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Bill to pause school district letter grades moves to Arkansas Senate

The ratings system was suspended last year because of the pandemic. The latest proposal would scrap it this year, too.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A bill that would temporarily pause the annual letter grade system that offers parents an evaluation of individual schools passed the state House of Representatives Wednesday.

The ratings were suspended in 2020 when the pandemic closed schools across the state before testing could be completed. The bill's sponsor, State Rep. Brian Evans (R - Cabot) said they should be paused this year as the uncertainty of the pandemic wears on.

RELATED: Parents across Arkansas concerned with kids' grades during virtual learning

"I know what our teachers have gone through. I know what our administrators have gone through. I'm just trying to champion this for them," said Evans.

HB1151 would remove the legal requirement that the Arkansas Dept. of Education produce and publish the grades. Benchmark test scores make up the majority of the grade, which in turn determine funding mechanisms and, in the case of schools graded as failing, could prompt a state takeover.

"Those test scores are a major factor in computing the A-through-F ratings," said Evans, who wants to take the pressure off teachers now. "They have done everything within their professional training to take care of kids. Right now, they're kind of in student survival mode."

The system drew controversy when it won approval in the legislature at the urging of then newly elected Governor Asa Hutchinson. State Rep. Mark Lowery (R - Maumelle) pushed the law to change from PARC tests to ACT Aspire exams then, and he is worried two years of going without grades chips away at their purpose.

"There is testing data [to work with]," Lowery said in opposition to the bill. "I'm troubled by us removing a tool, and it is a tool, for parents to better understand how their local school is doing."

Three other representatives joined him in those concerns, but the bill overwhelmingly passed 91-4, with two voting present and three absent.

A spokesperson for the Dept. of Education said both they and the governor supported the bill, but the spokesperson noted that the proposal is written to be temporary. The person said the department remained committed to in-school learning wherever possible and that testing is being done and data collected.

Rep. Evans said he too didn't see this as a permanent change, though he is aware critics of standardized testing would like that.

"This gives a refresh," he said. "When we come through this, we'll have a new benchmark and we'll let our teachers get back to doing what they do."

RELATED: More Arkansas students failing classes amid COVID-19 pandemic

Evans saw two other school-related bills win approval. One clarifies eligibility for school bus drivers convicted of drunk driving as well as other security issues. The other removed a red tape requirement that creates what he called an extra, unnecessary step to holding a special local school election.

All three bills have been sent to the state senate.