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This brief continues PARCA’s tradition of reporting college-going rates for Alabama and its local systems and schools.
The percentage of high school graduates in Alabama enrolling in college after graduating in 2018 remained the same as the graduating class of 2017, at 62%. The number and percentage attending two-year colleges slightly increased. The number and percentage of recent graduates entering four-year colleges both slightly decreased.
The data, drawn by ACHE from the National Student Clearinghouse, follows Alabama public high school students who graduated in the spring of 2018 and enrolled in higher education in the fall or spring of 2019. The data includes records for in-state and out-of-state institutions, both public and private.
Over the past five years, the college-going rates for Alabama’s high school graduates have declined slightly. In 2014, the first year this set of statistics was produced, 65% of high school graduates enrolled in college the year after their graduation. In both 2017 and 2018, 62% of graduates enrolled.
At the same though, the size of the senior classes has been larger and graduation rates have been higher. That has produced more high school graduates going into college.
While 2018’s 62% college-going rate is tied for the lowest rate over this five year period, the actual number of graduates enrolling in college increased in 2018 compared to 2017. Only in 2016 did more students attend college, 31,414 in 2016, compared to 31, 337 students in 2018.
At the same time though, the larger classes of seniors and higher graduation rates have resulted in greater numbers of students graduating with a high school diploma but not immediately continuing their education. Among graduates of the Class of 2018, 19,191 did not enroll in higher education after graduating high school.
After a dip in 2017, the number of students going to community colleges increased while fewer attended four-year institutions.
Alabama’s public high school graduating class of 2018 totaled 50, 528, which is 764 students more than the Class of 2017. Among those graduates, 16,085 (32%), enrolled in a two-year community college, according to the data. That’s 951 students more than the previous year and the highest number over the past five years.
Enrollment of graduates in four-year colleges decreased from 15,804 in 2017 to 15,252 in 2018, down 552 students (30% of graduates). The total number going to public 4-year colleges in Alabama dipped by 122. The overwhelming majority, 93% of those who enrolled, went to Alabama institutions, and 92% to a public college or university.
The remaining 19,191 high school graduates, 38% of graduates, were not found to have enrolled in higher education. That’s an increase of 365 in the number of students graduating from high school but not enrolling in higher education the following year.
Local Systems and Schools
It is helpful to explore results for individual schools and school systems, which sometimes tells you more about what’s happening underneath the statewide aggregated view.
Additional charts focus on the percentage of students attending four-year colleges by system and school, and the percentage attending two-year colleges at the system and school level, as well as change over time.
The top five systems sending students to four-year colleges includes:
Mountain Brook City: 86%
Vestavia Hills: 79%
Homewood City: 71%
Hoover City: 64%
Trussville City: 59%
The top five systems sending students to two-year colleges includes:
Lamar County: 67%
Boaz City: 69%
Roanoke City: 60%
Marion County: 57%
Winfield City and Winston County: 55%
Change in the percentage of students enrolling in higher education from the graduating class of 2014 to the class of 2018 highly varied across systems and schools, ranging from 32 percent growth for Sheffield City to a reduction of 25 percentage points for Tarrant City. The systems with the highest growth include:
Sheffield City: 32% growth
Anniston City: 16% growth
Clay County: 14% growth
Conecuh County: 13% growth
Roanoke City: 11% growth
Is Your School Adding Value?
Socio-economic conditions are always influential in shaping college-going. A scatterplot is included which presents the college-going rate of Alabama high schools in the context of the poverty percentage at each school. The higher on the chart a school appears, the higher the percentage of its graduates enrolled in college. The farther to the right a school is positioned, the lower the percentage of students in poverty at that school. The poverty measure used is the percentage of students who directly qualified for a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program.
Note that those schools and systems above the line in the scatterplot are exceeding expectations for college-going given their level of poverty, and those below the line are below expectations. Those right on the line or close to it are performing as expected.
Explore the tabs to see a variety of data visualizations, including maps, charts, and tables at the state and local level. Below is an example of a map bringing these issues to light with a statewide geographical view.
Help Wanted: Alabama’s Labor Force Participation Problem
Alabama has record low unemployment, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
And yet, the percentage of Alabamians actually
working is lower than almost any other state.
This seeming paradox explains, in part, why Alabama has lower per capita income than most other states and higher rates of poverty, despite those historically low unemployment numbers. To be counted as unemployed, you have to be looking for work, or in other words, participating in the labor force.
In 2018, Alabama’s labor force participation rate was lower than all other states, except West Virginia (we’re tied with Mississippi). As measured by the American Community Survey, 71% of Alabamians, ages 25-64, were working or looking for work. That compares to the U.S. labor force participation rate of 78% for that age group.
If Alabama’s labor force participation rate equaled that national average, Alabama would have almost 160,000 additional workers in the workforce in that age range.
Increasing the state’s labor force participation rate is one of the key objectives identified by Success Plus for helping Alabama meet its goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025. The state will not reach that goal without bringing significant numbers of those who have dropped out of the workforce back in, which in most cases means equipping them with supplemental education and skills needed to thrive in today’s work environment.
Who is missing?
Before we can bring people back into the workforce, we have to understand who’s missing in the first place, and which groups of Alabamians have dropped out at a higher rate than residents of other states.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) for 2018, PARCA examined the labor force participation in Alabama in comparison to other states and to the nation as a whole. We used five-year estimates because that survey provides estimates for smaller counties not present in the one-year estimates.
A comparison of one-year estimates yields similar results. However, it should be noted that in the 2018 one-year estimates, labor force participation in Alabama did show an increase over 2017, from 70.5% to 71.4%, after a multi-year downward drift. Whether that is a result or the economy or policy focus, it would be hard to determine, but, hopefully, it is part of a trend. For comparison, before the Great Recession, Alabama’s labor force participation rate was 75% for that age group and the national rate was 80%.
Sharpest differences with the rest of the U.S.: Age, Income, and Disability
Alabama trails the rest of the U.S. labor force participation rate across the board. When you break the population down into subgroups by age, sex, race, economic condition, or educational attainment, in almost every subgroup, Alabama’s rate trails the U.S. rate. However, in some subgroups, the divergence from the national rate is particularly sharp.
In comparison to the same population groups in other states, older Alabamians and Alabamians with lower levels of education are less likely to participate in the labor force, according to Census figures. Alabamians with a disability are also less likely to participate in the workforce than their counterparts in other states. The labor force participation rate for those groups is roughly 10% lower in Alabama than it is for similar individuals across the U.S.
The gap with the U.S is most extreme when it comes to individuals with less than a high school education. In Alabama, only 49% of individuals who lack a high school diploma are working or looking for work. That compares to a labor force participation rate of 61% nationally for those with less than a high school education.
Older workers in Alabama are also disproportionately out of the workforce. The labor force participation rate of those 60 to 64 is 10 percentage points lower in Alabama than it is in the rest of the country: 46% of Alabamians ages 60-64 participate in the labor force compared to 56% nationally. For those between 55-59, Alabama’s labor force participation rate is 63% compared to 72% nationally.
Age remains a factor in those between the ages of 45 and 54; Alabama’s rate is almost 7 percentage points lower than the U.S. average. For those 44 and younger, the gap between the Alabama workforce participation rate is narrower, though Alabama’s rate is still 3 to 4 percentage points lower than the U.S. rate.
You find a similar pattern with educational credentials: the more education an Alabamian has, the more likely he or she is to participate in the workforce. As the education level rises, the gap with the U.S. rate closes: 84% of Alabamians with a bachelor’s degree or higher participate in the workforce compared to 86% nationally.
When it comes to individuals who report having a disability, Alabama also has lower rates of labor force participation than other states, with the labor force participation rate among disabled individuals in Alabama trailing the national average by 9%.
You can explore state and national rates of workforce participation in the map below. Use the selector at the top to choose the population group to measure.
The impact of Alabama’s labor force participation deficit in these subgroups is amplified because Alabama’s population is older, less educated, and more disabled than the country as a whole. Alabama’s median age is 38.7 compared to 37.8 in the US; 25% of Alabamians have a 4-year degree compared to 32% across the country; 11.6% of Alabama’s population reported a disability compared to 8.6% nationwide.
What does not impact our labor force participation rate
Alabama’s racial diversity does not affect the state’s labor force participation rate, though if Alabama was more diverse, our labor force participation rate might be higher.
Non-Hispanic whites (ages 16 and up) have the lowest labor force participation rate of the major racial and ethnic groups, just under 57%, lagging non-Hispanic whites nationally by 5.4 percentage points. Blacks in Alabama have a labor force participation rate of just over 57%, lagging the U.S. rate by 5.2 percentage points. Alabama Hispanics have a labor force participation rate of 67%, which is less than a percentage point difference from the U.S. labor force participation rate for Hispanics.
It is sometimes assumed that Alabama’s supposed preference for traditional gender roles might depress the labor force participation rate for females in Alabama compared to the rest of the U.S. However, if those attitudes produce any effect, it is slight. The female labor participation rate in Alabama is 66.4%, trailing the national average by 6.2 percentage points. That’s only slightly higher than the gap for males. The male labor force participation rate in Alabama, 76.6%, trails the U.S. rate by 5.6 percentage points. In fact, one subset of the female population in Alabama participates in the workforce at a higher rate than the U.S. rate. Alabama females with children under 6 are more likely to be in the workforce than similarly situated women nationwide. According to the Census figures, 71.4% of those mothers participate in the labor force.
Alabama’s rural counties have the lowest labor force participation rates. Meanwhile, the most urbanized and affluent of Alabama counties have the highest rates of labor force participation.
One might conclude that it would be best to recruit workers back into the workforce by targeting rural counties where labor force participation is lowest. However, this neglects the fact that the largest population of workers who aren’t participating in the workforce are in metropolitan counties. That’s also where unemployment is lowest and jobs are clustered. Both rural and metropolitan counties need strategies for increasing labor force participation.
The visualization below allows you to calculate how many additional workers could be added to the workforce in the selected geography if that geography matched the U.S. labor force participation rate for the selected subgroup. The two subgroups selectors on the dashboard, one for the subgroup population and one for the subgroup labor force participation rate must be set to the same subgroup to produce accurate calculations.
2019 Test Results for State Schools Show Little Change in Student Proficiency Levels
Alabama is scheduled to implement its new state education tests this spring. In the meantime, statewide results from the Scantron assessment in 2019 have been released by the Alabama State Department of Education. They show little change from 2018. In both years, less than half of Alabama public school students in grades three through eight scored proficient in reading and math.
For the state as a whole, 47% of students were proficient in math in 2019 and 2018, and 46% were proficient both years in reading.
The overall proficiency rate for science in 2019 was 37%, a very slight decrease from 38% in 2018.
This comes at a time when Alabama’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has dropped.
New State Assessments
2019 is the second year of data from Scantron, which in 2018 replaced ACT Aspire as the primary state assessment used for measuring academic progress in Alabama public schools since 2013-2014. In June 2017, the State Board of Education voted to cancel Alabama’s contract with ACT and move toward developing another set of tests, which are scheduled to be launched in the spring of this school year, 2019-20. In the meantime, the state continued to assess performance in grades three through eight using tests provided by the Scantron testing company.
Scantron Statewide Results for 2019
Comparing Subjects. Selecting the first tab above shows that among the three subjects assessed with Scantron, once again in 2019, math generated the highest percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency (47%) across grades 3-8 combined. Reading was not far behind at 46% proficient. Similarly, from 2014 through 2017 math generated the highest percent proficient among students taking ACT Aspire, though the gap between math and reading was larger.
Under Aspire, math made ongoing progress each year climbing from 40% proficient in 2014 to 48% in 2017. The increase from 40% with Aspire to 47% with Scantron seems about normal.
In contrast, reading proficiency under Aspire showed little change each year rising from 39% in 2014 and to 40% in 2017. The jump for reading from 40% with Aspire to 46% with Scantron was more significant than the change between tests in math.
In 2019, the Scantron science assessment continued to generate the lowest proficiency rate among the three subjects tested, at 37% proficient, as it did in 2018 with 38% proficient.
Comparing Grade Levels. The second and third panels above provide grade level comparisons. Differences in math proficiency by grade for 2019 and 2018 are minimal. Across all grades under Scantron and Aspire, math proficiency levels are at their highest in the third grade, following the trend in which reported proficiency levels drop in the higher grades. This pattern is less substantial when looking at a particular cohort of students moving from grade-to-gradebut still applies.With both Scantron and Aspire, math proficiency drops sharply in the seventh grade, though less dramatically under Scantron in both 2019 and 2018.
Third-grade math is the one grade and subject each year in which the majority of students meet or exceed the benchmark for proficiency. In 2019, 58% were proficient in third-grade math, up slightly over 57% in 2018. This level of proficiency is very similar to Aspire’s third-grade math results, which grew from 52% in 2014 to 59% in 2017. After third grade, though, math proficiency drops, winding up at 45 percent of students demonstrating proficiency by 8th grade.
Reading proficiency in 2019, using Scantron, shows a steady drop from 48% proficient in the third grade to 43% in the 8th grade. This reflects very little change from 2018, in which proficiency ranged from 48% in the third grade to 44% in the 8th grade. Though proficiency levels get lower in the higher grades, they are not dramatically lower as found in math. The more dramatic grade-by-grade drop-in math proficiency was evident in Aspire as well, though even more pronounced.
Why are proficiency levels dropping from grade to grade? First, a decrease at the higher grade levels is normal. During the early grades, math and reading are focused on helping young students learn basic skills, but in the higher grades, math becomes more complex and introduces algebra. Reading instruction also becomes more demanding as students move from learning to read to reading for understanding. Attitudes about external state assessments among younger students in the earlier grades could also be different from students in the higher grades.
But why the difference between reading and math? The less dramatic reduction in proficiency levels in reading from grade to grade might suggest that either students are more effective in learning the basics in reading as a foundation for later grades or that the material in math becomes harder to master and teach. Like many places, the demand for math teachers in Alabama far exceeds the supply of available, qualified math teachers. Proficiency scores on the state Aspire math test for tenth graders significantly dropped from earlier grades to as low as 18% proficient in 2016-17, compared to 33% in reading. Tenth-grade proficiency is not assessed under Scantron. Furthermore, high school ACT scores in Alabama for college admission are higher in reading than in math.
Science is a little different. The drop in proficiency among students in the higher grades takes on a different pattern in science. In 2015, Alabama only tested science in the tenth grade, and 21% tested as proficient or above. In 2015 and 2016, grades three through eight and grade ten were tested. Proficiency levels actually increased from grade-to-grade in grades three through six, with the peak level of proficiency in the 6th grade, then began dropping in the 7th grade, reaching the lowest level in the tenth grade. In Aspire’s last year (2016-17), science was tested in grades 5, 7 and 10. Proficiency levels dropped in each higher grade, as would be expected from past performance in these grades. Finally, under Scantron science was tested in grades 5 and 7, dropping from 40% (grade 5) to 35% (grade 7) in 2018, and from 39% to 35% in 2019.
The low scores in science are worthy of concern, for Alabama and the nation. Though reading and math are more fundamentally essential, science relates to problem-solving skills, reasoning, curiosity, critical thinking, good measurement skills, and applied learning. Through science, a student can learn more about the world around them and better prepare for careers in technology, engineering, agriculture, advanced manufacturing, and health services. These are important skills for the workforce of tomorrow in Alabama.
Focus on Third Grade Reading and the Alabama Literacy Act
Early reading is a pivotal predictor of academic success. Children who learn to read in the early years have a foundation that will help them in other subjects. Early brain development and schooling through grade three are extremely important in shaping a person’s education and life chances. The figure above shows the percentage of students in each of the four proficiency categories for third grade reading from 2014 through 2019. Scantron labels used in 2018 and 2019 for the different levels of proficiency are listed below:
Level 1 (Red—Emerging Learner)
Level 2 (Yellow—Developing Learner)
Level 3 (Light Green—Proficient Learner)
Level 4 (Dark Green—Distinguished Learner)
Students who achieve proficiency or above are in Levels 4 and 3 (dark green and light green). Similar to a traffic light, these colors signal “go.” This is followed by yellow (“use caution”) and red (“stop”).
The Figure above shows that21%of third-graders read at the lowest level in 2019. Under Aspire, in 2017 that percentage was 39%. It will be interesting to see how this comes out in the new assessment.
To address the high percentage of students not reading with proficiency, in 2019 the Alabama Legislature adopted the Alabama Literacy Act.
The Literacy Act refocuses attention on early reading in kindergarten through third grade, with the expectation that all students should be able to read by the end of the third grade. Beginning in the 2021–22 school year, students falling into the lowest group in reading may be at risk of being retained. Though minority students will be disproportionately affected, research shows that students who are held back and learn to read with intensive reading intervention do better in school than comparable students who are not held back. A key issue relates to the capacity of the state and local systems to provide the intensive assistance as students are held back.
State Superintendent of Education is convening a standing task force to provide
recommendations for comprehensive core reading and reading intervention
programs, teacher professional development in the “Science of Reading,” and
valid and reliable assessments that can be used for screening, diagnostic, and
instructional purposes. Research has identified how skilled reading works, and
helping teachers learn the science behind reading can make a difference, as
demonstrated in Mississippi.
Comparing Systems and Schools – How Did YourSchool Do?
The tabs above list the percent proficient in each subject for all local systems and schools. Click on any one of those tabs and look up schools or local systems most important to you and see how they compare to other systems.
Across the state, in both math and reading, 42% of school systems met or exceeded the state average for percent proficient in math and in reading. Fifty-two percent achieved this in science. Clustering occurs where systems and schools perform similarly in all three subjects, especially among the wealthiest and poorest systems. Performance among the top ten and lowest ten in all three subjects is consistent. Still, throughout the state, you can also find variation that shows different local strengths. For example, though Haleyville is ranked 109 in Science (28% proficient), and 103 in reading (36%), it is 53 in math (49% proficient).
It would be useful to learn what is causing differences of this nature and why some systems and schools are stronger in particular subjects than others.
Local Change in Proficiency Over Time
In addition to absolute levels of proficiency in a school system or school, the change occurring over time is another important indicator of performance. This can be an indicator of value added by the school. In schools where students come from family backgrounds in which parents have high income and educational attainment, proficiency levels may already be high, with more limited prospects for change in the school’s proficiency level. In schools where a high percentage come from a background of poverty and low parental educational attainment, students are more likely to enter school less prepared and fall short of their actual potential on assessments. Schools and systems making an effective, concerted effort to improve performance can make a difference. Though absolute scores may still be low, positive growth reflects deliberate improvement, sometimes under very challenging conditions.
The dashboards above list and rank the school systems in the state related to percentage point change in the proficiency rate from 2017-18 to 2018-19 in each subject. The bottom section of each dashboard shows the change in individual schools within each system. PARCA’s analysis below highlights the systems with the highest change in each subject over this period.
Table 1: Percentage Point Change in Proficiency, 2018 to 2019
Andalusia City: 11%
Andalusia City: 9%
Piedmont City: 17%
Perry County: 10%
Perry County: 8%
Coosa County: 11%
Sumter County: 10%
Phenix City: 4%
Marengo County: 10%
Leeds City: 6%
Lanett City: 3%
Tallassee City: 9%
Tallapoosa County: 6%
Sumter County: 3%
Perry County: 8%
Daleville City: 6%
Scottsboro City: 3%*
Andalusia City: 7% Elba City: 7%
*Note that the Macon, Piedmont, Dallas, Butler, Walker, Brewton and Elba also improved reading proficiency by 3 percentage points.
Andalusia City and Perry County were among the most improving systems in all three subjects, and Piemont’s 17 percentage point increase in science is outstanding. Across the state, proficiency levels range in math from +11 to -8%, in reading from +10 to -7%, and in science from +17 to -13%.
Table 2 shows the change in proficiency over 2014-2019, which is complicated by comparing Aspire and Scantron results.
Table 2: Percentage Point Change in Proficiency, 2014 to 2019
Change in Math Proficiency
Change in Reading Proficiency
Change in Science Proficiency
Geneva County 26%
Jacksonville City 22%
Piedmont City 36%
Saraland City 22%
Scottsboro City 21%
Saraland City 35%
Dale County 22%
Trussville City 21%
Etowah City 32%
Marengo County 22%
Geneva County 18%
Satsuma City 30%
Trussville City 21%
Leeds City 29%
Russell County 20%
Dale County 15%
Geneva County 28%
Lamar County 20%
Brewton City 14%
Russell County 27%
Houston County 19%
Piedmont City 13%
Dale County 26%
Troy City 19%
Talladega County 13%
Opp City 26%
Clarke County: 19%
Perry County 13%
Geneva City 26%
Haleyville City: 19%
Tuscumbia City 13%
Cleburne County 26% Henry County 26%
Over this longer period, a different set of systems are shown. Perry, Leeds, and Marengo systems again are listed, and Piedmont continues to come out on top with improved science proficiency. Systems with significant improvement in two or more of the subjects include Geneva County, Saraland City, Perry County, Dale County, and Russell County. Across the state, change ranged from +26 to -8% in math, +22 to -5% in reading, and +36 to -5% in science.
Performance of Subgroups in Alabama
In Alabama and across the country, differences in proficiency rates among various subgroups of students continue to be a concern, and the gap between students who are white and students of color is increasing. Proficiency rates for all subgroups changed very little from 2018 to 2019. More positive growth occurred between 2014 to 2019, though comparisons are between Scantron and Aspire assessments.
Students who are African-American, English Learners, and those in special education all perform at a lower level than do economically disadvantaged students as a group.
A higher percentage of Hispanic students, except those who are English Learners, attain proficiency in math and science than do students who are Black. Those two groups have the same percent proficient in reading. Among all the sub-groups, English Learners appear to struggle the most. They are ranked low in all subjects, especially science and reading, where they fall below all racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, and students in special education.
Asian students are the highest performing in all three subjects. Wide gaps continue to exist between African-American students and both Asian and White students, and between Hispanic students and both Asian and White students. Comparing proficiency results in 2014 and 2019, the gap between students who are White and those who are Hispanic or Black is increasing. At the same time, Black students have made significant progress. Math has been a stronger subject for Hispanic students than Black students, though in reading the initial gap between these two groups has been closed.
Same as last year, female students in the state performed higher than males in math and significantly higher in reading, while male students scored slightly higher in science.
Impact of Poverty
Students growing up economically disadvantaged are less likely to be read to in the early years, are exposed to fewer words, and are more likely to be exposed to health problems that can affect their capacity to learn in school and perform on tests. The education level and income of a student’s parents becomes a significant predictor of performance on standardized tests such as Scantron.
But some schools are better equipped to help all students learn and exceed expectations.
The scatterplot charts found in this section show the general correlation between proficiency levels and poverty levels. A school system’s proficiency rate determines its vertical position on the chart: the higher on the chart, the higher the proficiency rate. A system’s percent of economically disadvantaged students, measured by the percentage of students qualifying for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, determines the system’s position on the horizontal axis. Systems with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students will appear to the left of the chart and those with a lower percentage will be to the right of the chart.
Exceeding Expectations or Falling Short. The line displayed in the scatterplot is the average proficiency level for a given level of poverty. Those systems and schools above the line are exceeding expectations given their percent of economically disadvantaged students, and those below the line are falling short of expectations. These charts show that systems with similar poverty levels often show very different proficiency levels. In other words, school systems can and do exceed expectations through effective teaching, student support, and school organization and culture.
As an example, consider the chart on Scantron math performance and percent poverty. Saraland is exceeding expectations with 75% of their students scoring math proficient while 37% are economically disadvantaged. In contrast, in Pike Road only 16% of students are economically disadvantagedbut only 47% are considered proficient in math. You can learn about the scores of each of these systems by clicking on the circles in the chart.
The Scantron results from 2019 showed very little change from 2018. The gaps that exist between school systems and among student subgroups continue to be an area where more work is needed, especially if Alabama is to fulfill its vision as a state characterized by a vibrant, innovative and relevant workforce.
This is an exciting year in Alabama as the state rolls out its next suite of assessments at the same time that new math standards have been established. Because of the Literacy Act, the state is refocusing attention on early reading. It will be important to establish a baseline and provide feedback on the validity, reliability, and usefulness of the new assessments. Providing accurate, timely, and accessible data can give the state and its schools clarity on progress being made and a strategic sense of how target resources that can make a difference.
This comes at a critical time when NAEP scores in the state have dropped, when the state’s NAEP proficiency rates continue to be very low, and when the state’s ranking in the nation on math and reading has dropped to the bottom of the barrel.
Alabama’s 2019 proficiency level in fourth and eighth-grade math was dead last, 52 out of 52 (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense schools). In 2017, the state ranked No. 48 in fourth-grade math and 46 in eighth-grade math.
In fourth grade reading the state’s proficiency level was ranked 49 out of 52, dropping from 37 in 2017. In eighth grade reading the state’s ranking dropped from 43 to 49.
These national comparisons provide perspective. Alabama’s schools and teachers in high poverty communities face serious challenges, but hope can be found in the progress made by neighboring states and the steps being taken in Alabama to improve literacy and mathematics instruction.
 West, M (2012). Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating? See https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-retaining-students-in-the-early-grades-self-defeating/
Alabama’s Third Century
Alabama spent 2019 looking back at its first 200 years of statehood. In 2020, it seems appropriate to look forward to the next 100.
PARCA’s annual meeting, held Friday at Birmingham’s Harbert Center, was inspired by that theme: Taking lessons from the past in order to chart the way to a better future.
Along with a detailed look at the demographics shaping our state, it also included a series of experts discussing what the future holds for education, corrections, health and opportunity in Alabama.
The meeting featured Governor Kay Ivey describing her administration’s strategic efforts to raise educational achievement and to improve access to and the effectiveness of workforce training to meet the increased demands of the 21st-century economy.
The face of America and Alabama is changing
James H. Johnson Jr., professor of business and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke of the demographic changes that are already reshaping the state and the nation. Both Alabama and the nation as a whole are undergoing seismic shifts that will change the country.
Population is flowing to the South.
The country is becoming more diverse.
Marriage across racial and ethnic lines is increasingly common.
The country is aging.
Men’s share of the higher education population and the workforce is declining, while women’s share is rising.
Grandparents are increasingly involved in or responsible for the raising of their grandchildren.
Recognizing and preparing for these changes will be essential if Alabama is going to be competitive in coming decades. A fuller discussion of Johnson’s observations can be found in a paper Johnson published last year in Business Officer, a publication of The National Association of College and University Business Officers
Though Alabama has not grown as rapidly as magnet Texas and the Southern states on the East Coast, it will feel the same shifts. The native-born white population is not reproducing fast enough to replace itself, much less grow in numbers. Meanwhile, Hispanics, blacks and other minorities are younger on average and will constitute a greater share of the population over time.
Technology is pushing the frontiers of education
Neil Lamb, the Vice-President for Educational Outreach at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, highlighted factors that will shape education over the next 100 years: the ease of information access, advances in the science of learning, the rise of personalized learning, and the development of data-driven classrooms that allow for in-the-moment shifts in teaching strategy.
Lamb said these innovations offer great promise but they can’t be deployed haphazardly or without adequate support for the teachers that will need to use the tools to help children succeed. There must be attention paid to equity in spreading technology and adequately resourced professional development to support its implementation. Lamb, who served on the Governor’s Advisory Council for Excellence in STEM, pointed the audience to that Council’s recently released report: Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success.
The STEM Success report includes the recommendation that an evaluation process be built into the math coach initiative so policymakers will be able to measure its impact and adjust the strategy in pursuit of success.
Alabama’s crisis in corrections must be addressed now
Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission and past President of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, challenged the audience to think differently about prevailing but largely unexamined assumptions about crime and punishment.
Wright said Alabama has created one of the most complex systems of criminal justice and corrections in the United States. New laws are laid on top of old, but the old are not repealed. A multitude of different agencies and players operating with distinct motivations keep the institutions from functioning together as a system. Wright’s presentation materials can be accessed here.
Governor Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, chaired by Justice Champ Lyons, released a report and reform recommendations just last week. A letter with recommendations can be accessed here.
Monica L. Baskin, Professor of Preventive Medicine and director for Community Outreach and Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, described the tremendous cost borne by Alabama as a consequence of poor health and pointed to opportunities to address health problems and health disparities before they become issues.
According to estimates by the Milken Institute, the direct and indirect costs of chronic disease in Alabama total more than $60 billion a year, more per capita than any other state except West Virginia.
In her presentation, Baskin cited several promising initiatives aimed at preventing the development of chronic disease, and encouraged partners statewide to increase innovation, collaboration, and equitable dissemination in order to get information to the people and places that need it most.
Time to speed up innovation in pursuit of opportunity
And Michael Chambers, Associate Vice President of Research at the University of South Alabama, argued that we, as a state, need to speed up our pace of experimentation and change. Chambers, an experienced businessman, entrepreneur, and attorney, said businesses have had to learn to act quickly, be flexible, be competitive, to avoid complacency, and to plan on change. If Alabama’s leadership and citizens expect to be competitive, Chambers said, we should do the same.
Looking back to look forward
In preparation for the program, PARCA produced a series of charts that present key indicators of the economy, health, education, and criminal justice over a long time span. Interactive versions of those charts are available below. The charts compare Alabama to the U.S. average or to other Southeastern states. In the interactive version, you can change comparison states.
Alabama May be Catching on but Not Enough to Catch up
New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show Alabama attracting
more migrants from other U.S. states, but the state likely doesn’t have enough
population momentum to avoid losing a congressional seat after this year’s Census
Alabama added 15,504 residents between July 1, 2018, and July 1, 2019, the period covered by the estimates. Only one other year this decade, 2012, did Alabama add as many new residents. Since the 2010 census, Alabama is estimated to have added 123,060 new residents. PARCA’s interactive charts allow you to explore the new statewide estimates. The button on the bottom right allows for a full-screen display.
That 2019 performance ranks Alabama 20th in numeric change and 25th in percentage change among the states. Ten states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia lost population in 2019, according to the estimates.
The net number of residents moving to Alabama from other states was 9,387, by far the highest total in domestic migration since 2010. During the middle years of the decade just-ended, Alabama was losing residents to other states.
Alabama’s birth rate, 11.7 per 1,000, is also slightly
higher than the national average of 11.6 per 1,000. Census estimates that 57,313
new Alabamians were born in 2019.
However, Alabamians die at a higher rate than people in other states. Among U.S. states, only West Virginia has a higher death rate. Alabama saw 53,879 deaths in 2019, according to the estimates. That’s a rate of 11 deaths per 1,000 population, compared to 8.7 per 1,000 nationally. As the population ages, the death rate in Alabama and across the U.S. has increased over the course of the decade, while the birth rate has declined.
Alabama is also in the bottom 10 states when it comes to attracting international migrants. The Census Bureau estimates Alabama had a net gain of 2,772 international immigrants in 2019, compared with a gain of 3,379 the year before.
The 2019 net gain was the smallest gain through international immigration for Alabama since 2010. Before 2016, the state saw several years in which international immigration was contributing a net of 5,000 new residents to the state each year. Alabama is not the only state to see a drop-off. Nationwide, the number of new residents moving to the U.S from abroad was estimated to be 595,348 in 2019. That compares to more than 1 million immigrants moving to the U.S. in 2016.
While Alabama is seeing modest population growth, its growth
rate is under the average for the South.
The Census South region includes many of the fastest-growing states in the country: North and South Carolina, Florida and Texas, Georgia and Tennessee. Overall, the states in the region grew by 9.6% since 2010. Alabama’s population grew by 123,060, or 2.6% over the same period.
North Carolina, which has added almost 1 million people since the last Census, and Florida, which has added almost 2.7 million, are expected to gain additional representation in Congress.
Mississippi’s Progress Not a Surprise; It was Part of a Plan
When the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released last week, the good news was that fourth-grade students in our neighbor state, Mississippi, scored at the national average in both reading and math and that eighth graders there made significant gains in reading and math as well.
On all four measures, the average score for Mississippi students exceeds those of Alabama students, despite Mississippi’s higher level of poverty and higher percentage of students of color. The interactive chart below traces the average scale scores for Alabama and Mississippi students on the NAEP since 2003 on each of the four measures. The green line represents the average of public school students nationally. Other tabs in the chart allow you to explore other ways of looking at the data, including comparing demographically similar groups of students across states. In each of the main demographic and economic categories, Mississippi students are outperforming Alabama’s. The NAEP reading and math assessments are given every two years to a sample of students in each state, the sample representing the demographics of the state. It is the same assessment from year to year, and it is administered nationally. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP serves as the principal national measure of academic proficiency for U.S. education.
Mississippi borrowed some aspects of its approach to improving reading from Alabama’s Reading Initiative. And more recently, Alabama borrowed from the Mississippi model. Earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature adopted a Literacy Act, similar to a Literacy-Based Promotion Act Mississippi adopted in 2013. Mississippi developed its own student assessment test for grades 3-8, MAAP, which was first deployed in the 2015-2016 school year. Alabama hopes to deploy its own state-developed assessment in the spring of 2020.
Over the long term, both Alabama and Mississippi have made progress in both reading and math. However, during Superintendent Wright’s tenure in Mississippi, Alabama has had five different superintendents. The State Department of Education did develop a state plan for education, Plan 2020, in 2012, but it was never fully developed and implemented and was shelved as subsequent superintendents came and went.
In 2011, just eight years ago, Alabama enjoyed the national spotlight when NAEP was released. Alabama fourth graders scored at the national average, having made the largest improvements in the U.S. That growth coincided with and has been generally attributed to the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). ARI emphasized a schoolwide commitment to getting all students reading at grade level, with an emphasis on Kindergarten through third grade. ARI placed a reading coach in every Alabama elementary school and required intensive professional development to teachers on research-based approaches to teaching reading.
However, after that achievement, and in the face of a constrained budget, funding for ARI was reduced, and schools were allowed to repurpose the state-funded reading coaches for other purposes. Reading scores on NAEP began drifting and in 2019 dropped sharply in both fourth and eighth grades.
Earlier this year, the Legislature adopted the Literacy Act, which will require that third graders be able to read, or they will be held back to repeat third grade. The Literacy Act, modeled after similar legislation in Mississippi and other Southeastern states, is expected to add urgency to reading instruction and to addressing reading challenges like dyslexia. ARI’s funding was also increased by $6.5 million, though at $51 million per year, that’s still far from the $64 million it received at its peak in 2008. Education leaders say the program will be restored to fidelity.
While the 2019 reading results on NAEP were distressing for the severity of the drop, the math results for Alabama students were equally disturbing. Alabama school children in both the fourth and eighth grade had the lowest average test scores in the United States. It’s a familiar position for Alabama. Alabama ranked behind all other states in 2015. In 2017, Alabama students climbed a couple of notches in the rankings, but slipped back into last this year.
The state’s strategy for addressing math is less clear. In March of 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey put on hold new math standards, which had been developed by a statewide panel of educators. Ivey postponed adopting the changes to the math course of study after some conservative groups, who are opponents of the Common Core state standards, voiced their objections. In a letter to State Superintendent Eric Mackey, Ivy asked that Alabama’s new proposed math curriculum be compared to the math course of study for the top six performing states on the NAEP: Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Department of Defense’s educational system, Virginia, New Jersey, and Wyoming.
Considering Mississippi’s results, its approach to math should be examined as well. Mississippi did adopt the Common Core standards. Judging by national results, it safe to say that Common Core did not cause NAEP scores to leap. But it’s also true that states that did not adopt the Common Core have seen declines on the NAEP as well. Other factors may be contributing to an overall stagnation in educational progress. However, with Mississippi bucking the trend, Alabama would be well served to take note and inspiration from our neighbor’s progress.
ACT WorkKeys – An Assessment of Workforce Readiness Among High School Graduates in Alabama
The WorkKeys Assessment is a standardized test given to 12th graders in Alabama public schools. The assessment is meant to measure skills relevant to many of today’s work environments.
64 percent of Alabama high school graduates in 2018 were deemed workforce ready as measured by the ACT WorkKeys assessment, a year over year improvement of a half percent.
At 94 percent, Hartselle had the highest percentage of workforce ready graduates, as measured by WorkKeys.
High fluctuations occurred among the different certificate levels, with Platinum (highest level) and Gold dramatically increasing, but Silver decreasing. Bronze (below workforce ready) increased, though the percent not earning a certificate decreased.
What is WorkKeys?
The WorkKeys assessments are meant to provide a meaningful assessment of applied cognitive skills useful in contemporary work settings. It is also one of the components of Alabama’s College and Career Ready measure.
The assessments do not measure a student’s attitudes about work, dependability, interpersonal skills, teamwork, communication skills, or instincts for creativity, innovation, or leadership. They also do not provide insight about a student’s competency for a job requiring specialized knowledge and skills.
The Assessments. The assessments consist of three tests of applied cognitive skills which are relevant, according to ACT’s research, to over 20,000 occupations:
The Applied Math test measures critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and problem-solving techniques for situations in today’s workplace.
The Graphic Literacy test measures the skill needed to locate, synthesize, and use information from charts and graphs.
The Workplace Documentstest measures the skills needed to read and understand written text such as memos, letters, directions, signs, notices, bulletins, policies, and regulations on the job.
Students are awarded a National Career Readiness Certification in they score a Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze score on the WorkKeys.
Platinum: These are students with the highest level of applied cognitive skills. According to ACT, students at this level have demonstrated applied foundational skills for 96 percent of the occupations in the ACT jobs dataset.
Gold: Those earning a Gold level certificate should have the applied foundational skills for 90 percent of jobs in the database.
Silver: Students scoring at the Silver level should have the applied foundational skills for 71 percent of jobs in the ACT database.
Bronze: Students earning a Bronze certificate are judged to be ready for 16 percent of jobs.
In Alabama students earning a Silver certificate or above are considered career ready.
2018 Assessment Results
The following charts show the percent of graduates in Alabama who demonstrated workforce readiness on WorkKeys assessments at the state, local system, and school level.
Percent Workforce Ready Remained the Same. The first chart shows that in 2018 64 percent of high school graduates in the state were deemed workforce ready as measured by WorkKeys. The percent steadily increased from 58.8 percent in 2015 to 60.8 percent in 2016 and 63.5 percent in 2017. The increase from 2017 to 2018 was comparatively small, with both years rounding at 64 percent workforce ready.
Workforce Ready at the System Level
Listed below are the top ranked systems based on workforce readiness assessed through WorkKeys:
Hartselle City – 94 percent of students
Mountain Brook – 91 percent of students
Cullman – 88 percent of students
Oneonta – 86 percent of students
Guntersville -85 percent of students
There does appear to be some correlation between performance on the WorkKeys and the ACT exam, but not an exact one-to-one match. For example, some systems achieved a comparable state ranking on both sets of assessments:
Mountain Brook was number 1 on the ACT and 2 on WorkKeys
Shelby County was 8th on the ACT and 8th on WorkKeys.
However, other systems saw a larger separation.
Vestavia Hills was 2nd on the ACT and 16th on WorkKeys.
Madison City ranked 4th on the ACT and 18th on WorkKeys.
Trussville was 6 and 25, respectively.
All of the systems in the top 10 on the ACT are in the top 25 on WorkKeys, except Auburn.
At the same time, a number of less affluent systems demonstrated progress on the WorkKeys assessment over the previous year. Those systems showing the most improvement over 2017 included:
Perry County – 28 percent increase
Elba – 27 percent increase
Alexander City – 25 percent increase
Thomasville – 21 percent increase
Sheffield – 18 percent increase
Change in Certificate Levels
Significant Growth in Platinum and Gold Certificates. Students are deemed workforce ready if they achieve certification at the Platinum, Gold, or Silver levels. The charts show that the percent at each of these levels from 2015 through 2017 increased moderately each year and the distribution of students across the different levels remained about the same. However, ACT’s decision to change one of the tests for a new one apparently led to dramatic changes in the scoring of the WorkKeys test, producing far more Gold and Platinum level certificates:
Platinum certificates dramatically increased from essentially zero percent all three previous years to 10 percent of students in 2018.
Gold certificates, remaining fairly stable around 15 percent in the previous three years also showed a more significant increase to 19 percent in 2018.
Silver certificates dropped to 35 percent in 2018 after increasing to from 43 percent in 2015 to 48 percent in 2017.
Overall, this resulted in roughly the same percent workforce ready, but with a positive trend toward higher certification levels. Furthermore, while the percent of Bronze certificates increased, the percent with no certificate decreased. This is a positive trend with more students edging toward the readiness threshold.
Change in Certificate Levels at the System Level
Platinum: None of the systems decreased at the Platinum level. While a fair number showed no growth, the vast majority increased. In 2017,Sheffield generated the highest percent of Platinum level students of any system in the state at only two percent of its students. All other systems were at zero or one percent. In 2018, Mountain Brook increased from one percent to 41 percent, followed by Homewood, which increased from one percent to 29 percent. Each of the remaining schools in the 2018 top ten increased from one percent or less to 20-29 percent. Sheffield increased from two to 11 percent.
Gold: Cullman generated the highest percentage of Gold Certificates, followed by Hartselle. The percentage receiving Gold increased for most systems, though not at the level of change experienced for Platinum. Fourteen systems generated fewer Gold Certificates in 2018, including some of the top academic systems. Supposedly more of their high performing students moved into the Platinum level. Statewide, Thomasville generated the highest increase in Gold Certificates, moving them into the top five in overall state rankings.
Silver: Finally, most systems decreased in the percentage of students receiving Silver Certificates, the threshold for being considered workforce ready. The highest gains were in Perry County and Elba. The highest decreases were in Mountain Brook, Jasper, Cullman, Marion County, and Brewton. Rounding this out, the percent of students receiving Bronze Certificates increased in the majority of systems, while the majority of systems have a lower percentage of students who did not receive a certificate.
Possible Causes for the Change
A variety of explanations can be considered for the changes in WorkKeys results:
Changes in the WorkKeys assessments;
Stronger alignment between WorkKeys teacher training, test preparation, and test questions; and
Stronger concerted efforts in schools to prepare students for the assessments.
In 2018 WorkKeys underwent a number of changes, though the only test section that involved significant content change was the Locating Information test, which is now called Graphic Literacy. The names used for the other two assessments were changed to their current titles, Applied Math and Workplace Documents, though apparently no significant content changes occurred in these assessments.
Changes in an assessment often lead to scoring changes and other issues that can affect results. The new Graphic Literacy test may account for the leap in higher certificates at the Platinum and Gold levels, but the new test is supposed to be more rigorous. While higher rigor would usually not be associated with higher scores, higher relevance in an improved test could produce better scores.
Aligned with the changes in the actual assessments are changes in teacher training and student prep tools, including practice exams. These are potentially a better fit with the formal assessments being rolled out than was available in preparation for the prior assessment.
More systems may also be using the ACT WorkKeys Curriculum, which is aligned with the WorkKeys assessments. The courses are delivered through a mobile-based learning management system. It provides students and teachers with a customized study schedule and detailed instructional content. While the curriculum can improve test performance, it is primarily designed to develop workplace-ready skills in students.
Analysis of WorkKeys results for student subgroup performance shows continuing disparity between subgroups. Use the filters to see how systems differ in subgroup performance. Some schools may be better at assisting struggling groups than others.
In looking at trends, all racial groups are showing progress from year to year, especially Asians, Native Americans, and black students. The gap between Asian students and all other races is growing. The gap between white and Hispanic students is also growing, while the gap between white and black students has remained about the same – but not closing. Black students are gradually closing the gap with Hispanic students.
College and Career Readiness in Alabama
In 2012, the Alabama State Board of Education adopted Plan 2020, which embraced a vision for the state education system led by the motto: “Every child a graduate. Every graduate prepared.” The plan called for raising Alabama’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent, while at the same time producing graduates who are better prepared for college and the workplace. Since that time, significant progress occurred in raising the graduation rate from 72 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2018.
While the high graduation rate is laudable, state education leaders have raised concerns about the gap between the percent graduating and the percent prepared for college or work. The other half of the motto — “Every graduate prepared” — came under question.
The following chart shows Alabama high schools are closing the gap between the percentage of students graduating and the percentage of seniors demonstrating they are ready for college and the workforce.
According to yet-to-be finalized data from the Alabama State Department of Education, significant progress has been made over the past three years. Final and complete data are expected to be published later this year:
In 2016, Alabama graduated 87 percent of its students, though only 66 percent were college and career ready.
In 2017, the gap closed, with 89 percent graduating and 71 percent college and career ready.
In 2018, improvement continued with 90 percent graduating and 75 percent college and career ready.
Though the gap is still large, it is improving.
Continuing to close that gap is vital. The state has a goal of adding 500,000 highly-skilled workers to the workforce by 2025. To meet that goal, virtually all high school graduates will need to be prepared for education beyond high school or prepared to enter the workforce directly after high school.
The 2018 CCR data shows:
Career Technical Education (CTE) certificates are the fastest-growing means for classifying students as college and career ready.
Qualifying scores on the ACT and WorkKeys assessments are the two most common measures used to classify students as college and career ready.
Systems and schools leverage different strategies for preparing students – reflecting varying strengths, resources, and goals for education.
Some systems are very strong in particular areas and weak in others, which may not meet the needs of all students.
Disparities in performance exist across schools and student subgroups that may go beyond poverty.
Alabama’s College and Career Readiness Measure
The Alabama College and Career Strategic Plan (a component of Plan 2020) articulated a vision in which all Alabama students graduate high school college and career ready. The plan defines college and career readiness as:
“…a high school graduate [that] has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to either (1) qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial coursework, or (2) qualify for and succeed in the postsecondary job training and/or education necessary for their chosen career (i.e. technical/vocational program, community college, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training).”
High school graduates are classified as college and career ready (CCR) if they meet at least one of the following criteria.
Score college ready in at least one subject on the ACT
Score at the silver level or above on the WorkKeys Assessment
Earn a passing score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam (college-level courses delivered in high schools)
Successfully earn a Career Technical Education credential
Earn dual enrollment credit at a college or university
Successfully enlist in the military
Some of these measures are more aligned with college preparation and others with career preparation.
The state now provides data on the overall CCR rate and data on the individual metrics that create the measure. Detailed analysis is found in the interactive charts below, which allow users to explore college and career readiness percentages for high school seniors in 2018 at the state, school system, and high school level.
Graduation and CCR Rates
The first chart shows the percentage of students graduating, followed by the percentage of seniors who are college and career ready, followed by the percentage achieving readiness on the various performance measures that compose the CCR rate. While preset for the state in 2018, the filters can be used to produce the same chart for individual school systems in 2017.
Statewide, the percentage of seniors testing “ready” is highest for the WorkKeys assessment, followed closely by ACT. Those are the two main channels through which a CCR rating is achieved, though a growing number of students are deemed CCR by earning a credential in a Career Technical Education (CTE) field. Earning college credit or a qualifying score on an AP exam are also used by a smaller percentage of students. A very low percentage of seniors achieve a CCR rating by getting a passing score on an International Baccalaureate exam or successfully enlisting in the military. Exploring these measures at the system and school level suggests the use of different strategies across school systems reflects different goals for education, local needs and strengths, and characteristics of the community.
Graduation – CCR Gapby Local System
Chart 2 shows the graduation rate, CCR rate, and gap between these two rates in each system. They are listed in the order of CCR rate from highest to lowest. The Piedmont City School System is No. 1 in the state for CCR — the only system where 100 percent of seniors are classified as college and career ready. The system also graduates close to 100 percent of its students.
Some systems actually have negative gaps where the percent of seniors who are college and career ready exceeds the percent who graduate after four years in high school. This includes the Coffee County System, and city systems in Opp, Arab, Satsuma, and Piedmont.
On the other end of the spectrum, systems with the lowest CCR rates tend to have the highest gaps between graduation and CCR rates, though not always.
Graduation – CCR Gap by School
Individual schools are showing similar trends, with wide disparity between high and low performing schools.
Keith Middle-High School in Dallas County graduates 90 percent of its students, matching the state average, but only 19 percent of its seniors are measured to be college and career ready.
Barbour County High School graduates 77 percent of its students, but only 12.5 percent of seniors are measured as college and career ready.
Having both high graduation rates and CCR rates indicates that the diplomas issued by those schools have credibility and value. Where graduation rates are high but CCR rates are low, there is cause for concern.
Individual Components of CCRby System and School
The remaining charts in this section display individual components of college and career readiness by system and school. The final chart shows the percent change in CCR rates from 2017 to 2018.
Overall for the state, the largest change occurred in the percent of students earning career technical education credentials, increasing from 22 to 29 percent. The state and individual systems have put an increased focus on providing career-related coursework in high school, and the increases here may reflect that emphasis. At the same time, it is important for policy-makers to monitor what career credentials students are earning. For this to be a meaningful measure of career readiness, those credentials need to be recognized and valued by employers and should be in a field in which a student is likely to obtain workor more advanced training.
Other increases occurred in students earning college credit (10% to 13%), and in WorkKeys readiness (55% to 57%).
As cited earlier, when looking at individual systems and schools, it becomes apparent that different places achieve college and career readiness through different strategies.
Mountain Brook is No. 1 in ACT, WorkKeys, and AP, but lower on college credit and career technical credentials.
Vestavia is second on ACT readiness, among the top schools on the AP exam, and in the top 25 percent in career technical credentials, but much lower on WorkKeys and dual enrollment.
Opp City exceeds the state average on all measures of CCR but is especially high-achieving in students earning college credit, where they are No. 1 in the state, and in career technical credentials, where they are No. 5.
The system with the highest CCR rating, Piedmont City Schools, is at the state average on ACT and WorkKeys, but far and above other systems in credentials.
Are schools meeting the needs of all students? One concern this analysis raises is that some systems may not be meeting the varying needs of all students. Those systems scoring high or at least moderately high on a balance of college and career measures are providing a breadth of services that can help students shine where they show interest and potential. The lack of balance in some systems or schools may reflect an intentional emphasis on what they value most: college preparation or career readiness. It is important for schools to assess whether they are providing options that fit the needs and interests of the diverse array of students they serve.
As a composite of various academic and career indicators, Alabama’s College and Career Ready metric reflects three important concepts.
Every student needs either a post-secondary education or credible career-focused training in high school.
Post-secondary education need not be a traditional four-year college degree.
There are many different pathways for students.
The gap between Alabama’s graduation rate and the number of graduates deemed college and career ready has been a concern, but one with optimism given progress in closing that gap.
Career Technical Education certificates are the fastest-growing measure through which students are earning the CCR marker. These credentialing programs are meant to prepare students for workforce opportunities in high-demand fields right out of high school. They combine academics with work-based learning as a strategy to address the widening gap between job applicants’ skills and the skills employers need. The state will need to continuously ensure that all courses and concentrations are of high quality and relevant to the workforce needs in the state and in local communities.
Beyond preparing students with skills for specific jobs, an array of academic, extracurricular, and work-based learning opportunities can develop the student as a whole person capable of thoughtful decision-making and meet the unique needs and preferences of each student. Academics, career training, life skills, and the cultivation of passions and interests can all come together to support college, career, and life readiness.
Alabama is assessing progress on part of this, but not all. The state has made a good faith effort to evaluate college and career readiness through a variety of measures such as the ACT, college dual enrollment, WorkKeys, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) certification. Still, this is a changing and growing field. Skills and attributes needed in various careers are continually changing. Alabama should remain alert to more rigorous and authentic measures of college and career readiness that may emerge.
First Class Pre-K lowers discipline rates for students middle and high school years
Children who have participated in Alabama’s First Class
Pre-K program, a voluntary, public early education program are about half as
likely to be involved in disciplinary problems throughout their school careers
than students who didn’t participate in First Class Pre-K, and the most
pronounced differences between the two groups is evident in the students’
middle and high school years, according to new analysis of discipline data.
The analysis was conducted by the First Class Pre-K Research
Evaluation Team, a multi-disciplinary group of researchers that includes
faculty and staff from the UAB School of Public Health, UAB School of
Education, and PARCA. The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
provides grant funding for the research in order to provide ongoing, rigorous
assessment of the First Class Pre-K’s effectiveness.
The research team analyzed data provided by the Alabama State Department of Education which included disciplinary records of over 530,000 infractions for three academic years 2014-2015, 2015-2016, and 2016-2017. Data were matched with the records for all individual public school students who were enrolled over the time period. The analysis found that from the time they entered first grade, former First Class Pre-K students were less likely to be involved in the serious disciplinary violations tracked by the state records. The difference in the discipline rates of the First Class Pre-K students compared to other students actually widened in the upper grades. These results were consistent across all three years examined. For a more detailed description of the research, click here.
Practices of Top Gaining Schools on the ACT
After publishing ACT results for the graduating Class of 2018, PARCA contacted several of the schools and systems in Alabama that showed the largest improvement in average composite ACT scores between 2015 and 2018. PARCA wanted to know what, if anything, the schools did, either specifically for the ACT or in general, to improve students’ college readiness levels.
We received responses from the Pike County School System, from Montevallo High School, Opp High School, and Homewood High School and System.
The schools are across the spectrum when it comes to the economic composition of the student body. Using the percentage of students qualifying for a free school lunch as a measure of economic disadvantage, Homewood (20 percent) and Opp (41 percent) have lower levels of economic disadvantage than the state average (46 percent). Meanwhile, Montevallo High School (54 percent) and the Pike County School System (73 percent) have a higher percentage of disadvantaged students than the state at large. In terms of per-pupil spending, Homewood and Pike County are in the top 20 in per-student funding, while Opp and Shelby County are closer to, but still above, the state average.
Statewide, the average composite score has been basically flat since 2015, rising from 19 to 19.1 in 2018. That tenth-of-a-point gain statewide contrasts with improvements at the responding schools of between 1.2 and 1.7 points on a 36-point scale.
In response to PARCA’s query, school officials described the factors that they believe led to improvement. These are only observations and no underlying studies were performed to prove a cause and effect. However, the approaches described, while not uniform, had common characteristics that have been shown by educational research to lead to improved student performance.
While the details varied amongst the responding schools, the common themes would not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with education research:
Setting high expectations for all students.
Focusing on the delivery of strategic, high quality, standards-based instruction, not teaching the test.
Monitoring of student progress, providing aid for students who struggle and resources for students who want an additional challenge.
Teaching students to a level of depth expected at the college level, a level that goes deeper than recalling facts.
Emphasizing to students the importance of the ACT and providing access to ACT preparation materials and courses.
Critical Thinking Skills
While all four respondents, to varying degrees, provided targeted preparation for the ACT itself, all emphasized that the real foundation for success was an across the board dedication to a robust standards-based approach to instruction, an approach that challenged students to think beyond surface level of recall of facts, dates, and formulas, and to develop a depth of knowledge and the ability to apply what they learned.
All four viewed the adoption of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, standards that included input from the nationally-aligned Common Core standards, were a positive development. The adoption of the new standards provided each system an opportunity to engage faculty in a deep review of what should be taught at each grade level and whether the school curriculum was aligned with the standards. Professional development was provided to ensure teachers were prepared to deliver the content and level of depth called for in the standards.
Both Homewood and Opp pointed to the high quality of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Both systems have added courses and increased access to AP, which are college-level classes delivered in high school. School officials said the high-quality course content and the training teachers receive in order to teach AP classes results into a richer experience for students. That experience prepares them for the more complex level of thinking required to perform well on the ACT. The ACT is, after all, a test that seeks to measure student readiness for college-level work, and AP courses are designed to reflect college-level learning. Homewood emphasized that AP classes at Homewood are open-enrollment rather than selective. Their enrollment continues to grow, as do success rates on the AP test.
Pike County has adopted a different strategy for exposing students to college-level coursework: send them to college. Pike County will have 24 seniors graduating this year with over 60 hours of college credit earned at Troy University or through community college programs. That means those students enroll with enough credit to have earned an associate degree and plenty of experience with college-level work. Beyond the quantifiable results produced for students, the system is spending more efficiently, according to Pike County Superintendent Mark Bazzell. In a small school system, it is difficult to generate the numbers of students participating in AP offerings to justify the investment, especially when college-level courses are already available in the community at the local colleges. Because some national ranking systems look at AP participation as a marker of quality sometimes Pike County receives lower rankings than it deserves considering the opportunities it provides students through the dual enrollment option.
Below are observations from each school or system.
Pike County System
The Pike County School System continues to exceed expectations and draw attention with its attitude of high expectations, no excuses, and its methodical and creative approach to improving outcomes for students. Pike County has been featured in two Business Education Alliance (BEA) reports, Exceeding Expectations (2016) for exceptional performance on the ACT Aspire and in Leadership Matters(2018) for the system’s innovative approaches to improving college and career readiness. PARCA authored those reports, with support and consultation from A+ Education Partnership.
Pike County’s superintendent began the path to the current level of success more a decade ago. When he took over as superintendent, he began a campaign to build a faculty that uniformly believed that all children were capable of high performance. The second step was helping the faculty understand what students needed to know according to the national standards and providing teachers with the training in how to effectively teach those standards.
Bazzell found ACT Aspire, ACT’s suite of standardized tests for elementary and middle school students, to be a valuable tool for accessing student progress. The State used Aspire as its standardized test for accountability purposes but dropped it before the 2018 school year. Pike County now pays on its own for Aspire and uses data from the test to inform instruction. Continuing to use the Aspire exposes Pike County students early and often to ACT-designed standardized test, a test that predicts achievement levels on the actual ACT college readiness test.
Considering its level of student economic disadvantage, Pike County now generates consistent high performance. Bazzell provided the most detail on specific ACT preparation measures the two high schools in the system have adopted.
Encouraged students to start taking ACT earlier (9th grade)
Increased awareness of the importance of ACT through posters in the hallway, data analysis with students, parent meetings, etc.
Teachers’ use of bell ringers (quick questions to open class) that are aligned with ACT questions
Implemented Saturday ACT study sessions with content-area teachers
Utilized a Discovery Block (time set aside during day) for ACT and PreACT practice, with a schedule that rotated by content area
Utilized actcademy.org to create individual study paths based on a student’s PreACT score.
Encouraged students to put various ACT prep Apps on their phones and use them during free time at school and at home
Included ACT prep materials into a Southern Research Education Board-designed college readiness course, which is now mandatory for students who score lower than a 19 on the ACT
Montevallo High School Principal Brandon Turner, who arrived at Montevallo in 2015, emphasized that his faculty and staff function as a team. Learning targets are set by subject and grade level and formative assessments are administered to track student progress toward the targets.
Turner said a central emphasis for the school is improving instruction and adding depth of knowledge. There is a concept in education called the four levels of knowledge. The first is simple recall, the second level is connecting facts together as concepts or patterns. The third level, strategic thinking, applies concepts learned to novel situations, and the fourth level of knowledge is demonstrating the ability to draw from multiple sources to identify problems and construct solutions.
Questions on the ACT often go beyond recall, simple connections between points of data, and challenge students to think about the bigger picture.
“The depth of knowledge has to be embedded in all your classes,” Turner said. “If we aren’t practicing those things, they won’t succeed.”
Montevallo also offers a guided practice period during lunch that juniors are able to take advantage of, and the week before the administration of the ACT, all the junior classes focus on preparing for the test.
Opp High School, Opp City System
Standards and Active Learning
When Alabama adopted new learning standards, the Opp City System made a systemwide concerted effort to support teachers in understanding and teaching the standards. And it paid off. Opp was featured in 2016’s Exceeding Expectations report for showing the most improvement in math on the ACT Aspire.
Principal Aaron Hightower said the high school continues to focus on teaching that is grounded in learning standards and objectives but is also challenging teachers to innovate in how they teach in order to keep students engaged. For example, teachers at Opp Hike School are encouraged to compress lectures into the first 20 minutes of class and assign group projects to work on for the remainder of the period.
The faculty coordinates across grade level so each grade level subject matter team builds on what has been taught in the previous year and prepares students for the next year.
For Opp, AP courses have been especially beneficial in increasing the rigor and quality of courses. And, according to Hightower, all courses are supposed to challenge students to think beyond surface level learning.
To make sure all students stay on pace, Opp uses a diagnostic tool called Edmentum, which measures student skill level and identifies specific areas of weaknesses that need to be addressed. For struggling students, it then prescribes a personalized learning plan to address those weaknesses.
ACT Specific Preparation and Incentives
Opp started offering the PreACT to 10th graders the year before the State made it a requirement. That has allowed students to build familiarity with the kinds of questions the ACT asks.
And finally, to encourage all kids to put in the effort on the ACT, Opp offers incentives. If a student can document a two-point gain on the ACT, they qualify for a school trip to the new water park in Baldwin County.
“Now that creates a buzz,” Hightower said.
Homewood High School, Homewood City System
As with the other responding schools and systems, Homewood school officials first pointed back to the fundamentals of preparation that put students in a position to succeed. Patrick Chappell, the system’s director of instructional support, pointed to the academic focus created in the system by each school in the system having an assistant principal for instruction. Those principals regularly meet with each other and with their faculties during embedded professional learning time to ensure educational continuity classroom to classroom.
The system has teacher-developed learning targets for students, by grade and by subject. Those targets reflect but often exceed the state’s Alabama College and Career Ready Standards. Despite this tight definition of intended outcomes for students, Chappell said, teachers and students are given latitude on the style and pace of learning. They are not bound by pacing guides, for example. The emphasis is on mastery of standards, not flying through every bit of material.
Homewood offers an array of AP classes and, in recent years, has seen a continuing rise in the number of students and the percentage of students choosing to take those courses.
Teachers have received additional professional development to prepare for teaching AP classes, and the system also pays for students to take AP exams.
Access to AP classes is not restricted by GPA or participation in an “honors” program. Any student who wants the rigor and challenge of a college-level course can take AP classes. Even with the rising participation levels, the percentage of students earning a successful score on the AP exams continues to climb as well. With more students succeeding in college-level coursework, it stands to reason that ACT College readiness rates would rise as well.
Credit Recovery For Struggling Students
Students facing academic challenges have also received targeted attention through an enhanced credit recovery program, promoted by Homewood High School (HHS) principal Zack Barnes. Instead of simply issuing failing grades and having students repeat courses in summer school, the school directs students to online credit recovery programs that allow students to go back and address the specific standards they failed to master.
Test Taking Experience and ACT Prep
HHS Assistant Principal Amanda Esslinger added that Homewood pays for all 9-11 graders to take the PSAT, another college readiness test. This increases students’ comfort level with multiple standardized and timed tests. The multiple measures also create a greater awareness of each student’s strengths and areas of needed growth. That’s useful both to the individual student and to teachers and administrators evaluating the effectiveness of instruction.
Homewood offers an ACT prep class during the school day that any junior or senior can take, giving all students access to preparation that used to be only available to families who could pay for private courses.
Increasing student success on the ACT is important for individual students and can be an important measure of academic effectiveness for schools as well. Schools that generated improvement pointed to some measures that were directly aimed at the ACT such as raising student awareness of the importance of the test and providing access to ACT preparation resources. However, those schools and systems that improved first emphasized a commitment to delivering instruction that allows students to meet and exceeds expected standards of learning for their grade level. They also emphasized exposing all students to the deeper levels of learning expected for college level academic performance.