Standardized testing has always been a popular tool for measuring the academic progress of students; however, in the past 10 years the need to improve test scores has grown in importance.
In Arkansas as in many other states, when students demonstrate consistently poor test scores their schools are put on probation. In many states, including Arkansas, there are bonuses for teachers and administrators of schools where students show improvement on academics.
During the recent special session on education reform, the Legislature approved Act 35 to make students, teachers and administrators more accountable.
Act 35 requires annual testing of students to measure their reading, writing and math skills. Young students in kindergarten through the second grade will take a test that is appropriate for their age.
Students in grades three through nine will take norm referenced tests, that is, tests that compare their scores to those of students nationwide.
Students in grades three through eight will take criterion referenced tests, also known as Benchmark exams, that measure how well they have mastered the curricula.
Act 35 requires students to take end of course exams after they have completed algebra I, geometry and literacy courses. The state Board of Education will determine the testing schedule for end of course exams in science, civics and government classes.
The tests will be written to allow for longitudinal tracking, which measures how students progress from one year to the next.
Beginning in the 2004-05 school year, students who are not proficient in Benchmark exams will undergo intense remediation.
Beginning in the 2004-05 school year, schools shall report to the state and to their local newspaper the number and percentage of students who score in each category of the Benchmark exam, for each grade level. The report shall also include breakdowns of the scores of students based on economic status and ethnicity.
Schools shall also report their students' percentile ranking on norm-referenced tests, which compare their scores to students nationwide.
They shall the report the number of students in advanced placement classes and the percentage of advanced placement students making a 3.0, a 4.0 and 5.0 grade point average on AP exams.
Act 35 specifically eliminates "social promotion," the practice of moving up students based on their age or other non-academic factors.
There are financial incentives for schools where students perform well -- $100 for each student who takes the tests. The money can be spent on materials or it can be paid to teachers and administrators in the form of a bonus.
If students consistently perform poorly on standardized tests, parents can request to transfer their children to better schools. This creates a financial penalty for the failing school, because state aid to school districts is based on student population. It is a financial incentive for the school district that receives transferring students because the state will increase state aid to that school.