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Arkansas lawmakers express concerns about ACT scores

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Arkansas Legislature website
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Secretary of Education Johnny Key shared concerns on Tuesday about a teacher shortage with lawmakers. He said the shortage could limit the amount of advanced placement courses offered.

Arkansas lawmakers are raising concerns about student achievement and test performance. During the joint House and Senate education committee meeting Tuesday, legislators were presented ACT scores with some lawmakers arguing the test scores should be higher.

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, the average composite score on the ACT is 19, while the national average is 20. State Sen. Missy Irvin, R- Mountain View and chairwoman of the committee, said there is some optimism in the state’s average since it is near the national level.

Secretary of Education Johnny Key said there were multiple factors in the average score being behind the national average.

“We can’t back off science and reading; we can’t back off the things we’ve done. I think our results would have been much better today had we not had the two years of COVID interruptions,” Key said. “I would just ask this body to stick with the steps we’ve taken on dyslexia and on science and reading.”

Irvin said the state needs to raise its expectations. She suggested some students are being promoted to the next grade level when they’re not ready for it.

“We’re graduating kids that are not proficient in reading that are not prepared to go beyond. Then it’s just real simple that we do not advance kids to the next grade level if they can not read,” Irvin said.

Key said schools graduate students based on the classes they pass, rather than literacy rates.

Advancement Placement 

Key told lawmakers enrollment of Hispanic and Latino students in advanced placement classes in Arkansas is on the rise. Key credited the increase in participation as a result of the English Language learner programs created by the state. According to the department, English language learner programs help students from immigrant families learn English, while also learning material from their classes.

“Arkansas has one of the best EL support programs I believe in the nation. As those students are coming to our state those students are getting immersed in the support that they need to perform, to grow in their academics,” Key said.

According to data from the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, Arkansas has 44,321 students in AP courses, which is down 1,329 from the year before. On the division’s website, demographic breakdown in enrollment wasn’t listed.

Key warned the challenge of hiring teachers could limit the number of advanced placement courses offered.

“AP teachers are those who typically have longevity and are very solid, beyond solid in the content,” Key said. “As the pipeline issues continue to challenge us, that is continuing to be an issue. Many of our AP courses are offered virtually.”

The state currently has 34,027 teachers and 473,861 students enrolled, giving it a ratio of 14 students per teacher, which is below the national average of 16 students per teacher, according to the Public School Review.

Arkansas has faced a shortage of certified teachers for the past decade, according to the Arkansas House of Representatives’ website. A report by The New Teacher Project shows about 4% of Arkansas’ teachers are uncertified, which is higher than the national average of 1.7%. The number fluctuates between districts with 30 in the state reporting at least 10% of its teachers being uncertified.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters last week that teacher salary increases will be one of the items considered if he and legislative leaders are able to call a special session to decide how to spend the state’s expected budget surplus.

During last year’s legislative session, Hutchinson signed into law a bill to raise the target median annual pay for public school teachers by $2,000, according to the Associated Press.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for KUAR News focusing on state and local government.