About 450,000 students returned to the classroom last week throughout Arkansas. They will attend 1,111 schools, of which 575 are elementary schools, 213 are middle schools or junior high schools and 323 are high schools. There will be 178 days of instruction in the coming school year.
Arkansas now has 254 school districts. The largest portion of their operating revenue comes from state aid, and the funding of public schools represents the single largest spending category in state government. About half of all state general revenue is dedicated to education from kindergarten through grade 12.
The Legislature increased the state's Public School Fund to about $2.3 billion this year. Besides maintenance and operation of schools, the purpose of a significant amount of state aid is to narrow the academic achievement gap between white and minority students.
Experts have documented that the main reason for the achievement gap is that a disproportionate number of minority students are from low-income families. White students from low-income families also have lower test scores than students from more prosperous families.
In general, children in low-income families do not grow up in a house with lots of reading material, and in many households there is not an adult with enough time to talk to them at length. Therefore, they start kindergarten with fewer verbal skills than children from better-off families, and it is very difficult for them to catch up.
In Arkansas, 74 percent of the students who begin ninth grade eventually graduate from high school. We want to improve that percentage, as well as the percentage of students who graduate from college with a degree.
Studies indicate that when high school students take a more rigorous curriculum, they are more likely to succeed in college. The students who are most likely to earn a college degree are those who took the highest levels of math and science courses in high school. Students who take at least two years of a foreign language not only score significantly higher on the verbal section of standardized tests, but also on the math section.
However, nationwide only 29 percent of students are taking the curriculum recommended in 1983 by the groundbreaking study: A Nation at Risk.
In Arkansas this year, 47 percent of college freshmen have to take remedial classes because their high schools did not prepare them adequately for the academic challenges of college. That is actually an improvement over the past several years, when 49 to 50 percent of freshmen had to take remedial classes because of low scores on ACT tests.
Arkansas high school seniors continued to improve their ACT results, for the third consecutive year, when they averaged a score of 20.4 out of a possible 36. A total of 20,489 students took the test earlier this year.