Results of New Statewide Tests Tell Both Familiar and Alarming Story

After a year and a half of Covid-clouded schooling, only about half of Alabama students, grades 3-8, scored proficient in reading, and less than a quarter reached the proficient level in math on the state’s new statewide standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP). If the Alabama Literacy Act were in full effect this year and the reading cut score was set at the level recommended by experts, 23% of third-graders taking the test, or almost 12,000 students statewide, would be in jeopardy of being held back, based on the results.

The results are both shocking and familiar. At the same time, though, it’s hard to know what to make of them.

  • It’s the first year of a new test, the 4th variety of statewide assessment given over the past decade (5th if you include the NAEP).
  • ACAP was taken in the spring of 2021, after Covid’s unprecedented disruption of the education system. A significant number of students did not have a full-year of in-person instruction.
  • Because of the disruption, the results are not being considered by the state accountability system. Schools will not be graded based on the scores.
  • Statewide, 93% of students took the ACAP, an impressive percentage considering the conditions, but participation was significantly lower in some districts.
  • The acheivement levels for the test have just been set and need additional evidence to establish their validity.

Accepting all those caveats, a deeper look shows familiar patterns. Figure 2. compares Alabama student scores on the ACAP and the two standardized tests the state has used to judge performance: the Aspire, given most recently in 2017, and Scantron, most recently administered in 2019. Also in the comparison is the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national test given to a representative sample of each state’s students. NAEP, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is the only test that allows for comparison with students in other states.

ACAP results in English Language Arts (ELA) are higher but in roughly the same range as prior state assessments, with half of students proficient. However, only 28% of Alabama students scored proficient or above in reading on NAEP in 2019.

ACAP’s math percentages (24% of 4th graders and only 14% of 8th graders) are close to and even worse than Alabama’s performance on the NAEP in 2019. Alabama has consistently scored at or near the bottom on math for a decade on the NAEP. ACAP’s low math results contrast with the higher proficiency percentages generated by Scantron and the Aspire in math.

An optimistic view of the test results is that during a period of disrupted learning, students maintained progress in English and reading. The loss of in-person instruction and practice time may have done more damage in math. Regardless, the results indicate that Alabama needs to develop the same level of urgency about math as it is currently directing at reading.

Literacy Act Implications

ACAP’s results are also being closely studied because of the impending impact of the Alabama Literacy Act, which requires that students be reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. If students fail to meet that benchmark, they are to repeat third grade.

ACAP scores serve as the first identifier for those students vulnerable to being held back. Starting this spring, third-grade students who don’t make a specified cut score on the reading portion of the English Language Arts ACAP will receive intensive intervention, further evaluation, and perhaps retention. The State Board has not finalized that cut score yet but is scheduled to at its next meeting. At its October 14, 2021, meeting the board received recommendations from a technical advisory committee on what the cut score should be.

If the committee’s recommended cut score were in place this year, 23% of students would be judged to be below grade-level expectations in reading and, potentially, could have been held back. However, the technical advisory committee also unanimously recommended that the retention provision of the law not go into effect this coming spring. Committee members said that an additional year of test results are needed, results generated in more normal conditions, in order to affirm the validity of the cut score.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill delaying the retention provision, but Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed the bill. In issuing her veto, Ivey said the Legislature could revisit the issue after seeing the 2021 test results.

When the retention provision does take effect, students who don’t make the ACAP reading benchmark would be offered intensive intervention at a summer literacy camp and would be retested later in the summer. Other conditions and evidence would also be considered before the child is recommended for retention. For instance, students who have been previously provided with two years of reading intervention or students who already have an Individualized Education Plan in place would be eligible to progress with their classmates, though they would still be provided with continued support to get them up to grade level on reading.

The reading results are not available at the school level because the cut score has not been set, nor have the results been calculated or published. However, the scores on the ELA section of ACAP provide some insight into how students performed across the state.

About 10 % of students, or 5,008 of the 55,000 third graders, scored at the lowest level, Level 1, on the ACAP’s ELA section. The number and percentage falling below the cut score on the reading subsection would be higher considering the figures presented by the technical advisory committee, a little more than double.

In the 30 best-performing school systems, less than 5% of third-graders scored in Level 1 range. However, in the 15 lowest-performing systems, 20% or more of the students scored at Level 1. That includes 32% of Birmingham City School students or close to 500 students in that system.

New Tests, Similar Relative Results

Regardless of where the proficiency bar is set, the relative performance of the state’s various school systems on these standardized tests tends to remain constant. There is a socioeconomic component: the higher the percentage of economic disadvantage in a school, the lower the percentage of students scoring proficient. Figure 3 shows that as poverty decreases, proficiency rates increase. At the same time, Figure 3 shows that systems with the same level of poverty can produce vastly different proficiency rates. In Tarrant, 53% are economically disadvantaged, and only 10% of students tested were proficient. By contrast, Piedmont’s rate of economic disadvantage is the same. Still, half its students scored proficient, exceeding the state’s average despite having a higher poverty percentage than the state as a whole. So while income matters, a system’s approach, its setting, resources, and community support, can make a difference.

And despite the complaints about previous tests, the new ACAP tests, which are specifically designed for Alabama and its academic standards, showed very similar patterns in relative performance. Schools systems that performed well on previous tests did well on ACAP. Those that struggled previously struggled again. The graphs in Figure 4 compare ACAP results with prior results on Aspire and Scantron for Alabama school systems. The tight grouping along the line of prediction indicates a strong correlation between ACAP performance and performance on previous standardized tests.

Performance by Level

As noted above, student scores are divided into four levels. Students scoring in Levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient for their grade level. The percentage scoring proficient in the graphic below is represented by shades of green (dark green for Level 4 and light green for Level 3). The percentage of students at Level 2 is illustrated in yellow, while the percentage at Level 1 is represented in red. The menu allows a choice between subjects.

That display by level is also available for schools.

System, School, and Subgroup Performance

The charts below allow for a deeper exploration of the data, including the ability to report on performance by gender, race, ethnicity, and by other subpopulations of students. In systems and schools where there are small numbers of students within a subgroup, results are not displayed in order to protect student privacy.

The menus on the right allow a user to drill down into the results by subject, grade, gender, race, ethnicity, and subpopulation.

Results are also available at the school level.

And finally, the ACAP proficiency levels can be explored through this interactive map. Toggle between subjects and grade levels using the controls to the right of the map.


Experience with Digital Learning Helped Piedmont Exceed Expectations Despite Covid

Print full analysis here.

When the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, Piedmont City Schools didn’t have to scramble to purchase laptops. The system didn’t have to figure out how to get their students internet access. It didn’t have to digitize its course materials.

Piedmont did those things a decade ago, gaining national recognition and accolades.

But Piedmont also knew, thanks to their digital experience, that teaching through technology takes preparation and practice and can lead to a declining performance if relied on too heavily. 

And ultimately, Piedmont has learned the connection that matters most is not the internet connection; it’s the connection between student and teacher and student and the school. As soon as they could safely reopen, they did.

“There is no substitute for face-to-face learning no matter how versed you are in delivering digital instruction,” said Piedmont Superintendent Mike Hayes.

Results of Alabama’s new standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), provide evidence that Piedmont’s experience and approach helped its students excel. Piedmont students outscored state averages in math and reading at every grade level.

Figure 1. Percentage of students proficient as measured by ACAP math and English language arts assessments, 2021, Grades 3-8, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama average

Piedmont’s performance is even more impressive when the student body’s level of economic disadvantage is considered. On average, students from economically disadvantaged households score lower on standardized tests than students from more affluent backgrounds. The percentage of Piedmont students qualifying for a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program is almost 10 percentage points higher than the state average. Figure 2. compares two factors: the percentage of students proficient on the ACAP test and the percentage of students directly qualify for the school lunch program. School systems above the line of prediction in the graph are exceeding the level of performance expected based on their level of poverty. Piedmont’s proficiency level far exceeds the performance of schools with similar demographics.

Figure 2. Percentage of Students Proficient on 2021 ACAP vs. Percentage of Students Economically Disadvantaged, by System

Across the country, there is a great deal of interest in the impact of educational changes made in emergency response to the pandemic, including the sudden switch to online instruction.

Preliminary data from across the country indicates that student academic progress lagged significantly behind pre-pandemic norms. The sudden shift to digital instruction and remote learning will be examined as one of the factors contributing to that missed learning. At the same time, though, it’s clear that aspects of virtual learning will endure, making it all the more important to understand digital instruction’s strengths and weaknesses.

So, what does Piedmont’s experience teach about the promise and pitfalls of digital education?

First, that educational innovation and excellence can happen anywhere. When then-Superintendent Matt Akin started pursuing the idea of handing each student a laptop, it seemed an unlikely dream. But in 2010, Piedmont, a small, underfunded district (106 in funding out of 138 school systems in 2019) in a town of about 4,400 in rural Northeast Alabama, became the first system in the state to provide all students in grades 4-12 with an Apple laptop computer. Eventually, all teachers were trained and Apple Certified, many traveling to Palo Alto and connecting cutting-edge educators around the country.

Figure 3. Percentage of students directly qualifying for the National Free Lunch Program, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama

The district was an original and continuing member of the nationwide League of Innovative Schools, a network that aims to “design, validate, champion, and scale effective, innovative learning opportunities to advance equity and excellence for every student.”

Piedmont City Schools even became a broadband provider, cooperating with community leaders and business partners to identify the best ways to get students connected to the Internet.

Akin’s successor, Hayes, said the system’s digital revolution was transformative and continues to pay dividends. However, the distribution of laptops was only the beginning of a much longer journey, a journey that is ongoing.

The technology didn’t produce overnight results. Along the way, there were disappointments and drift and continual course corrections.  “We didn’t have a blueprint to follow.  It was like we were building the plane while it was in the air,” he said.

Among the lesson learned:

  • Digital resources are tools that can supplement and accelerate learning, allowing struggling students to keep up and advanced students to excel. Data gleaned from digital assessment tools provide teachers powerful insight if the data is systematically and consistently reviewed and instruction targeted to meet all student’s needs.
  • However, if digital delivery is leaned on too heavily, if the local teacher doesn’t remain the central guide and shepherd of the instruction, students can fall by the wayside. Quality and engagement can suffer.
  • Most fundamentally, in Piedmont’s experience, the road to the future circled back to the tried and true: Good teachers and relationships make the difference.

Over time, Piedmont has produced results to be proud of. In a system where the poverty percentage is ten points higher than the state average, proficiency levels are consistently higher than the state’s as a whole.

Figure 4. Piedmont vs. State, Aspire & Scantron, Grades 3-8

Piedmont’s ACT scores for all students trail the state average, though that’s not unexpected considering the disproportionate number of economically-disadvantaged students at Piedmont. When comparing those economically-disadvantaged students to other economically disadvantaged students across the state, Piedmont students outperform.

Figure 5. Average Composite ACT for economically-disadvantaged students, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama

And Piedmont graduates nearly all of its seniors on time and having met the state’s definition of college and career-ready.

Figure 6. Graduation and College/Career Readiness Rates, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama, 2018-2020

What Piedmont learned about digital learning

Passing out laptops to school kids may have garnered attention back in 2010, but that was just the beginning of an ongoing journey in discovering how technology can enhance the educational experience and when it has the potential to interfere.

Don’t let the technology distract from the mission

When Piedmont first launched its technology initiative, it tried to create its own broadband network in cooperation with the city and an Alabama-based technology company. The City of Piedmont happened to have installed fiber optic cable throughout town, but it wasn’t being used. Taking advantage of that infrastructure, the school system and its partners launched a citywide wireless network.

But soon, it became apparent that it was unworkable to run a school system while also managing a small Internet provider utility, providing the necessary service and support.

Meanwhile, Piedmont had developed an alternative. Though it’s a small city system, Piedmont allows students from nearby rural systems, in Calhoun, Cherokee, Cleburne, and Etowah counties, to attend tuition free, due to its open enrollment policy. To provide Internet service to those students, they worked out a deal with Verizon for cellular data hot spots. Eventually, the system worked out a way to provide that same solution for the students who needed it in town. 

Hayes said that solution might not work for other rural areas, but the rural areas around Piedmont’s happen to be well-served by Verizon cellular since more sizable towns (Jacksonville, Anniston, Gadsden, and Rome, Ga.) are not too far away.

The long and the short of it: Don’t let technology maintenance become a distraction; always seek simpler solutions.

Don’t lean too heavily on online resources; teachers are still key

With the wealth of online resources out there, you could point students to good resources and allow them to set their own learning courses. That’s part of the promise of digital education.

But in Piedmont’s experience, the local classroom teacher still needs to set the course for learning and guide the group through the material.

When material is presented in a passive digital form, it is not always well absorbed.

 “Kids tend to watch, but they don’t necessarily process and synthesize,” Hayes said. “They need to be taking notes.”

“In the beginning, it was a challenge to find the sweet spot between digital and traditional curriculum,” said Hayes.  “We quickly realized the teacher has to be the driving force in the classroom, with whole group instruction remaining a prominent part of the curriculum.”

Teachers divide class time between whole group instruction, small group instruction, and independent work. There is still time for advanced students to work ahead independently, while others who need more individualized instruction receive it. But Piedmont found that with too much unstructured time, students drifted.

“You lose students when you give them too much independent work on the computer,” Hayes said. “Or when they can plug in or choose answers without showing their work.”

Multiple choice computer programs don’t record a student’s path toward an answer.

So, Piedmont brought some tangible and tactile work back. That includes math and vocabulary notebooks. When students write material down and show their steps, a teacher can better understand the student’s thought process, and, if they ended up with the wrong answer, the teacher can identify where the student went wrong. Building a physical catalog of vocabulary seems to increase retention and create a sense of pride and ownership.

Clearly, digital tools are powerful—both for students and for teachers. Computer-based formative assessments, for example, can be of great value. They can create a much more detailed picture of what a student knows and where they are struggling.

But once you have that data, you need a structured plan for putting that data to use.

In Piedmont, teachers monitor data throughout and come together every four weeks to evaluate it on a full day devoted to data.

Elementary teachers meet by grade level. Middle School and High school meet by department. The teams analyze the data and devise instructional plans for the next four weeks, taking into consideration what students have successfully mastered and which standards need additional reinforcement.

“Our instruction is changing every four weeks,” Hayes said.

Cultivate your teachers and help them to continue to learn and grow

Because it highly values the classroom teacher, Piedmont has built a teacher cultivation process that starts in high school and continues throughout a teacher’s career.

Rural systems have a hard time attracting and retaining teachers.

To address this, Piedmont attempts to grow its own teachers by identifying kids in high school who show signs of interest and ability. With support and guidance from the school system, those students can find scholarships and other aid to get them into and through nearby Jacksonville State University’s School of Education. The locally-connected teachers are more likely to be invested in the Piedmont community and are more willing to stay for the long term, reducing turnover.

Once they’re on the faculty, they have ongoing opportunities to grow. The connections to the national educational technology world provide avenues for travel and training. And the system also incentivizes teachers to pursue National Board Certification, increasing their salaries and improving their classroom practice. 

According to Hayes, Piedmont has the state’s highest percentage of board-certified teachers in its system and ranks No. 3 nationally, with 35% of the faculty having earned the certification.

In addition to the pay differential, National Board-Certified teachers are given two additional personal days and one additional professional development day to devote to maintaining their certification.

The system also provides continuous professional feedback to teachers between the school and central office staff; each teacher is observed teaching monthly.

Education is a relationship

For all its promise, technology can’t replace relationships. Being a small rural system may present challenges, but it also helps in keeping an eye on students as individuals. Piedmont doesn’t just rely on its small-town nature to make this happen. The intimacy is systematically cultivated.

Every Thursday, students in grades 4-12 are divided into groups of about a dozen students who meet with an individual faculty member assigned to that particular team of kids. There is a technological aspect to this. The teacher mentor maintains a Google spreadsheet for each kid, and through it, gets feedback and grades on each of the kids from their teachers and coaches. They monitor their students’ grades, attendance, and performance across subjects. The technology puts the mentor in the position to ask questions before problems get too serious:  Why are your grades slipping? What are these absences? What is going on?

Most importantly, the mentor teachers build long-term relationships and 360 degree understanding of the students. That creates a unified point of accountability, based on a personal relationship between student and teacher, and also, when possible, with parents.

That may help explain why Piedmont has graduated close to 100% of its seniors on time for several years running.

When faced with a potential dropout, Hayes said, “We pull all resources at our disposal together and develop a plan to ensure the student continues on a path to graduation.”

Having learned the importance of relationships and face-to-face accountability, Piedmont went back to in-person schooling as soon as they safely could during the 2020-2021 school year, while observing all the safety protocols.

Despite that, 30 to 35% of high school students and 10% of the younger kids chose remote learning. The system allowed and supported that. However, they required virtual students to come to school twice a month for in-person check-ins. And if a student’s average falls below a 70 in a class, they were required to come back to school unless they had a special circumstance like being immune-compromised or having an immune-compromised family member.

Aiming for the Future

In launching its technology initiative a decade ago, Piedmont hoped to keep students more interested and engaged. That may help explain why the system’s graduation and career readiness rates are among the highest in the state. While the engagement with technology may have something to do with, the more obvious source of that success is the system’s longer-term methodical preparation of students.

Recognizing the importance of the ACT when it comes to college entrance and scholarships, Piedmont starts early. The Piedmont team has realized that a critical hurdle to success on the ACT involves vocabulary. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the exam is college level, but it is being given to 11th graders, many of whom are first-generation college students.

So, the system focuses on vocabulary building throughout elementary and secondary education, with students consistently challenged to learn new words.

Throughout high school, teachers are encouraged to create ACT-type questions for their regular tests. An ACT prep class is required for all juniors. And students are encouraged to take the ACT as many times as possible, which often results in improved scores.

According to Hayes, those scores mean something. A 26 on the ACT puts a student in the running for a substantial scholarship at Jacksonville State University, with even more generous scholarship benefits available to those who score higher.

College-bound or not, the high school offers students instruction in etiquette and soft skills. Every student is required to set up a Linked-In Account, develop a resume, and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Piedmont’s Career Tech educational offerings aren’t broad, but they start early, and are aligned with the needs of local employers, and, thus, offer opportunities for work placement. Also, an additional requirement –  that each student do at least some community service –serves to engage students in the real needs of the community.

Conclusion

Piedmont’s bold work with technology has undoubtedly benefited students in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology for educational delivery. At the same time though, Piedmont recognizes that technology can become a distraction if not utilized thoughtfully. To provide a complete education, you need teachers, well trained and open to growth and adaptation. You need students motivated to learn and engaged by the school and community. You need a destination and a methodical approach to getting there.  


Due to Covid, Fewer High School Grads Rate as College and Career Ready

Despite the pandemic, Alabama public schools maintained a high on-time graduation rate in 2020. However, the number and percentage of students meeting the state’s definition of college and career-ready fell by 4 percentage points, likely held back by missed opportunities due to the closure of schools in March 2020.

Because of the challenges posed by the pandemic, state policy allowed seniors to graduate as long as they were in good standing at the end of the third nine weeks of the 2020 school year (local systems made the final decision over who qualified for graduation). For this cohort of seniors, students who were 9th graders in 2017, 92% received a diploma in 2020.

However, when it came to college and career readiness measures, some of those seniors were unable to complete the requirements, as the final months of the 2020 school year were conducted online. Of that same cohort, 76% met the definition of college and career-ready established by the Alabama State Board of Education.

Other data suggest that fewer of those 2020 graduates enrolled in higher education after graduation. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education has reported a 10% decline in the number of Alabama high school graduates enrolling in higher education in the fall of 2020 compared to the previous year, with community college enrollment most affected. The enrollment decline had more to do with the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic than the decline in the college and career readiness rate (CCR rate).

Still, the CCR rate and the decline in higher education enrollment should be noted as the state seeks to make up for lost time and opportunity in the aftermath of the pandemic. Alabama’s 2020 high school graduation rate will likely be among the nation’s highest again. In 2019, Alabama’s reported federal graduation rate, 91.7%, was the highest in the nation. It was the culmination of a steep rise — Alabama’s graduation rate was 72% in 2011. Historically, the state’s graduation rate has been in the lower tier of states.

Despite the meteoric rise in the graduation rate, the CCR rate and other measures indicate that Alabama schools still have work to do when it comes to turning out prepared graduates. The State Department of Education has called on public schools and systems to close the gap between the graduation rate and the CCR rate. Ideally, every student should graduate ready to succeed in college or in advanced training that leads to higher-paying jobs. The CCR rate can also indicate the range of education and training opportunities available to students at a school or in a system and in normal conditions, serves as a gauge of the effectiveness of the educational program offered.

Gaps between school systems

When looking at local school systems, wide gaps remain even in the graduation rate. While 100% of students graduated from Piedmont and Oneota City Schools in 2020, only 69% of Bessemer seniors graduated on time.

The gaps are wide in college and career readiness as well. In 2020, 97% of Dale County seniors were rated as college or career ready, compared to only 25% of Bessemer seniors.

Gaps between student subgroups

Alabama’s graduation rate gap between the races and socio-economic groups has also narrowed at the state level. But when it comes to college and career readiness, gaps between the races and between socio-economic groups persist. For example, 84% of white seniors are rated college and career ready, while only 64% of Black seniors earn the distinction.

Does the CCR rate really matter?

To be counted as college and career ready, an Alabama high school student must meet at least one of six different indicators. In an official sense, a student’s status as college and career-ready doesn’t matter. It is not required for graduation. Neither colleges nor employers look for the rating on an individual’s resume.

On the other hand, some of the indicators have real-world implications for individuals. They can help an individual get into college, secure college credit, or successfully apply for a job. The chart below shows the percentage of seniors earning the college and career readiness distinction through each of the established measures. A detailed description of each of the measures follows the chart.

The changes in the percentage of students earning college and career readiness in each of the categories reflect changes in emphasis, investment, and effort. The changes can also reflect strategic choices by students or schools to pursue the easiest path for meeting college and career readiness requirements.

Below are the indicators of college and career readiness as established by the State Board of Education.

1. Score at or above the benchmark on one section of the ACT, the college-readiness test

In recent years, about 50% of students benchmarked on the ACT in at least one subject, most commonly English. According to ACT, a student who scores at or above the benchmark in a subject has a 50% chance of making a B in a college course in that same subject.

For the Class of 2020, only 46% of students made at least one benchmark score. With the coming of the pandemic, ACT had to cancel several test dates, which may have prevented some students from retaking the test and reaching the benchmark score. In light of that, many colleges and universities waived the ACT requirement for admission.

Still, the ACT results might also indicate that the disruption left some seniors less prepared for college.

2. Score Workforce Ready on the ACT WorkKeys test

In addition to its academically oriented college-readiness test, ACT offers WorkKeys, a standardized test that measures practical skills in math, language, and comprehension, skills as they might be applied in the workplace.

In 2019, 61% of seniors scored Silver or above on the WorkKeys, an indicator that they had the practical skills needed to function in most workplaces.

For the class of 2020, only 45% of seniors earned scored Silver or above. One potential reason for the drop is that schools are no longer required to give WorkKeys to every senior. Many systems, particularly those with an orientation toward college preparation, let students who scored college-ready on the ACT skip the WorkKeys test.

Also, for the Class of 2020, the WorkKeys was given in the Fall of 2019 as usual. But normally, spring re-tests offer opportunities for students to improve their scores. These re-tests were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

For some, that lack of opportunity to better their WorkKeys scores has implications. Employers in some regions of the state, particularly West Alabama, have come to value the WorkKeys results as a meaningful credential. But there is a remedy. For those graduates who want the credential, Alabama’s two-year colleges offer preparation and WorkKeys testing.

3. Score 3 or above on an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) end-of-course test

AP and IB are college-level courses offered in high schools led by a trained teacher, following a nationally standard curriculum. Scoring 3 or above (out of 5) on an end-of-course test can earn a student college credit in the corresponding college course. IB exams were canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. However, AP tests proceeded in an online format. Impressively, the percentage of seniors earning AP credit (11%) was only down 1 percentage point from the previous year.

4. Earn an industry-recognized credential through a Career Technical Education course

In 2020, 35% of seniors graduated having earned at least one industry-recognized credential. Considering that many of the credential certification tests don’t take place until the end of the year, it is impressive that the percentage of seniors earning a credential was only down two percentage points, from 37% in 2019.

Overall, the number of credentials earned in 2020 was down significantly compared to 2019 (final tallies are still being compiled). However, seniors appeared to have already earned credentials in prior years or earlier in the school year. The change to online instruction after March of 2020 disrupted the normal process of awarding credentials and closed some avenues for earning them. However, schools were encouraged to make a special effort to help seniors complete their industry-recognized credentials, an effort that appears to have been largely successful.

5. Earn college credit through dual enrollment

This is the one area that actually saw an increase, with 15% of graduating seniors earning college credit through dual enrollment in 2020 compared to 14% the year prior.

Dual enrollment, having high school students take classes for credit through universities or community colleges, has been gradually increasing in participation. Apparently, the courses were able to continue and be completed virtually.

6. Successfully enlist in the military

In 2020, 2% of graduating seniors enlisted in the military, a percentage that has been consistent for several years.

One notes trends in looking across the years at the variety of methods for achieving college and career readiness. The percentage of students CCR Ready on the ACT has been relatively flat. The percentage CCR Ready through WorkKeys has grown as schools and students have become more familiar with the test, though it fell back in 2020 thanks to changes in policy and disruptions. An increasing number and percentage of students have demonstrated college and career readiness through success in AP courses, dual enrollment, and in particular, participation in career technical education.

Different approaches to achieving college and career readiness

While a statewide analysis of college and career readiness measures provides some insight, a closer examination of local system results reveals that there is a tremendous variety in how different school systems approach college and career readiness for their students. For example, magnet schools and affluent suburban systems record high percentages of students earning benchmark scores on the ACT or AP. Systems with a close relationship with a local community college might offer more dual enrollment opportunities. At the same time, schools with strong career technical education programs might produce more college and career-ready students through that route.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for schools and students. Schools and students posted relatively minor and understandable declines on major performance measures like the high school graduation rate and the college and career ready rate.

However, at a time when the state has set lofty goals for raising the educational attainment level of the workforce, both the pandemic and underlying trends point to needed areas of focus.

Alabama’s high school graduation rate is high. Still, students need to graduate better prepared with meaningful credentials and solid evidence that they are ready for education and training beyond high school. In 2020, 24% of high school seniors failed to demonstrate college and career readiness, even by the relatively generous standards established by the Alabama State Board of Education.

Among Alabama high school graduates, an increasing number are not seeking higher education. Some of that may stem from a robust job market that is drawing graduates straight into the workforce. Some of the most recent drop is pandemic related. However, for individuals’ long-term prosperity and for the state’s economic future, our workforce needs increasing levels of education and training. There needs to be continued attention to building solid bridges between high school and the next level of opportunity. There is also an opportunity to reach out to recent graduates, particularly 2020 graduates affected by the pandemic, to make sure they have access to advanced education and training.


Work Readiness Test Results Affected by Covid and the Now-Optional Nature of the Test

Between 2015 and 2019, an increasing number and percentage of Alabama students earned high marks on the ACT’s WorkKeys, a standardized test designed to measure skills in workplace applications of reading, math, and graphical literacy. Results for the Class of 2020 can’t be compared to those prior years for two reasons:

  1. The test is now optional, and a much smaller percentage of 2020 seniors students took it.
  2. The Covid-19 pandemic canceled the spring window for retesting, an opportunity that usually led to higher scores.

So, within the senior class that graduated in 2020, 80% of high school seniors took WorkKeys compared to 93% of seniors the previous year. Those that take WorkKeys are awarded a National Career Readiness Certificate, the highest scoring earn a Platinum, with Gold, Silver, and Bronze level following down the scale. Of those who did take the test in 2020, 59% scored at the Silver level or above, compared to 66% for the Class of 2020.

Earning a Silver certificate or above on WorkKeys is one of the six ways an Alabama high school senior can prove that they are college and career-ready. Some systems made the test optional for students who had already demonstrated college and career readiness through qualifying ACT or AP scores, students who would have likely performed well on WorkKeys.

WorkKeys, as it is administered to high school seniors, consists of three tests: Applied Math, Workplace Documents, and Graphic Literacy. ACT works with employers to evaluate jobs and determine the level of reading, math, and comprehension skills each job requires. Research from ACT finds that someone earning a Silver-level WorkKeys certificate would have the basic skills necessary to function in 69% of the jobs they have profiled.

In West and Southwest Alabama, where economic development organizations have worked to familiarize businesses with WorkKeys, the credential is valuable. Employers, particularly in manufacturing, regard the scores as an indicator of a candidate’s ability to effectively function in the workplace. A student can use the credential when applying for a job with those employers that recognize what the credential means. The map depicts the counties that have worked with ACT to document the WorkReady credentials of their workforce and to educated local employers about the test.

However, in other areas of the state, where fewer employers are familiar with WorkKeys, and in school systems where almost all of the students are going to a four-year college, the WorkKeys assessment can be viewed as extraneous. In 2020, in Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, for instance, only 25% of the students opted to take the test in 2020.

Because the pool of students taking the test was significantly altered, the results shouldn’t be considered as part of a trend or a statewide indicator of performance. However, in schools and systems where almost all students take it, the information can be useful for communities evaluating the level of preparation the students are receiving.

The different nature of the WorkKeys test has tended to allow a slightly different set of schools and systems to show up as top performers in the state. In 2020, the top-performing system was Arab City Schools, where 90% of students scored earned a Silver or better. Hartselle City Schools placed second, with 84% of students scoring Silver or above. The default listing in the visualization shows only systems in which 90% of students took WorkKeys. The slide allows the viewer to adjust that percentage. Other controls allow exploration of other views of the data, changing the year, or looking at the results for a particular demographic subgroup.

Looking at the performance of individual schools, a familiar pattern is apparent. Magnet schools from the Montgomery, Huntsville, and Birmingham school systems top the list. But joining them in the Top 10 are Arab High School, Marengo County’s Sweet Water High School, Autauga County’s Billingsley High School, Fairhope High School, and Hoover’s Spain Park.

For a more fine-grained look at performance, the chart below breaks down the percentage of students scoring at each level on WorkKeys, ranging from the percentage earning a Platinum-level certificate to the percentage of students who took the test but failed to earn a certificate. Other views of the data are also available through the tabs at the top of the visualization.


Deaths Exceed Births but Surge in Domestic Migration Powers Alabama Population Growth

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate a growing number of people moving to Alabama prior to the Covid pandemic, which helped offset population loss due to a rising death rate and declining birth rate. The estimated number of net new domestic migrants was 13,115 in 2020, the largest inflow of the decade.

That estimate data, released earlier this month, is generated annually by the Bureau. Those estimates use the 2010 Census count as a base and attempt to capture population change by tracking births, deaths, and migration. The actual census count, conducted in 2020, showed even stronger growth than the estimates have indicated.

By April 1, 2020, Alabama’s statewide population had climbed above 5 million, according to the official 2020 Census enumeration. That total, 5,024,279, exceeds by more than 100,000 the Census Bureau’s estimate of Alabama’s population for July 1, 2020. Going forward, estimates will be re-calibrated using the Census count as a basis. On the basis of the count, Alabama kept all seven U.S. House Districts. According to the official Census count, Alabama added 244,543 residents since 2010.

According to the counts, Alabama’s population grew by 5% from 2010 to 2020. The Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia grew at about twice that rate, but Alabama grew faster than Mississippi, which lost population, and Louisiana and Arkansas, both of which grew at a rate of 3%. Florida’s population grew by 15%, adding a staggering 2.7 million new residents.

Components of Change

Though Census population estimates were off compared to the actual 2020 count, the estimates and components that drive the estimates provide insight into the drivers of population change in Alabama throughout this past decade. The newest estimates, released earlier this month, and the estimates from prior years present some patterns:

  • Over the course of the decade, Alabama birth rates fell, and death rates climbed as the population aged.
  • International migration provided growth in the early part of the decade.
  • As international immigration faltered in the final years of the decade, domestic migration to Alabama surged.

Aging and Fertility

The most fundamental elements of population change are births and deaths. Census estimates are based on the number of birth and death certificates issued, with some short-term projection built-in since there is a two-year lag in getting the actual county-level data..

According to Census estimates, over the course of the decade, Alabama and the U.S. saw a decline in the number and rate of births and a rise in the number and rate of deaths. For the first time in 2020, the Census Bureau estimated that more people died in Alabama than were born.

If the estimates accurately captured the trend, deaths will likely exceed births in Alabama again in 2021. The math that drives these numbers has to do with the size of generations and the size of families. Members of the Baby Boom Generation, the extra-large cohort born between 1945 and 1965, have entered years of increased mortality, causing a rise in the death rate. Meanwhile, younger generations, with fewer members, have had children later in life and are having fewer children. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic led to increased mortality, between March and July 1, 2020. The Census Bureau made a national-level adjustment for increased mortality from Covid-19 between March and July of 2020. That will factor into population change this year as well.

But the effects of these changes in fertility and mortality play out unevenly across the U.S. and across Alabama counties. Places that have attracted younger residents have a lower median age and a higher share of births. Places that are losing population tend to retain a higher share of older individuals and consequently see higher death rates. Birth rates are highest in the counties with urban centers, or universities, or cities’ suburbs. Death rates are highest in rural communities where the population is older. The social, ethnic, and racial composition of a community affects birth rates as well. Hispanic and Black families tend to have more children.

The visualization above allows you to explore how the differences play out in different states. The visualization below allows you to explore those differences among Alabama counties.

For example, Blount County has a pattern that reflects the state as a whole. However, using the selector on the right, toggle to Madison or Shelby County, and observe a different pattern: The number of deaths is still rising, but so is the number of births as young families move in, producing a positive rate of natural increase. Conecuh County, by contrast, shows a steep fall in births and a rise in deaths, producing a population decline through natural factors.

Migration

Beyond births and deaths, population change is driven by who is moving in and who is moving out, measures of migration. The Census Bureau develops estimates of movement within the United States (domestic migration) and between the U.S. and other counties (International migration). Over the past decade, general regional migration patterns emerged: Southern and Western states have gained through domestic migration. Northeastern states and California have gained through international migration. Rural counties in the interior South, Rust Belt, and the Plains States have seen moderate growth or some population decline. In the end, all states except Mississippi, Illinois, and West Virginia added population between 2010 and 2020, with gains concentrated in the cities and metropolitan, suburban counties, and retirement and recreational destinations.

According to the estimates, Alabama experienced two different periods of migration since 2010. In the first part of the decade, rising international in-migration offset weak growth and even population loss through domestic migration. Over a span of years, Alabama had more residents moving away than arriving from other states. But late in the decade, those factors flipped: a surge in domestic in-migration replaced faltering international immigration as the driver of population change.

Time will tell whether that surge in domestic migration will resume or even accelerate after the Covid pandemic. Early indications suggest it might. Unemployment in Alabama is down close to pre-pandemic levels, historic lows that should attract movers. There are indications that movements already underway are continuing and even accelerating. The Wall Street Journal analyzed data from permanent change of address forms filed with the U.S. Post Office. The results suggest that during the pandemic, there has been a movement out of dense urban areas in the Northeast towards the South and toward smaller metros and suburbs. The pandemic has accelerated retirements and migration to retirement destinations, adding fuel to the strong growth in Alabama’s Baldwin County, for instance.

As has been the case throughout the decade, estimates indicate that most of the growth in Alabama is occurring in a handful of counties, led by Baldwin and Madison, home to Huntsville. A second tier of growth magnets consists of Lee County, home of Auburn University; Shelby County, south of Birmingham; Limestone County, adjacent to Huntsville; and Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.

In the estimates for 2020, more counties in Huntsville’s orbit, including Colbert and Lauderdale in the Shoals and Morgan, are showing population gains. Meanwhile, in Southeast Alabama, counties around Dothan, including Houston and Coffee, appear to be picking up residents, as well.  

Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile counties all lost population in 2020, according to the estimates. All three counties have been net exporters of domestic migrants throughout the decade but have made up for the loss through natural increase and the arrival of residents from other countries. However, with the clampdown on immigration during the Trump years, made even more acute by the pandemic, all three counties saw sharper losses. That was particularly true in Jefferson, which had a rising number of deaths, a lower number of births, a depressed level of international immigration, and a higher net loss through domestic migration. Jefferson was estimated to have 3,197 fewer people living in the county in July 2020 than in July 2019, the biggest numeric loss among Alabama counties.

Dallas County continued to lose population with an estimated 1,084 fewer residents in 2020. According to the estimates, Dallas County had a population of 36,098 in 2020, a cumulative loss of 7,715 people since 2010. Dallas experienced the second-fastest rate of decline since 2010, 17.6%, among Alabama counties. Only Perry County, at 17.9%, had a greater rate loss. Perry’s population, estimated at 8,698 in 2020, is second lowest in Alabama, outranking only Greene County’s 7,990.

Prior to the pandemic, with unemployment at a historic low, Alabama was on the verge of a labor force shortage. Perhaps in response, the state appears to have begun drawing increased numbers of new residents. For Alabama to reach its economic potential, the state will need to continue to draw migrants. The existing population is aging, with the Baby Boom generation headed for retirement.

Drawing more workers into the state may help Alabama meet the goal established for the state workforce system: add 500,000 highly-skilled workers to its workforce by 2025. But reaching that goal will also require bringing more Alabamians back into the workforce, increasing labor force participation by increasing access to training and education.


ACT Scores Down for the Class of 2020

Average ACT scores for Alabama public high school graduates declined with the graduating class of 2020, with students now scoring lower than they did five years ago. The results mirror a national decline that cuts across gender, economic and demographic groups of students.

The scores reported here would not have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; 2020’s seniors would have taken the tests and applied for college before the disruption.

Interactive charts in this report allow you to explore the results at the state level and by system and school, subject, and year.

Statewide, the average composite score declined – from 18.9 to 18.6 on a 36-point scale – and the average score in each of the four subject areas – English, reading, math, and science – declined as well.

The data on which PARCA’s analysis is based was obtained from the Alabama Department of Education. The results consider the students’ best individual score by subject if the student took the test multiple times. 

Nationally, composite and subject scores all ticked down. The national average composite was 20.6, down from 20.7 in 2019. Alabama’s average score should not be compared to the national average score. Only half the nation’s high school graduates take the ACT, and the students who do are disproportionately likely to be headed to college. In Alabama, all public high school students take the test. But for both Alabama and the nation, this was the third year in a row of decline. For both, 2017 was the high point over the past five years—Alabama at 19.1, the nation at 21.

A better score comparison is to other states where all public high school students take the ACT. Among those 15 states, average ACT scores range from 20.2 in Utah to 17.9 in Nevada. Alabama is tied with North Carolina for the No. 10 ranking among those 15 states.

For reference, the average ACT for students entering Alabama colleges ranges from a composite score of 18 at Alabama State and Alabama A&M to 28 at Auburn and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

ACT also reports the percentage of students scoring at or above the college-ready benchmark in each subject. Only 16.3% of Alabama students scored at or above the benchmark in all four subjects in 2020. According to ACT, students scoring at or above the benchmark in a subject have a 50% chance of earning a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding introductory college course. Just under half of Alabama students, 48%, scored college-ready in English, but the ACT results indicated that only 21% were ready for success in a college-level math course.

ACT scores are also reported by demographic and economic subgroup. The data points to lingering disparities in scores between non-economically disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged students, between Asian, white, Black, and Hispanic students, and between males and females. But all groups saw scores decline in 2020.


Fewer Alabama Students Assigned to Remedial Education

The number and percentage of Alabama public high school graduates assigned to remedial courses upon entering college continued to decline in 2019, one measure of academic progress for K-12 schools and Alabama’s public higher education system.

Remedial classes are non-credit college courses covering material students should have learned in high school. Alabama’s Community College System (ACCS) has recently developed alternatives to those courses, and the decline is attributable to those schools. According to ACCS, not only are fewer students being placed in remedial courses, but also passage rates in introductory courses have risen. Meanwhile, the number of students assigned to remedial courses at four-year colleges has increased modestly.

The data comes from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the state higher education coordinating board. ACHE works with K-12 and colleges to follow the progression of Alabama high school graduates into Alabama public colleges.

The data provides feedback to high schools about how prepared their graduates are and can give colleges insight for improving student success.  Use the tabs in the visualization to explore the data. Compare the performance of graduates from your local high school or system.

This remediation data is the final dataset that looks back on students who graduated in the Spring of 2019. For that school year, PARCA previously published analyses of standardized tests, performance on ACT and WorkKeys, graduation and college and career readiness, and on college-going.

Progress Toward an Educational Goal

Decreasing the number of Alabama public high school graduates needing remediation in college was a goal identified in Alabama’s strategic plan for education, Plan 2020, adopted in 2012.

Remedial education is considered a waste of money for both the state and the individuals paying for higher education. Remedial courses cover material that should be covered in high school. Remedial classes cost students tuition and fees but do not produce credits that count toward graduation. By avoiding remedial courses, students are able to complete college work in a more timely fashion and at less cost.

A combination of factors have likely driven the decline in remediation. Factors include:

  1. Policy changes at two-year colleges that prescribe tutoring alongside introductory college classes, rather than assignment to a remedial class.
  2. Better preparation of students in K-12.
  3. Changes in college-going rates due to the high job availability.

The declines have been equal in reading and math. In 2013, 26% of students required remedial math, and 17% required remedial English. With the class of 2019, only 20% required remedial math, and 11% required remedial English.

Community Colleges Providing Alternatives

In 2018, The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) made system-wide changes designed intentionally to reduce the number of students enrolled in developmental or remedial courses. Students were still assessed for their levels of academic preparation upon enrollment, but, instead of being assigned to either regular or remedial courses, the system used a new tiered placement model. One innovation was enrolling students who needed extra support in a corequisite/tutorial course alongside college-level Math or English. Since the change, the number of students in remedial classes has declined, but the percentage of students passing gateway English and math has increased.  

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Are entering college students better prepared?

Since 2012, Alabama has pursued multiple strategies to improve K-12 education and to produce high school graduates who are better prepared for college and career.

Most directly tied to college preparation, the state has increased support for dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take courses at colleges, and for Advanced Placement courses, college-level courses taught by high school faculty members. Thanks to additional funding, the number of Advanced Placement Courses offered has increased. Much of that expansion has been in schools with higher numbers of economically disadvantaged students. The success rate on AP tests remained constant between 2013 and 2019, indicating that the expansion was maintaining quality while expanding opportunity.

Despite those efforts, scores for Alabama high school graduates on the ACT, the college-readiness test given to all students, have been flat to slightly declining. And while the number of students assigned to remediation has decreased in the two-year system, as noted, the number of remedial students has risen at four-year colleges.    

Are a different mix of students attending college?

Another factor that may be affecting the remediation rate is the choices high school graduates are making about college. Since 2014, the percentage of high school graduates going directly to college has declined from 65% to 58% in 2019. (See PARCA’s analysis of college-going trends). Over that period, Alabama’s high school graduation rate and the number of graduates produced has increased. Most of the enrollment decline has been in the two-year system. Community colleges tend to see enrollment declines when the economy is growing, and the demand for workers is high. In the fall of 2019, when Alabama’s unemployment rate was at a historic low, enrollment in the community college system dipped below 80,000, down from over 90,000 earlier in the decade as the state was emerging from the Great Recession.

It may be that a greater share of the high school graduates who would have needed remediation in college have instead gone straight into the workforce.

Conclusion

Remediation is needed for students enrolling with a major gap in their readiness for college. Given the open admissions policy in the two-year system and for some four-year colleges, remedial courses continue to play a role in higher education. For others who need some help rising to the level of college coursework, it benefits students and schools to provide alternatives to remediation. The most straightforward solution is to improve preparation in high school, and those efforts should continue. The two-year system’s strategy to provide simultaneous tutoring rather than sequential remedial courses appears to benefit students, increasing passing and progression rates. The model ACCS has developed should also be explored for replication at four-year colleges.


Alabama’s College-Going Rate Declines With the Class of 2019

Even before the arrival of the Coronavirus, the number and percentage of Alabama high school graduates entering higher education after graduation was falling.

According to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the college-going rate for the Class of 2019 declined to 58%, the lowest percentage of high school graduates going into higher education over the past five years. The rate likely won’t recover soon. Indications are that the pandemic drove down enrollment even further in 2020.

See the college-going rate for your local high school or school system, or see college-going rates on an interactive map.

The 2019 decline in college-going likely reflected a strong economy and historically low unemployment rate. Enrollment losses were concentrated in the two-year college population. Enrollment in two-year colleges tends to fall when jobs are plentiful, and high school graduates have an immediate opportunity to go into the workforce. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2019, the number of Alabama high school graduates going on to four-year college increased slightly.

ACHE produces college-going statistics for Alabama high school graduates by querying the National Student Clearinghouse, which gathers student enrollments at colleges and universities across the country. The information is important because it provides information about the likely direction of educational attainment in the state and in local communities. Producing college and career-ready graduates and propelling them into advanced technical training or college degrees is a key priority for the state.

Downward Trend Likely to Continue in the Near Term

In a separate survey, ACHE gathers the overall fall enrollment from all Alabama public colleges. The results of the 2020 survey provide a glimpse of what college-going might look like for the Class of 2020. According to that data, the 2019 decline at two-year colleges was followed by an even steeper decline in 2020 of an additional 6 percent, as new graduates and schools navigated the pandemic, according to a separate set of data collected by ACHE.

The college-going rate drop presents a challenge in Alabama’s drive to add 500,000 highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025. Community colleges are key to producing some of the most in-demand certifications and credentials.

Despite their affordability, convenience, and centrality to the skills-based training increasingly called for by prominent Alabama employers, two-year colleges have seen enrollments decline steadily over the past decade from 93,720 in 2011 to 79,938 in 2019. Preliminary fall enrollment in 2020 was 69,814.

Where High School Graduates Go?

Alabama’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 92% percent in 2019, but, according to ACHE’s data, the 2019 graduation year also produced the highest number of graduating students, since 2011, who didn’t go on to higher education.

ACHE followed 50,840 high school graduates in the year after they graduated in 2019.

  • 29,384, or 58%, enrolled in higher education
  • 15,376 enrolled in four-year colleges
  • 14,008 enrolled in two-year colleges
  • 21,456 were not found to have enrolled
  • 90% of enrollees went to a college in Alabama
  • 92% went to a public college

College-Going Patterns

  • Magnet schools and suburban school systems send higher percentages of students to four-year colleges.
    • Three Montgomery County magnet high schools rank in the top 10 for college-going, along with Birmingham’s Ramsay High School, which is also a magnet. Suburban high schools like Mountain Brook, Vestavia-Hills, Hewitt-Trussville, and Hoover also rank in the top 10, along with Huntsville High School, a non-magnet high school in an urban system.
  • Some rural and non-metro counties and systems achieve high college-going rates based on high enrollment in the local community college.
    • Arab, Opp, and South Lamar High School rank in the top 20 for college-going due to the strength of their community college enrollments.
  • Rural counties isolated from population centers and urban high schools in high poverty neighborhoods tend to have the lowest college-going rates.

Outliers

While generalizations about performance can be made, some schools are outliers. The chart below compares Alabama high schools’ college-going rate (the vertical axis) with the student body’s poverty rate (the horizontal axis). The higher a school is on the chart, the higher the percentage of students who leave high school and enter college—the farther to the right on the chart, the lower the level of poverty. The slanted line in the middle is the average of the values, which forms a line of prediction. In general, the college-going rate rises as the student body poverty rate gets lower.

However, some schools outperform the level at which they would be predicted to perform based on the economic status of students. In 2019, examples included high schools like Wadley High School in Randolph County, Linden High School, Thomasville High School, and RA Hubbard High School in Lawrence County.

Why does it matter?

Alabama, as a state, and communities within Alabama would benefit from higher levels of educational attainment. Higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of income, better health, and longer life. States with higher levels of educational attainment have higher per capita income.

The tabs above the chart allow navigation to a variety of measures of college-going and educational attainment at the school, the system, the county, and the state level. The statistics are presented in graphics, tables, and maps.


Corporal Punishment in Alabama and the US

Significantly fewer students are receiving corporal punishment in Alabama, according to a new dataset released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and analyzed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Still, Alabama paddles more students than almost any other state. Alabama is one of only 11 states where corporal punishment was used more than 100 times statewide in 2018. 1

According to the data, 9,168 students in Alabama K-12 public schools received corporal punishment in the 2017-2018 school year. That ranks Alabama No. 3 behind Mississippi and Texas in the number of students who were subject to corporal punishment. Across the U.S. almost 70,000 students were reported to have received corporal punishment in 2018, compared to almost 100,000 in 2016. Alabama’s number of reported paddlings dropped by more than 7,000, from 16,542 in 2016. That was the largest numerical decline among the states. Ten fewer Alabama school systems reported paddling students.

Why Is This Important?

PARCA provides analysis so public agencies can understand their policies in a wider context and identify best practices in order to improve performance for public schools, much of that analysis centers on student outcomes like graduation and on standardized tests. But beyond academic preparation, success in school is influenced by student behavior and a school’s response to misbehavior.

Last year, PARCA examined the use of out-of-school suspensions in school discipline. Educational research shows that out-of-school suspensions lead to missed instructional time and disengagement. Out-of-school suspensions have been linked to lower levels of achievement and higher dropout rates.2

Proponents view corporal punishment as a more efficient alternative. It has been found to effectively motivate students to comply with school rules in the short term. However, research shows that corporal punishment does not appear to change behavior in the long run, can adversely affect achievement, and may legitimize physical violence as retribution in school and society. 3

Questions of equity also arise. The data show Black students face a higher rate of punishment than white students in both suspensions and corporal punishment. A higher percentage of disabled students are paddled compared to non-disabled students. In recent years, most states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, have banned corporal punishment on disabled students.

National Trend Away From Corporal Punishment

The fall in the use of corporal punishment in Alabama and across the country is the continuation of a long-term trend and coincides with increasing calls for ending physical punishments in schools.4

Between 1971 and 2011, 30 states outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. New Jersey banned the practice in 1867.5

In 2016, then-U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. wrote to governors and state education chief executives urging them to end corporal punishment in public schools, citing research that finds physical punishment ineffective and counter-productive.

The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have long recommended against the use of corporal punishment in schools. In 2018, the AAP issued a strongly-worded recommendation against any adults, including parents, using physical force to attempt to modify children’s behavior.

“Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term,” the Academy wrote. “With new evidence, researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children.”

Still Supported, Practiced, Particularly in the Rural South

However, corporal punishment continues to have supporters in local communities and in state legislatures. It is most common in rural, non-metropolitan school districts. Proponents argue that it is a decisive intervention that avoids separating students from school and classes, as does out-of-school suspension. Attempts to ban the practice in additional states have fallen short. Proposals for a statewide ban were considered but failed to pass in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina in recent years.  

Corporal punishment in public schools is still legal in 19 states, though in 8 of those states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Indiana, Utah, and Kansas), it is rarely, if ever used. In 2018, the 11 states where more than 100 students were corporally punished were concentrated in the Southeast, overlapping with the membership of the Southeastern Conference.

In terms of the percentage of students receiving corporal punishment, 1% of all Alabama students were paddled in 2018, ranking Alabama No. 3 behind Mississippi and Arkansas. But some schools don’t use corporal punishment. Looking only at the universe of schools where corporal punishment is practiced, 4% of Alabama students attending corporal punishment schools were paddled, which ranks behind Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Only a small number of schools use corporal punishment in Missouri, but the corporal punishment rate is high in those schools.

A Higher Percentage of Blacks and Disabled Students Receive Corporal Punishment

More whites than Blacks receive corporal punishment, and more non-disabled students are paddled than disabled. However, as a percentage of their enrollment in schools where corporal punishment is practiced, a higher percentage of Black students were subjected to corporal punishment in 2018 than white students.

The same is true for disabled students. A higher percentage of disabled students than non-disabled students were subject to corporal punishment, according to the 2018 data. In recent years, states have begun to ban corporal punishment of students with disabilities, including Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

The data on corporal punishment comes from the biennial reports submitted by schools to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The reports gather a wide range of data from enrollment characteristics, to funding, to course offering and participation, to the application of various forms of discipline.

In Alabama, 223,000 students, or 30% of the state’s public school population, are enrolled in schools where corporal punishment is practiced. Alabama had a total of 1,384 schools submitting reports; 470 of them reported that corporal punishment was used in 2018.

The following dashboards can be used to explore the use of corporal punishment in Alabama in the 2018 data, explore maps, rankings by system and school, and make a closer examination of statistics for individual schools.

Non-Punitive Alternatives

A number of schools and systems in Alabama and around the country are increasingly turning to non-punitive measures that are more directly targeting underlying causes of student misbehavior and have been found to decrease disciplinary referrals. Examples include:

  • Caring School Communities model 6
  • Character education (see character.org)
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) 7
  • Pre-K early childhood education

Among these approaches, PBIS has the strongest body of evidence, though in recent years the Caring Schools Community model, programs integrating academic and social-emotional learning, and student character education are showing promising results. PARCA is currently evaluating programs in Alabama associated with these models. PARCA’s pre-k research also suggests that students participating in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K are less likely to be cited for disciplinary infractions than students who did not participate.


A Congressional Seat in Danger

The big count with major consequences for Alabama continues, and it looks like it will come down to a very tight margin.

The decennial census for 2020, the official count of people living in the United States, is expected to be released in February. But in the meantime, in December, the Census Bureau released its annual population estimates for the states. According to those estimates, as of July 1, 2020, Alabama’s population would be just high enough to keep its current seven representatives in the U.S. House. In that scenario, New York would lose a seat.

However, the estimates don’t count; the Census does. And it is the population as of April 1 that matters when calculating each state’s proportional representation in Congress.

How will the count and estimates differ, particularly considering that the count (and the estimates’ calculations) took place in the time of a pandemic, with all the disruptions, delays, and difficulties that accompanied it?

And not only that. This Census count took place in a fog of unprecedented controversy over who the Census is supposed to count and how it might be used to determine apportionment. Judging by the estimates, Alabama and New York are the two states closest to the line for losing or gaining a seat.

Alabama vs New York

Alabama added a net total of 13,567 residents between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020, bringing the state’s total population to 4,921,532, according to the estimates released in December.

Using those figures in an apportionment calculator created by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Alabama would maintain its seventh Congressional seat, but only by a margin of 6,210 residents. Under that scenario, the state of New York, which is losing population, would lose 2 Congressional seats. According to the estimates, New York suffered a net loss of 126,355 residents between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020.

Where did the two states stand three months earlier, on April 1? And how closely will the count correspond to the estimates? The count is supposed to tally the population before a spike in deaths in New York caused by Covid-19 and before an exodus from the city due to the extreme outbreak there. If by April 1, Alabama had not achieved its needed net gain in population, or if New York’s population hadn’t seen its big drop, the tables might turn. New York might lose just one seat, and Alabama might lose one.

Looking Back Over the Decade

Looking back over a decade, the estimates had Alabama growing moderately throughout the decade, with stronger growth relative to other states in the most recent years. In percentage growth, Alabama’s growth ranked 26 among the 50 states in 2020.

In the middle part of the decade, Alabama’s annual growth rate lagged, ranging between 0.25% to 0.23%. Between 2018 and 2020, the annual growth rate bumped up, ranging between 0.28% and 0.33%.

Southeastern Comparison

According to the estimates, Alabama’s growth rate was 3% over the course of the decade, adding 141,414 residents. That’s a stronger rate of growth than Mississippi and Louisiana, tied with Kentucky, and just behind Arkansas. The gap with other Southern states is wider: Tennessee grew 9% over the course of the decade: Georgia, 11%; North Carolina, 11%; and South Carolina, 13%. In 2010, Alabama’s population exceeded South Carolina’s population by 150,000. By 2020, South Carolina’s population was estimated to have exceeded Alabama by almost 200,000.

In terms of numeric change, Mississippi was estimated to have lost a net total of 1,343 residents between 2010 and 2020, while Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Alabama gained between 100 and 150,000. Meanwhile, South Carolina and Tennessee each added over 500,000 residents; Georgia and North Carolina over 1 million and Florida, almost 3 million.

The South Region, as the Census defines it, was the fastest-growing region in the U.S. Beyond the Southeastern states, the Census South Region includes growth hotspots Texas, Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. It also includes West Virginia, which lost population at a faster rate, 4%, than any other state. Illinois suffered the greatest net loss in population, 244,042, over the course of the decade.