grants for county fairs, fire departments and community development. The deadline for this cycle is November 18.
The department is in the middle of other grant cycles, also for county fairs, fire departments and community improvements. The upcoming deadlines are August 19, December 9 and March 16, 2012.
Information and contact numbers can be found at the department’s web site, at www.arkansas.gov/drs
The Rural Services Department provides grants to communities with fewer than 3,000 people.
If you have any questions or comments about legislative issues, please call me at 479-442-2997.