2016 Aspire Results for the Schools and Systems

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New data show Alabama students improving performance in math, reading, and science on the ACT Aspire, the year-end standardized tests given to students across Alabama. In all three subjects, the percentage of students scoring proficient improved, at almost all grade levels.

At the same time, long-term weaknesses persist. While math performance is improving in the early grades, and most encouragingly in 7th and 8th grade, by 10th grade, only 18 percent of students test proficient in math. And in reading, 32 percent of 10th graders scored proficient. Scoring proficient on the Aspire indicates that a student is on track to be ready for college-level work in that subject. The results for 10th graders in reading, math and science are similar to performance levels posted by Alabama student performance on the ACT in 2016. PARCA recently reported on those scores.

In releasing the results, Alabama’s new State Superintendent Michael Sentance noted areas of improvement and showcased schools systems that showed high performance or high levels of gain. But he noted that challenges, particularly in the upper grades, are “clearly daunting.”

This is the third year all schools statewide have administered the Aspire, a suite of tests developed by ACT, a company most widely known for its college readiness test, the ACT.

Statewide, the percentage of students scoring proficient in math rose in all grades, except 10th. This continues the trend of improvement in math, particularly in the early grades, where the gains have been largest.

Math All Grades Compared 2014-2016 with 10

In reading, the percentage of students scoring proficient also improved in all grades 3-8, except for 6th grade, which saw 42 percent of students scoring proficient compared to 43 percent of students in 2015. The improvement in reading proficiency, while not dramatic, is better than last year’s results when performance was flat or slightly declining in comparison to 2014.

This is the second year that all students in grades 3-10 took an Aspire assessment for science. Again, in all grades the percentage of students scoring proficient improved except 6th grade where the proficiency percentage matched the 2015 level.

Students take the Aspire again in 10th grade. The results are shown below. For 2016, students took the reading assessment rather than the English assessment that they’d taken the previous two years. That means comparison year-over-year comparison data is not available. However, these 10th-grade results are similar to those Alabama has typically produced when taking the ACT. In 2016, 22 percent of the graduating class of 2016 scored at the college-ready level on the ACT; 22 percent in science; 32 percent in reading.

Speaking to the State Board of Education, Sentance said that Alabama needs to improve its performance and pointed to the Chicago Cub’s historic World Series win this fall as evidence that there’s no curse that can’t be broken with sustained effort.

State School Board member Mary Scott Hunter agreed and added a quip: “We are not going to wait 100 years,” she said.

The interactive data tool below allows for in-depth exploration of the results at the system and school level. Use the available filter to select for your system and school results. When making comparisons across schools and systems, it is important to keep in mind the demographic mix of the student body. Across Alabama and the nation, the proficiency rate of poverty students lags about 30 percentage points behind the proficiency rate of nonpoverty students. Schools and system that serve large numbers of students from poverty households tend to show lower overall proficiency rates when compared to schools with lower poverty rates. In the 2016 Alabama Aspire results, that gap persists.

Another important note on the data: To protect student privacy, the State Department of Education does not publish results for demographic subgroups where there are only a small number of students in that group. Therefore, in instances where there are a small number of students in the test group, no results will appear.

2016 ACT Results by System and School

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Alabama’s 2016 school and system-level results for the ACT, the widely-known test of college readiness, are now available. With the interactive charts posted below, you can explore how well your local public school system or high school is preparing students for college-level academics.

The 2016 results are for those students who graduated from high school in 2016. Compared to 2015, both more graduates and a higher percentage of graduates took the test in 2016. The percentage of tested students demonstrating college readiness in English, science and reading fell slightly from 2015 levels, while the percentage found to be college ready in math and the percentage of students achieving all four benchmarks remained steady. The average composite scale score for Alabama students was 18.7.

This is the second year of results for which the state of Alabama made the ACT available to all students. In the past, only students who were college bound and who paid for the test themselves took the test. Now, it is offered to all high school students who take the test in their junior year. Some take it again in their senior year. The results reflect the final performance level of students who graduated from high school.

Because all Alabama students take the ACT, Alabama’s results shouldn’t be compared to the national average or to other states in which a more limited number of students take the ACT.

The ACT is one of several measures that state and local schools use to determine whether their graduates are ready for college and career.

In addition to succeeding on the ACT, a student can be classified college or career ready if he or she:

  1.  Scored at either the silver, gold or platinum level on WorkKeys, a test that measures workplace skills
  2.  Earned a passing score (3 or above) on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam
  3.  Received an industry-recognized credential recognized in the appropriate business sector
  4.  Earned college credit through dual-enrollment at a two-year college or university
  5.  Successfully enlisted in the U.S. military


The cumulative college and career readiness rate for the Class of 2016 has not been published yet. For the graduating Class of 2015, the State Department of Education reported that 68 percent of graduates met one of those definitions of career/college readiness.

On the ACT, the state counts a graduate as college ready if he or she scores at or above the college-ready benchmark in one of four subjects on the ACT: English, reading, math, or science. According to the ACT, if a student meets or beats the college-ready benchmark in a subject, that student has a 50 percent chance of making a B or better in a college-level course in that subject and a 75 percent chance of making a C or better.

In 2016, statewide, 50 percent of students scored college ready in English (down from 52 percent in 2015); 32 percent achieved the benchmark in reading (down from 33 percent); 22 percent in math (level with 2015); 22 percent in science (down from 24 percent in 2015). Only 15 percent of students statewide scored, met or exceeded all four college-ready benchmarks (level with 2015).

This year’s ACT results follow a similar pattern to results on the Aspire, the standardized tests given to children in grades 3-8 and 10th grade. In systems with lower rates of poverty, a higher percentage of students meet or exceed the college-ready benchmark. In systems with higher poverty percentage, a lower percentage of students score at or above the benchmark. In the statewide results, that gap in ACT performance can be seen when comparing the contrasting results between different demographic subgroups. For example, the percentage of nonpoverty students meeting or exceeding the benchmark in English is 68 percent, while the percentage of students from poverty households who meet or exceed the ACT English benchmark is 35 percent. The nonpoverty vs. poverty gap is 27 percentage points in reading and 24 percentage points in both math and science.

One warning when exploring the data: while the data provided by the state allows comparisons between subgroups, it is, in some cases, inaccurate where the poverty and nonpoverty results are concerned. The state classifies students as falling in the poverty subgroup if they are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Traditionally, students qualified for the free or reduced school meals because their family qualified for food stamps or other poverty relief programs. Additional students from families with documented financial need could also be deemed eligible. More recently, the federal government began allowing schools and systems with a high percentage of poverty students to offer free lunches to all students. In those schools, all students are included by the state in both the poverty and nonpoverty results. A list of participating schools and systems can be found on the State Department website. Consequently, care should be taken when making performance comparisons.

What is the Budget Reform Task Force Studying?

The Alabama Legislature’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Budget Reform met for a third time this week in Montgomery continuing its search for solutions to Alabama’s perennial problems with crafting budgets.

The bipartisan panel of state senators and representatives has now met three times and each time has made sure to clarify what they are and what they aren’t doing:

They are a task force studying the state’s long-running budget problems, looking for ways to improve the process. They hope to produce a report to the Legislature by the opening of its 2017 session.

They are not a legislative committee.

They are not drafting legislation.

The assurances haven’t prevented the Task Force meetings from drawing a nervous crowd. Budgets matter. Not just to government agencies, but also to non-governmental service providers, and to individuals and businesses that pay taxes and receive services.

Budgeting in Alabama has been extremely difficult in recent years due to a seemingly intractable mismatch between the level of revenue available and the amount of money agencies say they need to maintain services.

That mismatch has left the state lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis, resulting in multiple legislative special sessions.

While the solutions reached have kept the government functioning, they haven’t solved fundamental problems. As recently published year-end results for 2016 show, state finances are still under strain. The state continues to depend on non-recurring revenues to balance the budget. When that revenue disappears, the growth of expenses is likely to continue to outpace available revenue, leading to future budget crunches.

In an attempt to further understand these long-term problems and explore possible improvements, the Task Force started with the basics.

In September, the 14-member bipartisan panel of House and Senate members heard what amounted to a Budgeting 101 presentation from the Legislative Fiscal Office. The presentation explained:

1. Why we have two budgets (the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund)

2. How our tax revenues compare to other states

3. How our budget process works

4. How it compares to other states

5. Alternative approaches to budgeting other states use

6. Revenue and expenditure challenges on the horizon

7. Budget and management improvements already underway

The Task Force has formed five study groups, tasked with delving into five areas of interest:

1. Unearmarking: Alabama earmarks more of its tax revenue than any other state. When a tax is earmarked, the revenue generated from a tax can only be spent for a designated purpose. This complicates the Legislature’s job when attempting to balance its budget, limiting flexibility and interfering with the Legislature’s ability to determine whether those designated dollars are needed and being well-spent. Supporters of earmarking say the practice reflects the will of the people, assuring taxpayers that money is being spent according to the people’s priorities. Others are skeptical that eliminating earmarks is worth the effort because ultimately the problem isn’t earmarking; it’s a shortage of revenue.

2. Tax Credits/Deductions/Exemptions: This study group is tasked with studying the flip side of taxes: the multitude of tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that cut into total tax collections. This often ignored side of the tax ledger is coming in for closer examination with new reporting requirements which will require an accounting of how much these credits, deductions, and exemptions are costing and what the state is getting in return.

3. The Budgeting Process: Initially, this study group was tasked with studying biennial budgeting. Alabama adopts budgets each year, which is the practice in 30 states. The other 20 states adopt budgets that run for two years, a practice called biennial budgeting. Proponents say biennial budgeting creates a better climate for planning and would allow the Legislature to perform a more meaningful review of agency operations in the years when it was not struggling to pass a budget. Critics point to the difficulties that states face in predicting revenue from year to year. They also point to the fact that in biennial states, budgets are often revisited in the off-years, negating the expected gains in time and effort the biennial budgeting theoretically creates. At the Task Force’s November meeting, the chairman of this study group, Rep. Kyle South (R-Fayette), said his study group will not only study biennial budgeting but will also examine Alabama’s process for crafting budgets in a more general sense.

4. Agency review: This study group is seeking information from agencies to further clarify the financial position of state agencies. Because some agencies receive earmarked taxes and federal funding, legislators aren’t always clear on how budget cuts will affect an agency. At the November meeting, Phil Williams, (R-Gadsden), the study group’s chairman, presented preliminary information his office had gathered from state agencies. The agencies were asked to provide the total amount of federal funding received and the amount each agency had in reserve at the end of the budget year.

5. Tax Relief: This study group is tackling the question of whether Alabama’s current tax structure is fair, equitable, and well-designed to encourage the economic prosperity of citizens and businesses.

As the study groups generate information, PARCA will be exploring these issues as well.

At the Task Force’s October meeting, the panel heard presentations from the current chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees about the problems they face in crafting budgets. While all welcomed the Task Force’s attention to budget matters, a good deal of skepticism was expressed about some of the approaches under review. Earmarking creates problems, the budget panel chairs acknowledged, but they expressed doubt that reform of earmarking would provide a significant change to the bottom line or would be politically feasible. While there was interest in the concept of biennial budgeting, some questioned whether, in practice, a shift to such a system would yield better results. All expressed interest in having better information on which to base budgeting decisions. They encouraged sustained attention by the Legislature and leadership from the governor’s office toward improving the budget process.

There is a lot of money at stake. In round numbers, Alabama government dispenses about $30 billion a year: about $12 billion from state sources and $18 billion from federal and other funds.

Figure 1 Source: Legislative Fiscal Office

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