Leaders in the Shoals Seek Greater Collaboration

A new report by PARCA, commissioned by the Committee for a Greater Shoals

Energized by a climate of opportunity and a burst of positive attention for the region, civic leaders in the Shoals have launched a new effort to improve the economy and quality of life through cross-community collaboration.

More than 150 people attended the launch of the effort, which is organized by the Committee for a Greater Shoals, a group of Shoals business leaders. The event featured the release of A Greater Shoals: a Pathway, a report authored by PARCA on the current state of the region and avenues of opportunity.

Shortly after the event, 110 people had signed up for one or more of six committees:

  • Broadening the Definition of Economic Development
  • Developing High-Tech Infrastructure/Recruiting
  • Quality of Life
  • Workforce Development and Education
  • Unified Tourism
  • Government Cooperation and Structure.

Off the Interstate corridor and tucked away in the Northwest corner of the state, the Shoals is often described by residents as a well-kept secret. That is part of the region’s charm, but it’s also a frustration.

Taken together, the four cities at the heart of the Shoals — Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia — have a population of over 70,000. A combination of the four adjacent cities would rank as Alabama’s 7th largest city. Leaders in the Shoals have long wondered if the region was held back by the fragmented nature of the Shoals, with four principal cities, and six school systems spread across two counties.

Building off research PARCA performed on the Birmingham metro area, PARCA found evidence that fragmentation did have discernable negative effects in the Shoals but also identified cooperative structures the Shoals has developed to pull the region together.

The report recommended building on those existing cooperative structures to capitalize on immediate opportunities, while embarking on a longer-term process to decrease governmental duplication and work toward greater unity.

The report found success to build on in the area of education. According to PARCA’s analysis, when the K-12 school systems in the Shoals metropolitan area were considered together, they produce a higher college and career readiness rate among high school seniors than any other Alabama area.

The Shoals also has the second highest college-going rate among Alabama MSAs, thanks in part to a local civic initiative, Shoals Scholar Dollars, that provides scholarships for residents of Colbert and Lauderdale counties. The Shoals is home to a community college, Northwest-Shoals Community College, and a four-year university, the University of North Alabama, both of which are poised for growth.

The Shoals has developed vehicles for bringing its counties and cities together in pursuit of economic development, including a unified economic development authority, a unified economic development fund, and a united two-county Chamber of Commerce.

Those cooperative structures create a strong competitive position for the Shoals in pursuing industrial projects, like suppliers for the Toyota-Mazda Manufacturing plant under construction in Huntsville. But they also provide a framework for cooperation on further developing the Shoals natural and cultural assets.

With the Tennessee River running through its heart, the Shoals has unrivaled natural assets, ripe for further recreational development. On the cultural front, the Shoals has enjoyed a surge of national and international attention to the Shoals’ historic and contemporary contributions to American music. That’s drawn a stream of tourists to the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Florence has emerged unexpectedly as a fashion hub, serving as home base for designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin. That new interest builds on top of tourist attractions like Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia and W.C. Handy’s in Florence. Traditional down towns in Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia have been revitalized with local investment.

A coordinated cooperative effort to build on these strengths would bring more resources and reach, the report observes. Though traditional economic development has focused on developing sites and luring employers with incentives, contemporary economic development includes a focus on developing an ample and high-quality workforce and providing a high quality of life that benefits locals and attracts new residents and businesses.


Making the Workforce System Work for Alabama

Gov Kay Ivey addresses PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting.

Alabama has a record low unemployment rate, with employers hungry for employees. It is a moment of great opportunity to move more Alabamians into the workforce with the skills and education they’ll need to succeed in the 21st-century economy. 

“As we look to our future,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in her keynote address, “more than ever before, now is the time that we must be sure that our workforce is well-equipped to face the opportunities and the jobs of tomorrow.”

That opportunity and the state’s response were the central themes at PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting: Does Our Workforce System Work?, held Feb. 15 at the Harbert Center in Birmingham.

The sold-out meeting featured remarks by Raphael Bostic, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, a presentation by Chauncy Lennon, Vice President for the Future of Learning and Work at the Lumina Foundation, and was capped by Ivey’s address.

Bostic laid out the challenge by noting that while many signs point to economic prosperity for Alabama other measures are more vexing:

  • Alabama has one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. A smaller share of the population participates in work than in most states.
  • Alabama has one of the highest rates of disability among U.S. States. That’s true across all ages, non-Hispanic ethnicities, and education levels, and in both urban and rural areas.
Atlanta Fed Chief speaks on encouraging economic mobility and resilience.

Bringing those discouraged and disadvantaged workers into the workforce presents a prime opportunity for economic growth, Bostic said. If Alabama’s labor force participation rate matched the national average, the state could add 200,000 workers, helping to counter current and anticipated shortages.

If the workforce system can reach those individuals and help them build the knowledge and skills needed to earn a decent living, the whole state benefits through higher tax receipts and lower spending on public assistance, incarceration, and other programs, Bostic said.

Bostic cited successful models for work-based learning in Georgia and the expansion of apprenticeship programs in South Carolina as examples of innovations in workforce development. The Federal Reserve and several partners are compiling research on improving workforce conditions for workers and employers. He also encouraged those interested to follow the Federal Reserve’s stream of information on the region’s economy.

Lumina’s Lennon focused on the need to raise educational attainment levels in Alabama, placing a particular emphasis on the value of earning high-quality certificates or credentials as a way to get individuals into the workforce quickly and without the debt and delay that often accompanies a four-year degree.

The number of good jobs available to those with just a high school degree or less is shrinking, but good jobs are growing for those who’ve completed advanced training or an associates degree. According to Lumina, 62 percent of Alabama working-age adults lack education beyond high school, compared to 53 percent nationally. Providing affordable, accessible, and meaningful training and education for those without education past high school is key to improving Alabama’s competitiveness.

Alabama is in the midst of a multi-year effort to re-energize and better coordinate its approach to education and workforce development. That has been clear in the K-12 system, with its renewed attention to college and career readiness, career technical education, dual enrollment with the community college system, and an improved connection between schools and the business community. PARCA described noteworthy success stories in those efforts were in Leadership Matters, a 2018 report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance and produced in consultation with A+ Education Partnership.

In response to challenges laid out by Bostic and Lennon, a panel of state agency leaders described ongoing efforts to reach untapped populations and to better coordinate workforce development across state agencies.

To quarterback that cross-agency effort, Gov. Ivey created the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation, headed by her education policy advisor Nick Moore. Moore was joined on the panel by Lori Bearden, Assistant Director of Federal Workforce Programs, Department of Commerce; Nancy Buckner, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Human Resources; Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services; and Fitzgerald Washington, Secretary, Alabama Department of Labor.

Panel of agency leaders involved in workforce development.

These agencies, along with K-12 and Higher Education, are being challenged to expand cooperation with employers and with each other to grow the size and improve the quality of the workforce. That’s the fundamental premise of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the latest effort by Congress to improve the responsiveness and performance of state workforce development systems.

WIOA challenges states to build:

  • A workforce system that better serves individuals by providing a complete set of supports and opportunities leading to successful training and employment. Those services and resources might be drawn from multiple agencies depending on the needs of the individual.
  • A workforce system that is more engaged with employers in matching them with appropriately trained employees. WIOA encourages innovative approaches to directly supporting trainees and business through work-based learning and apprenticeships.
  • A workforce system that is more reflective of and responsive to the needs of the local economy. Alabama has responded to that challenge by forming new workforce councils and workforce investment boards.

Throughout the meeting, PARCA shared videos highlighting workforce strategies in place around Alabama:

To Learn more about Alabama’s evolving workforce development system, explore the following links:

Alabama Success Plus Plan
o includes downloadable educational attainment plan
o Interactive data dashboard
Alabama Workforce Council
o includes 2019 AWC Annual Report to the Governor and Legislature
o Additional annual reports from 2014-2018


At 199, Alabama Still Growing, but Slowly

As Alabama approaches its 200th birthday, the state is still adding population but at a slower rate than most of its Southeastern neighbors.

The U.S. Census Bureau released new state-level population estimates in December, providing estimates of state populations as of July 1, 2018. The data release also includes state-level estimates for the underlying components of population change.  A closer look at the components provides insight on the factors affecting Alabama’s growth rate. According to the Census, Alabama has:

  1. The second highest death rate among U.S. States. West Virginia’s is the highest.
  2. The fourth lowest rate of international in-migration.
  3. A positive rate of domestic in-migration, but a rate that is slower than some Southeastern neighbors.

For the most part, the 2018 estimates extend trends among Southeastern states that have been in place since 2010: more rapid growth along the East Coast and in Tennessee, slower growth and even some estimated population loss in the Southeastern interior states.

In the national context, the highest percentage population growth is taking place in the Mountain West states of Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, with Texas and Florida also placing near the top. A second group of states — Washington and Oregon on the West Coast; Colorado in the Mountain West; and the Carolinas and Georgia on the East Coast; constitute a second tier of growth states with population increases of 1 percent or greater. Alabama falls into a third tier, with growth under 1 percent. Alabama’s population increased an estimated 0.3 percent increase. Eight states, including Mississippi and Louisiana, in the Southeast, lost population in 2018, according to the Census estimates.

To estimate population change, Census tracks births and deaths in a state and estimates the number of people moving in and moving out. According to the 2018 estimates, these are estimated totals for Alabama:

Alabama 2018 Components of ChangeValues
Births57,216
Deaths53,425
Net Natural Increase3,791
Net Domestic Migration5,718
Net International Migration3,344
Net Migration9,062
Net Population Change in 201812,751

To be able to compare those numbers to other states, it is necessary to compute a rate for each measure. The Census expresses rates as a number per 1,000 residents. For example, Alabama had a death rate of 10.9, that’s 10.9 deaths for every 1,000 residents. Alabama’s death rate has been consistently high according to Census estimates, which are based on population estimates and death records collected by public health agencies. Alabama’s population is older than the average state. That effects population in two ways. Older residents are more likely to die, and younger people are more likely to have children. In addition, Alabama residents, by many measures are less healthy than residents in other states and have a shorter life expectancy than residents of most other states. Alabama’s high death rate ultimately depresses the state’s rate of natural increase, which ranks 43 among U.S. states.

Rates of Change, by ComponentsRate of change per 1,000Rate's Rank among U.S. States
Death Rate10.92
Birth Rate11.728
Natural Increase Rate0.843
Domestic Migration Rate1.219
International Migration Rate0.747
Net Migration Rate1.924

The other way states grow or shrink is residents leaving or new residents moving in. Alabama has a positive rate of domestic migration, netting 5,718 new residents that moved to Alabama from other U.S. states. However, Alabama doesn’t attract many transplants from other countries. Alabama ranked 47th in its international migration rate, adding only 3,344 new residents from other countries. That left the state’s overall migration rate in the midrange of U.S. states.

According to the estimates, Alabama continues to be outpaced in population growth by South Carolina, a demographically similar state that was smaller than Alabama at the time of the 2010 Census. Since 2018, South Carolina’s population growth has accelerated, particularly in terms of domestic migration. Since 2010, South Carolina has surpassed Alabama in population, adding more than 450,000 new residents, while Alabama has added just over 100,000.  The interactive maps and charts below allow you to explore the data and make your own comparisons of numeric change, percentage change and rates of change. Expand the display by clicking on the full screen icon on the bottom left of the graphic.


Surging economy boosts Alabama 2018 General Fund and ETF Revenues

Thanks to a booming economy, Alabama saw significantly increased revenue to both the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund (ETF) in 2018, with collections far exceeding expectations.

By the September 30 end of the 2018 fiscal year, collections for the state General Fund were up 4 percent or $76 million over FY2017, bringing in just under $2 billion. Revenue to the ETF grew by 6.7 percent, up $426 million over 2017, for a total of $6.7 billion in 2018.

Both funds ended the year with a balance, with revenues exceeding expenditures by $80 million in the General Fund and $336 million in the ETF. The balance in the General Fund will be available to fund either supplemental appropriations or to pad to the 2020 budget. A portion of the ETF balance, $64 million, will be shifted into what’s called the budget stabilization fund, which was set up as an auxiliary savings account which can be tapped if the economy contracts. The remaining $272 million of surplus will be shifted into the advancement and technology fund. The Legislature can spend that fund for certain purposes including the purchase of education technology and equipment.

Strong growth in the General Fund can be credited to the growing economy, but also to decisions by the Legislature in recent years. The General Fund traditionally saw little growth even when the economy was expanding because growth taxes, principally income and sales taxes, were all deposited in the ETF. However, the Legislature shifted some sales taxes, particularly a portion of the sales taxes on goods sold over the internet, to the General Fund. Strong growth in those taxes padded the General Fund’s bottom line.

The effects of the federal tax cut also had something to do with the increased revenue. When federal taxes go down, Alabama collections go up since federal income taxes are deductible from state income taxes. When individuals and corporations pay less in federal taxes, a greater share of earnings is subject to the Alabama income tax. Budget officials in Montgomery have estimated that the difference in the federal tax law will mean an annual boost to Alabama receipts in the $30 to $40 million range.

The rosy revenue picture is not clouded by huge impending financial needs as it has been in the past. Cost growth in Medicaid has slowed, and Congress has extended federal support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was an uncertainty earlier this year. The one area of persisting uncertainty is the amount that will be needed to comply with a federal court order to improve conditions in prisons.

The General Fund

The General Fund grew robustly even though it didn’t receive the $50 million per year deposit it had been receiving from a settlement resulting from the BP Oil Spill. The fund also paid out $11 million in a settlement to AT&T. AT&T had collected and paid to Alabama taxes on wireless data plans. Under federal law, internet access is exempt from taxation. Cellular voice service is subject to taxation, and the mobile telecommunications tax used to be a major revenue source. However, wireless companies have lowered their charges to customers for voice calling and shifted much of the cost of service to data plans, which aren’t supposed to be taxed. Proceeds from the tax are now about half what they were in 2013.

Another declining tax source for the General Fund is the tobacco tax. The tax brought in $155 million in 2018, almost $9 million less than the year before.

But those and other declines were more than offset by growing revenue from other sources. Insurance company taxes and corporate taxes were up by $30 million and $21 million respectively. Bringing in $349 million in 2018, the tax on insurance policies is the largest individual source of revenue to the General Fund.

Thanks to rising interest rates, the revenue from interest on state deposits increased by $18 million. Revenues from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board were up by $15 million. The portion of the Use tax that goes to the General Fund increased $14 million. The Simplified Seller’s Use Tax, a sales tax on online purchases, was up $10 million. Revenue disbursed from the state’s abandoned property fund was up by $9 million.

 

The Education Trust Fund

The biggest boost to the state bottom line came through collections of the income tax, which were up 8.2 percent, as more people were working and earning more money.

Sales taxes increased 5.34 percent as consumers spent more. These are the highest growth rates since before the great recession, and the overall 6.7 percent growth in the fund during 2018 is the highest growth rate seen since prior to the Great Recession.

The strong performance in 2018 indicates the state should not have a problem meeting the spending levels set in the 2019 budgets. The Legislature budgeted spending $2 billion from the General Fund and $6.6 billion from the Education Trust Fund in 2019.

 


Alabama Class of 2017 High School Graduation, College and Career, ACT and WorkKeys Results

In this graduation season, we take a look back at some encouraging educational statistics for last year’s graduating class, the Class of 2017.

For the Class of 2017, the final tally for the state high school graduation rate and college and career readiness rate both improved over the Class of 2016’s rates.

However, there is still a troubling gap between the percentage of high school seniors graduating and the percentage of those seniors graduating college and career ready, as measured by the state.

For the seniors in the Class of 2017, 89 percent graduated with a diploma, but only 71 percent of seniors earned the college and career ready designation.

The statewide results for the ACT and WorkKeys assessments also both showed improvement for the Class of 2017.

The ACT is the widely used assessment test designed to measure college readiness. The test is given to all 11th graders in Alabama’s public schools. WorkKeys is a separate test, also developed by the ACT organization, designed to measure workforce readiness. The test, given to all 12-grade students annually, measures students’ skills on the math and reading skills as they might be applied in the workplace.

The state uses both as measures of the college and career readiness of graduates. High school seniors are considered college and career ready if they meet one of the following criteria.

  1. Score college ready in at least one subject on the ACT
  2. Score at the silver level on ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment
  3. Earn a passing score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam (college-level courses delivered in high schools)
  4. Successfully earn a career technical credential
  5. Earn dual enrollment credit at a college or university
  6. Successfully enlist in the military

Graduation and College and Career Readiness Percentages

The interactive chart below allows users to explore the graduation and college and career readiness percentages for high school seniors in 2017 at the state level and by school system, and high school. When comparing results on individual measures, bear in mind that some schools and systems vary on which route to college and career readiness they emphasize. Some may invest heavily in providing AP classes or preparation for the ACT while others concentrate on dual enrollment or career technical education.

 

As Alabama’s graduation rate has soared, so has the concern that some students who are receiving high school diplomas haven’t been adequately prepared for the next step after high school.

In March, then-State Superintendent Ed Richardson pointed out the disparity between Alabama’s high school graduation rate (87 percent in 2016) with the Class of 2016’s College and Career Readiness rate (66 percent). Richardson called the 21-percentage point gap between the graduation rate and the career readiness rate “unacceptable.”

“Some schools have a gap approaching 60 percentage points,” Richardson noted. “In fact, a few high schools only have one in four graduates who accomplish one of the six College- and Career-Ready Standards.”

The final tallies for the Class of 2017 showed that the gap between high school graduation and college and career readiness narrowed to 18 percentage points.

Richardson declared the gap between graduation and college and career readiness one of the “most serious issues facing our schools.”

“Failure to address this issue immediately,” Richardson said, “will only result in more high school graduates and their families being led to believe they are ready for the next step in their lives when they are not—harm public education and depress our state’s economic growth.”

ACT

For those students who plan to continue at a four-year college, the ACT is designed to measure their readiness for college.

In 2017, 18 percent of high school seniors met or exceeded the benchmark score in all four subjects tested, English, Reading (Social Studies), Math, and Science. That’s up from 17 percent in 2015, according to the most recent data provided by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Success rates vary by subject: 53 percent of high school seniors scored college-ready in English, 37 percent in reading; 28 percent in science; 24 percent in math. The percentage of students scoring above the college-ready benchmark for each subject has increased in all subjects, except for English. In English, 53.1 percent of students met the college-ready benchmark in 2015 compared to 52.6 percent in 2017.

ACT scores are most commonly reported as scale scores, a number on a 36-point scale (a 36 in a perfect score)

The average scale score on the ACT for Alabama was 19.2 in 2017, up from 19 in 2015. While Alabama trails the national average scale score of 21, it is important to keep in mind that Alabama is one of 18 states in which 100 percent of public school students take the test. The state pays for one administration of the test for students in their junior year.  In most other states, only those applying for college take the test. Students can take the test multiple times. Their best score is the one counted in the statistics.

Among the 18 states where 100 percent of students take the test, Alabama’s composite score ranks behind 13 states and is tied with North Carolina. Alabama’s average composite score ranks ahead of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Nevada.

 

 

Over the past three years, the average composite score has increased for every subgroup of students, except for nonpoverty students. The average composite for nonpoverty students was 20.8 in 2015 and 20.7 in 2017.

WorkKeys

On the WorkKeys assessment, 64 percent of graduates in 2017 earned a Silver certification or higher, the level needed to be considered college or career ready by the state. That’s up from 61 percent in 2016.

ACT has identified the foundational skills needed to be successful in thousands of different occupations.  ACT predicts that students who score at the Silver level have the skills needed for 67 percent of the occupations in their database. Those scoring at the Gold level have the foundational skills needed for 93 percent of jobs profiled. A platinum level certification indicates that a candidate has the skills needed in 99 percent of jobs ACT has profiled.

 


Thank God For Mississippi: They’re Leading the Way on Educational Progress

At least in terms of education, it’s time to retire the old Alabama catchphrase, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

It’s an easy response when the latest list comes out that finds Alabama and Mississippi at the bottom of the rankings.

Frequently, Alabama bests Mississippi, and, in so doing, stays out of last place.

However, a review of the latest results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows Mississippi students now outscore Alabama students on almost every measure.

In 4th and 8th grade math, Mississippi continued its multi-year rise in performance. Comparing all students in each state, Mississippi has a higher average scale score at both grade levels and higher percentages of students scoring proficient.

In reading, Alabama still outscores Mississippi when all students’ scores are averaged together, though the gap between the two states continues to close.

But looking deeper in the data, in every major subgroup measured, Mississippi students are outscoring Alabama students. When comparing Alabama’s white students to Mississippi whites, Alabama black students to Mississippi black students, Alabama Hispanic students to Mississippi Hispanics, Alabama poverty and nonpoverty students with their counterparts in Mississippi, on all those measures, Mississippi comes out on top.

Comparing the different subgroups with their peers in other states provides some assurance for Alabama. Both Alabama and Mississippi tend to show up poorly on “all students” rankings on standardized tests. That is due in part to the fact that historically disadvantaged groups — students from low-income households, blacks, and Hispanics — tend to score lower on standardized tests than whites and students from nonpoverty households. Alabama and Mississippi both have higher percentages of students in poverty and higher minority percentages than most states.

Breaking out the scores by subgroup allows a more nuanced comparison. When comparing subgroups, Alabama’s performance is better in some instances than the overall ranking might suggest. For instance, in 4th-grade math, Alabama’s “all students” rank is fourth from the bottom among U.S. states. However, when directly comparing black students, Alabama black 4th graders outscore black students in 14 other states.  A deeper examination of subgroups brings to light some important points.

  1. It is certainly not the case that Alabama’s lackluster performance on the NAEP can be blamed on black students or poor students. On some measures, blacks and poverty students in Alabama earn a higher national ranking in their respective categories than whites and nonpoverty students.  It is weak performance across all subgroups — black and white, poverty and nonpoverty — that weighs on Alabama’s competitive position.
  2. There is one subgroup that is especially in need of increased attention from Alabama educators: Hispanics. In both grades and both subjects, the average scale score for Alabama Hispanics was lower than the average scale score for Hispanics in any other state.

In the rank table below, you can explore the average scale score of each Alabama subgroup ranking nationally. Bear in mind that the rank for white students, poverty and nonpoverty students includes all 50 states. For Hispanics, there are 47 states in the comparison group, because in three states there weren’t enough Hispanic students tested to generate a statistically valid sample. For black students, the rank is among 40 states on all measures except 4th-grade math. In 4th-grade math, the comparison group includes 42 states.

Looking more broadly,

  1. Alabama has focused attention on instruction in the early grades and evidence from NAEP shows that has provided benefits. In 2011, Alabama tied the national average in 4th-grade reading. Despite some erosion since then, 4th-grade reading remains stronger than other subjects. In math, Alabama 4th graders improved from No. 50 in 2015 to No. 48 in 2017. Obviously, sustained focus on the early grades remains important.
  2. However, Alabama’s NAEP results in 8th grade remain consistently poor in both reading and math. Middle grades instruction also deserved concerted focus and investment.
  3. Alabama should study Mississippi’s approach to see if that state’s progress can provide lessons. While more in-depth analysis is needed, Mississippi education officials credit that state’s progress to continuity of leadership and a sustained, systematic approach to supporting its school districts. The current superintendent, Carey M. Wright, took office in 2013, recruited from the District of Columbia where she was Chief Academic Officer. Mississippi adopted new higher academic standards and set up a system of professional development to help Mississippi teachers teach to the new standards. Mississippi also implemented a literacy initiative similar to the Alabama Reading Initiative but targeted the initiative primarily at high need schools. On the surface, Mississippi’s efforts mirror Alabama’s, a deeper look might reveal ways in which Alabama’s approach can be adjusted in order to produce similar results.

ACT Aspire: 2017 Results and a Final Look Back

The ACT Aspire, a suite of standardized tests given statewide to students in grades 3-8 and 10, has been the State of Alabama’s primary tool for measuring the academic progress of Alabama public schools since the 2013-2014 school year.

Over the course of four administrations of the Aspire, students showed progress on most measures. By 2017, the percentage of children scoring proficient on the Aspire had improved in most grades and subjects, in some cases significantly. (To explore the data on your own, including views that allow for interactive comparisons between selected schools and systems, follow this link. To view the visualization in full screen, click the button on the bottom right corner).

The gains in math were the strongest. All grades saw steady improvements, except for 10th grade where the percentage proficient was basically flat. The implementation of Aspire roughly coincided with the adoption of new state standards in mathematics, which were intended to increase students’ depth of understanding of mathematical concepts. Though the Aspire has now been replaced by a different standardized testing system developed by Scantron, math proficiency levels will continue to be of crucial interest. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national benchmark testing system, Alabama students have been at or near the bottom of the country. On the 2017 NAEP, Alabama students posted slight gains (Click here for Alabama 2017 NAEP Results). Continued improvement in mathematics instruction is needed.

 

In reading, the percentage of children scoring proficient improved modestly in grades 3-6, but results for grades 7, 8 and 10 were mixed. Alabama had made significant progress in reading achievement, progress that coincided with investment in and deployment of the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). In the wake of the Great Recession, funding for the program was cut and school systems were given the flexibility in their use of ARI funds. The most recent state budget included a $4 million increase for ARI but stipulated that the program return to its initial focus on early grade reading.

 

Aspire tests for science were not uniformly administered for all grades in all years, but in the years and grades available, gains were also made in that subject.

 

In Alabama and across the country, the differences in the proficiency rates among various subgroups of students remains a concern. In both the state and the nation, the percentage of students from poverty backgrounds scoring proficient is about 25-30 percentage points lower than the percentage of nonpoverty students scoring proficient. Similar gaps between whites and blacks, and whites and Hispanic students.

 

 

As a result of those gaps, the percentage of the student body in a school system tends to predict the overall proficiency levels achieved by the students on these standardized tests. The scatterplot chart below shows this general correlation between proficiency levels and poverty levels. A school system’s proficiency rate determines its vertical position on the chart (higher on the chart, the higher the proficiency rate). A system’s poverty percentage, based on the percentage of students directly qualifying for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, determines the system’s position on the horizontal axis, with higher poverty districts to the left of the chart and lower poverty districts progressing to the right.

Though the correlation is obvious, it is also obvious that systems with similar poverty levels often show very different proficiency levels. In other words, the school systems can and do exceed expectations, through effective teaching, resources, and organization.

As a testing tool, Aspire had both fans and detractors. Critics complained that resources for preparing for the test were lacking and that results were not provided quickly. They also questioned whether the tests were properly aligned with the state’s course of study. Fans appreciated the fact that Aspire results were aligned with the ACT, the widely used college entrance exam. Thus, a student’s score on the Aspire tests served as a predictor for eventual performance on the ACT.

The test’s results, which showed lower proficiency rates than the previous state test, the Alabama Reading and Math Test, were also considered by many a more accurate reflection of students’ performance. Aspire proficiency levels for Alabama students were closer to the results Alabama students produced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though Aspire proficiency percentages were still higher than Alabama NAEP proficiency levels. Here is a comparison of Aspire and NAEP results for Alabama, with the proficiency levels for national public schools included for comparison.

 JurisdictionTest% of students at or above Proficient
4th Grade MathNational publicNAEP40%
AlabamaNAEP31%
AlabamaAspire49%
4th Grade ReadingNational publicNAEP35%
AlabamaNAEP31%
AlabamaAspire39%
8th Grade MathNational publicNAEP33%
AlabamaNAEP21%
AlabamaAspire30%
8th Grade ReadingNational publicNAEP35%
AlabamaNAEP28%
AlabamaAspire46%


Population Change in Alabama Counties and Metro Areas

As a follow-up to PARCA’s previous post on estimated changes to Alabama’s population in comparison to other states, we now present recent U.S. Census estimates of population change in Alabama counties and metro areas.

As a state, Alabama’s population has increased 2 percent since 2010, a faster rate of growth than Mississippi, but slower than other Southeastern states. A closer look, examining population change at the county level, reveals a wide disparity between the population growth rates within the state, with 45 of Alabama’s 67 counties experiencing population loss between 2010 and 2017, according to the Census estimates.

Rural counties in Central Alabama, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt have experienced the greatest losses in percentage terms. The steepest loss was Macon County, which has experienced a 12.6 percent population decline since 2010, according to the estimates. Dallas County has lost the greatest number of residents over the time period, with the estimated population dropping by 4,605.

Meanwhile, in percentage terms, the strongest growth over the course of the decade is occurring in coastal Baldwin County and in Lee County, home to Auburn University.

The Huntsville area counties of Madison and Limestone counties are continuing to grow at a rapid pace, as are the suburban counties around Birmingham. Tuscaloosa County also continues to grow. Suburban counties around Montgomery are growing but at a slightly slower pace. Houston and Coffee counties, in the Wiregrass region, are also seeing moderate growth.

As for the state’s largest counties, Jefferson County and Mobile counties are seeing minimal growth while Montgomery County is losing population, according to the estimates.
Looking at the estimates for the most recent year, 2016-2017, there appears to have been positive population growth in most of the counties bordering Georgia.

Examining the components of change, the central counties of the three largest metro areas, Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile, are losing large numbers of residents through domestic migration. Residents of the central counties moving to suburban counties or elsewhere in the U.S.

That population loss in the central counties is offset by the natural increase in those counties and by international in-migration. Tuscaloosa, Lee, and Madison counties are also seeing population gains through international in-migration. Much of the rest of the state, particularly rural counties, have received little in terms of international in-migration.

In 40 out of the 67 Alabama counties, the number of deaths outnumbers the number of births, leading to a negative rate of natural increase. Counties where deaths outnumber births tend to have an aging population and low levels of population in-flow. Poorer health in those counties may also contribute to higher rates of death.

When looking at population change at the metropolitan level, the Birmingham-Hoover metro area is seeing modest growth. Mobile County, which is its own metro area, has grown only slightly since 2010, but neighboring Baldwin County, a separate MSA officially called the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley MSA, is the Alabama’s fastest growing in percentage terms (16.7 percent growth since 2010) and is second to the Huntsville MSA in numeric growth over the period.

Looking at the bigger picture, the visualization below allows you to compare rates of population change across all the metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. It is worth noting that despite, Alabama’s slow growth overall, the Auburn-Opelika and Daphne-Fairhope-Foley MSA rank in the top 20 of the U.S. in terms of percentage growth. With the exception of Huntsville, which ranks 75th in terms of percentage growth since 2010, Alabama’s major metros, Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery, are growing more slowly than major MSAs in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.


Alabama Grows, but Slowly, Weighed Down by High Death Rate and Low Rate of International Migration

Alabama’s pace of population growth increased in 2017, but the state remains slow-growing compared to most of its Southeastern neighbors, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Two factors holding down growth: Alabama has the nation’s second-highest death rate and one of the lowest rates of immigration from other countries.

Domestic in-migration

For the first time in several years, Alabama had a positive rate of domestic in-migration — more people moving to the state than leavingvfor other states, according to PARCA’s analysis of the recently released data.

For most of the past decade, more U.S. residents have left Alabama than moved into the state. While the new Census estimates show Alabama with a net positive in domestic migration, most other Southeastern states have much higher rates of domestic in-migration. That’s been true since 2010.

A case in point is South Carolina. In 2010, Alabama’s population was greater than South Carolina’s: 4,785,579 vs. 4,635,834. But since 2010 South Carolina has added almost 400,000 new residents with the strongest source of growth being through domestic in-migration. Alabama has added fewer than 100,000 residents over the same period. According to the estimates, South Carolina’s population now exceeds Alabama’s, with 5,024,369 residents to Alabama’s 4,874,747.

After the next Census, due to its relatively sluggish population growth, Alabama is expected to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. North Carolina is expected to gain a seat and Florida is expected to gain two.

A high death rate

Though Alabama may be beginning to attract residents from other states, our state residents are dying faster and earlier than residents of other states.

Alabama has the country’s second highest death rate in 2017, according to Census estimates (only West Virginia’s is higher). Over 52,000 Alabamians died in 2012, yielding a death rate of 10.8 per 1,000 population. That’s twice the rate of death rate of the leading state, Idaho, which has a death rate of 5.4. And 2017 is not an anomaly: Alabama has been No. 2 every year of this decade, except for 2012 when our death rate ranked No. 3.

Alabama’s high death rate isn’t just noted in Census estimates. The Centers for Disease Control consistently ranks Alabama’s death rate from a variety of leading causes of death in the country’s top 10.

In 2016, Alabama had the fourth highest death rate from heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death. Alabama also had the country’s highest death rate from stroke, ranked No. 7 from deaths from cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases.

In 2016 Alabama had the country’s highest infant mortality rate and the second highest rate of deaths from firearms.

The more than 58,000 births in Alabama, a rate of 12 per 1,000, more than offset the number of deaths, resulting in a net positive natural increase in the population of approximately 6,000. Alabama’s birth rate ranked 30th among the US states, slightly below the U.S. average of 12.16.

International immigration

A final factor in population change is international migration and relatively few migrants from other countries are moving to Alabama. In 2017, Alabama ranked No. 46 among U.S. states in its rate of international in-migration. Five states attracted less than 1 foreign immigrant for every 1,000 residents: Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Montana and Wyoming.


Overall picture

Most states added population in 2017, according to the estimates. Only, Illinois, West Virginia, Wyoming, Louisiana, Alaska, Mississippi, and Hawaii lost population.

Alabama had a net addition of 14,202 residents from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, a 0.3 percent increase in the state’s population. Alabama’s percentage population increase ranked 33rd.

Since 2010, Alabama’s population has increased by 94,612, or 2 percent, ranking 38th among the states in percentage population growth during that period.


College-Going Rates for Alabama High Schools

With population growth and a rising high school graduation rate, Alabama’s high schools are producing more graduates and they are sending more graduates, in absolute numbers, to higher education. However, at the same time, a slightly smaller percentage of graduates are moving directly into higher education. In 2016, 63 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college in the year after their graduation. That compares to a 65 percent enrollment rate in 2014.

That’s according to new data released by the Alabama Commission on High Education (ACHE). The data from the report is drawn from the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks student entry and progress through higher education. College-going rates and college destination statistics for the state, for systems and for individual Alabama high schools can be found on PARCA’s Data Dashboard.

The findings in the most recent report are similar to patterns identified in another recently released dataset from ACHE, its high school feedback report. PARCA’s analysis of that data shows that though a slightly lower percentage of graduates are enrolling in higher education, those enrolling appear to be better prepared since a smaller percentage of those enrolled students are placed in remedial education after graduation.

Where are we now?

Alabama trails most U.S. states when it comes to educational attainment, with a smaller percentage of Alabama’s population aged 25-64 holding a college degree. Higher levels of educational attainment produce higher incomes and more job stability in an economy which increasingly demands education beyond high school. To close the gap with other states, Alabama needs a greater share of its population obtaining higher education credentials. But, according to the most recent comparative data, Alabama trails the national average and lags behind all other Southeastern states in the percentage of high school graduates going directly into college.

According to the new ACHE data, approximately 63 percent of Alabama high school graduates are enrolling in college the year after graduating from high school:

  • 32 percent of high school graduates in the state of Alabama enrolled in two-year colleges
  • 31 percent enrolled at a four-year college
  • 37 did not continue into higher education in the year after graduating from high school

Of those Alabama high school graduates enrolling in higher education:

  • 91 percent went to college in-state
  • 9 percent went to college in another state
  • 93 percent went to a public college
  • 7 percent enrolled at a private college

Variation by System

A deeper dive in the data shows how diverse the state’s educational eco-system is. Across the state, systems vary widely in the percentage of graduates who go on to higher education. Some patterns are predictable: affluent suburban districts tend to send most of their graduates to college at four-year colleges and universities. In general, high schools where more students are affluent have a greater share of students going on to higher education. In schools where poverty rates are higher, a smaller share of students go on to higher education (See this chart that compares college-going rates with the proportion of poverty students at a high school). However, a greater variance appears when the percentage of students going to two-year colleges is considered in the mix.

So, it’s not a surprise to find the Mountain Brook City School System topping the college-going list, with the highest percentage of graduates going on to higher education. Over 90 percent of Mountain Brook’s 2016 graduates enrolled in college, with the vast majority of them (86 percent of the graduates) entering a 4-year college. Only 5 percent of graduates enrolled in a two-year college.

More unexpected is the system that finished third on the college-going list. Brewton City Schools also had an impressive college-going rate of 85 percent, but the destination of Brewton’s graduates was different from Mountain Brook’s. In that system, 48 percent of graduates enrolled in a two-year college, while 37 percent went to four-year schools.

Those varying paths toward achieving a high college-going rate continue throughout the rankings.

Among the top 20 systems, 9 systems lean heavily toward 4-year college-going and 11 lean more heavily toward 2-year college going.

Variance by High Schools and Within Systems

When examining the college-going rates at individual high schools, the same contrasting picture of college destination is apparent. Some high schools achieve a high college-going rate by sending most graduates to four-year schools, while others send a high proportion of students to two-year colleges and thereby have high college-going rates.

In some systems, there is a significant variance among the high schools within the same school system. This is particularly true in systems that have magnet high schools (schools where students from throughout the district can apply to pursue advanced academic options).

This is most readily apparent in Montgomery County. Three magnet high schools in the Montgomery County system, Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, Loveless Academic Magnet Program, and Booker T. Washington Magnet High Schools rank in the top 10 among high schools for the percentage of students enrolling in college the year after graduation. All three send close to 90 percent or more of their graduates to college, and most of them to four-year schools. By contrast, of the 2016 graduates of Lanier Senior High School, only 34 percent enrolled in higher education, according to the Clearinghouse data.

Where do we want to go?

In terms of national comparisons, Alabama has historically ranked low in educational attainment. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 34 percent of Alabama’s population between the ages of 25 and 64 have an associate’s degree or higher. That ranks Alabama 9th lowest among U.S. states.

In order to increase Alabama competitiveness, Alabama high schools need to:

  • Continue increasing preparation levels of high school graduates
  • Identify and employ effective approaches for connecting students to higher education enrollment and financing opportunities

Colleges and universities need to:

  • Increase outreach to Alabama high school students
  • Address problems of access and affordability
  • And once in college, schools need to work with students to increase student persistence and graduation rates