Arkansas education department shares updates on new assessment exam

The Arkansas Department of Education is developing a new statewide assessment to replace the ACT Aspire that will be rolled out to grades 3-10 next spring.

The Arkansas Teaching and Learning Assessment System (ATLAS) refers to the state’s various assessment programs, and during a webinar Tuesday, ADE officials provided updates on ATLAS 3-10, a summative assessment for English language arts (ELA), math and science for students in third through eighth grade. A summative assessment measures how much a student has learned at the end of the academic year by comparing it to a benchmark or standard.

Arkansas first administered the ACT Aspire in 2016. ACT determined in 2020 it was discontinuing the ACT Aspire, but committed to providing the test to Arkansas through the spring of 2023, according to an ADE spokeswoman.

The state selected Cambium Assessment through a procurement process in 2022 as the vendor for developing the replacement assessment. 

Lawmakers approved a seven-year, $71.4 million contract last summer that will be renewed annually with the Washington, D.C.-based company. Education department officials told lawmakers then that the roughly $10 million a year is comparable to the previous ACT Aspire contract.

Arkansas education department shares updates on new assessment exam
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva spoke to superintendents about the LEARNS Act during a meeting at the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative on Mar. 10, 2023.
(Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Unlike the ACT Aspire, which was an off-the-shelf product, education officials can build an Arkansas-specific exam by selecting items from Cambium’s question bank that align with state standards. ADE is also developing a process through which educators can submit new questions to meet standards not reflected among the currently available questions.

The new test will be administered for the first time in the spring of 2024. It will include some ACT Aspire questions to help transition to the new assessment, state education officials said previously.

In the summer of 2024, teachers and education stakeholders will analyze the first round of scores and work through the standard setting process. The state board of education will consider the proposed proficiency scores in the fall of 2024.

Instead of being a predictor of college readiness like the ACT Aspire, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said during a LEARNS Act town hall Monday that the state’s new criterion-referenced assessment will assess whether the student learned what they were expected to learn at each grade level. 

“When we have aligned systems from standards to curriculum and assessment, we know we’re going to see better outcomes,” he said. “Currently, it’s fragmented and everything is looking at measuring something different, and it’s confusing for teachers, parents and school leaders. So we’re going to create a vision where all of those talk to each other and everything is streamlined.”

Cautiously optimistic

While there are still details to be worked out, some Arkansas school administrators view the state’s partnership with Cambium as an opportunity to address issues they have with standardized testing. 

Kimberly Turner, a former teacher and the current curriculum coordinator for the Bismarck School District, said having a single vendor for assessments could help streamline testing, which can vary across grade levels.

For example, the state has four kindergarten-through-second-grade assessments to choose from. Bismarck selected an untimed K-2 assessment so students had to adapt to a different exam style when they took the ACT Aspire, a timed test, in third grade, Turner said.

“We can look at where we are going in education positively or negatively, and I choose to look at it in a positive way,” she said. “We have a lot of changes that are happening, and I believe that this ATLAS assessment is going to be a positive for Arkansas schools because it’s leading the way to bring in that K-2 assessment to be across the board, and that’s what we are missing.”

Bismarck School District curriculum coordinator Kimberly Turner
Bismarck School District curriculum coordinator Kimberly Turner
(Courtesy photo)

It’s also frustrating, Turner said, to have an exam that doesn’t feel like it’s assessing what you’re teaching, which can lead to “teaching to the test.” Because the new assessment will be more aligned with state standards, Turner said it could provide a way for teachers to stay on track with their lessons instead of pausing in the late winter to prepare for spring exams. 

“It should not be an event,” she said. “If we are truly assessing our students, it should just be another day. This is our test. We don’t have to stop teaching, we don’t have to stop school, we just do the assessment and move right along.”

Turner said all assessments are great and they don’t have to be just a standardized test. Teachers can also assess a student through a conversation, Turner said, and that information can be used to help students in real time. 

A problem with standardized assessment when given at the end of the school year is that data isn’t available until July when the student is moving on to another grade, Turner said. Testing at the beginning of the year would provide data that could be used all year, but that data could be affected by summer learning loss, she said.

“I understand that we have to have standardized tests, I do understand that,” Turner said. “I just don’t know if we’re utilizing them in the right way.”

Mena superintendent Lee Smith, senior Emily Wynn
Mena School District superintendent Lee Smith hands a diploma to Emily Wynn, one of 118 seniors who graduated on May 20, 2023.
(Courtesy photo)

Administering more exams to collect more data is not a solution because of test fatigue, Mena School District superintendent Lee Smith said. While working in another district, Smith said they thought more tests were the answer, “but it actually had diminishing returns because we didn’t get the effort we needed to get an accurate measure.”

Smith calls himself a “test antagonist” because a lot of confidence is given to a test score when there are many factors that contribute to how much a student is learning. He recalls being frustrated taking the ACT as a teen because that one score determined where he could go to school and how much financial assistance he could receive. 

“The ACT couldn’t measure how much work I did, even the manual labor, how hard of a worker I was,” Smith said. “And I might have been slow, but I got things done well.” 

Smith said there are thorough testing systems in Arkansas school districts, but it’s been hard to align them and make goals and predictions without accurate data. That’s why he’s hopeful about the state’s efforts to develop an assessment aligned to the state’s new standards.

“We have simpler standards that are easier to understand, and we’ll have assessments that are aligned to those standards so we can really see if the students are learning what we are teaching them, and that’s why I’m hopeful,” he said.

State standards

In addition to the summative assessment, teachers can also use Cambium for interim and classroom assessments. Interim assessments will be available for science during the 2023-2024 school year, while math and English will be available in the 2024-2025 academic year. 

The delay is a result of revised math and English standards that the state education board approved in April. ESSER program director Hope Worsham said officials made the decision Friday to delay the roll-out of math and English interim assessments because officials weren’t comfortable releasing something that wasn’t fully aligned to state standards.

“If we put something out this fall, you would get a half-aligned assessment, you would get half information and we did not feel like that was fair to you all,” Worsham said. “So our commitment is to provide a fully-aligned Arkansas state assessment that validly and reliably reflects what our students are doing.”

In the meantime, education officials are working to extend contracts with vendors that currently provide those interim assessments. 

“We want you to have something that you’re using and using that data to drive what’s happening in your classrooms,” director of assessment Michelle Johnson said.

Arkansas Department of Education Secretary/Education Commissioner Jacob Oliva, left, and Ouida Newton, State Board of Education chairperson, right, listen as Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education, center, outlines options for the Marvell-Elaine School District. The district was on the cusp of forced consolidation with a nearby district, but a new state law expanded its options. The board met in Marvell on Thursday, April 13, 2023. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, left, and Ouida Newton, State Board of Education chairperson, right, listen as Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education, center, speaks at the state board’s April 13, 2023 meeting. The board approved new math and English standards at this meeting.  (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

All third through eighth grade students will be tested in English, math and science. There will be an English end-of-course exam for students in grades 9-10. There will also be an end-of-course exam in algebra, geometry and biology.  

The assessment is untimed with parameters that are still being decided, such as having a single day to complete the test, Johnson said. Students will need headphones because the exam will have a text-to-speech function available for math, science and writing. Officials are still considering whether to offer it for reading.

A paper copy is only available as print-on-demand because the test is computer adaptive within grade-level, meaning questions will get more difficult or easier based on a student’s performance, Johnson said. 

“Each item is scaled according to difficulty so students who are more successful with the more difficult questions will have a higher scaled score,” she said.  

The benefits of adaptive testing, Johnson said, include a greater precision of measurement for low and high-achieving students, better coverage of standards and an improved testing experience for students.

“A student that gets frustrated early on because all the questions on a fixed form test are too hard, this is going to be a better experience for those kids, and also your kids at the high end who are bored,” Johnson said. “They’re going to get progressively more difficult [questions] and allow for a better testing experience for everyone.”

Teachers can access a practice test to familiarize students with the new system. Training on the new assessment will be provided at education co-ops throughout the summer.