How Are Alabama Students Performing? 2018 Scantron Results

Less than half of Alabama public school students in grades 3-8 scored proficient on grade level tests of reading and math in 2018, according to the test data released early this year by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Considering all results across the grades, 48 percent of students were proficient in math and 46 percent were proficient in reading. Only in 3rd-grade math did a majority of students, 57.6 percent, test above the benchmark for proficiency.

The overall proficiency rate for science, which is tested in the fifth and seventh grade, was much lower, at 38 percent. While selected local systems exceed expectations in science, the lower statewide average is a concern given science’s role in developing the future workforce.

New State Assessments

2018 was an important transition year from ACT Aspire, which has been the primary tool for measuring academic progress in Alabama public schools since the 2013-2014 school year. Back in 2014 ACT Aspire replaced the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) to provide a better measure of students’ grade-level proficiency on a path to college readiness. While Aspire was applauded for being a more “honest” assessment of student performance and for its functional tie to the commonly used ACT college readiness test, Aspire also generated criticism for technical difficulties in test administration and results that were not consistently delivered in a timely manner.

In June 2017, the State Board of Education voted to cancel Alabama’s contract with ACT and move toward developing another set of tests, scheduled to be launched in the 2019-20 school year. In the meantime, the state has continued to assess performance in grades 3-8 using tests provided by a testing company named Scantron, which has experience working with local school systems in Alabama. Initial results on Scantron were higher but the scores were mathematically adjusted to provide continuity with Aspire results. For more information on the history and issues shaping this transition, see PARCA’s report, Student Achievement Matters: the Future of Assessment is Now.

Before diving more deeply into the 2017-18 Scantron results, let’s quickly step back and see how proficiency rates across these tests compare.

Scantron scores are from 2018, ACT Aspire from 2017, ARMT from 2013, and the NAEP trendline from 2013 through 2017. Though Scantron and Aspire are different tests, this chart shows that proficiency levels are somewhat comparable, especially when compared to ARMT and NAEP. The percent proficient in NAEP is lower than found in all Alabama state tests. Given the respect accorded to NAEP as a national baseline, the extremely high proficiency rates from ARMT showed signs of a watered down test, which failed to serve as a respectable measure of authentic proficiency and progress in building college and work readiness. Results from ACT Aspire proved to be more comparable to NAEP, as do the proficiency levels from Scantron in 2018. When the new set of tests are launched in 2019, the results will establish a new baseline from which future improvement and growth can be measured.

Scantron Results for 2018

Comparing Subjects. Among the three subjects assessed, math generated the highest percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency (48 percent) across grades 3-8 combined. Reading was not far behind at 46 percent proficient. It was also true of the Aspire that students in grades 3-8 combined demonstrated higher proficiency in math than in reading. Science was only tested in the 5th and 7th grades and saw the lowest proficiency scores among the three subject on the 2018 Scantron tests, with only 38 percent proficient. With ACT Aspire, the percent proficient ranged from 35 to 39 percent.

Comparing Grade Levels. On Scantron, proficiency levels are generally higher in the lower grades. The highest single average is for 3rd-grade math at 58 percent proficient. The average across all grades for math, not counting the 3rd grade, is 45 percent. The average for reading, not counting 3rd grade, is now slightly higher than math at 46 percent. During the early grades, math and reading concern 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.

The higher growth in reading from grade to grade is only marginal but might suggest that either students are more effectively learning the basics in reading as a foundation for later grades, or it may mean the material in math becomes a harder to master. By the time Alabama’s students reach high school, their college ACT scores in reading are higher than in math, and proficiency scores on the state Aspire test for 10th graders significantly drop, as low as 19 percent proficient in 2016-17.

The percent of students proficient in science drops from 40 percent of 5th graders to 36 percent of 7th graders. The low scores in science are worthy of concern. In addition to important content, science relates to problem-solving skills, reasoning, curiosity, critical thinking, good measurement skills, and applied learning. These are foundational skills for the workforce of tomorrow in Alabama.

Comparing Systems and Schools – How Did Your School 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.

Clustering occurs where systems and schools perform similarly in all three subjects, especially among the wealthiest systems and poorest systems, but you can also find variation. For example, Sheffield City System is below the state average in science, with only 28 percent of its students demonstrating proficiency, and below in reading, with 39 percent proficient, but right at the state average in math, with 48 percent proficient. It would be useful to learn what is causing these differences and why some systems and schools are stronger in some subjects than others. Note that the vertical line shown in these charts represents the state average, providing a quick way to see how each system or school compares to the state as a whole.

In Alabama and across the country, differences in proficiency rates among various subgroups of students remains a concern.

  • Similar to Aspire, the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged scoring proficient is about 25 percentage points lower than the percentage of non– economically disadvantaged students scoring proficient. This wide gap is the same across all three subjects, and holds up nationally as well.
  • At the same time, when comparing all subgroups, students who are African-American, English Learners, and in special education all perform at a lower level than do economically disadvantaged students as a group. Latinos, except those who are English learners, consistently attain higher levels of proficiency than African Americans. Among all the sub-groups English Learners appear to be struggling 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.
  • Wide gaps continue to exist between African-American students and both Asian and White students, and between Latino students and both Asian and White students. Differences in parental education level and income are factors that help explain these gaps, and differences in the quality of schools can also make a difference. Asian students are the highest performing racial group in math, reading, and science. Both African-American and Latino students score their best in math.
  • Female students in the state performed higher than males in math and significantly higher in reading, while male students scored slightly higher in science.
  • Finally, military students are among the higher performing groups in the state, though PARCA research has found gaps among racial groups within the military.

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 some do better with less.

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 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 percent of their students scoring math proficient while 37 percent are economically disadvantaged. In contrast, in Pike Road only 16 percent of students are economically disadvantaged but only 47 percent are considered proficient in math. You can learn about the scores of each of these systems by clicking on the circles in the chart.

Conclusion

As Alabama rolls out its next suite of assessments it will be important to establish a baseline and provide feedback on the validity, reliability and usefulness of the new assessments. In the meantime, Scantron provides an assessment of performance that appears to be roughly comparable to Aspire in identifying strengths and where more attention is needed. The gaps that exist between school systems and among student subgroups continues 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.


Alabama High School ACT Scores for the Class of 2018

Alabama public high school students’ performance on the ACT was down slightly in 2018, after hitting a high point in 2017. Alabama students’ average score was 19.1 on a 36-point scale, compared to 19.2 in 2017. Over the past four years, Alabama scores have been stable, roughly paralleling the slight up and down of national scores.

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

How Does Alabama Compare?

The ACT is a test of college readiness and is used by colleges as a factor in the evaluation of applicants’ qualifications for admission. Alabama is one of 17 states that gives the ACT to all public high school students, whether they plan to apply for college or not. Among the states that give the test to all public high school students, Alabama ranks 13th, tied with North Carolina. The average scale score among the 100 percent states is 19.5. 

More Alabama students, a higher percentage of enrolled seniors, and more students of color took the ACT in 2018, according to data provided by ACT and the Alabama Department of Education. This was particularly notable among Hispanic students.  Though small in total numbers compared to whites and blacks, the number of Hispanics taking the ACT increased from 1,867 in 2015 to 2,886 in 2018 (55% increase).  Black students taking the ACT increased over this period from 16,602 to 16,968 (2% increase), and whites slightly decreased from 29,337 to 29,100 (less than 0% change).  Alabama public schools give the ACT in the junior year of high school. The final reported results here are for the students who graduated in 2018. Those students would have taken the ACT in 2017 at their own high school. If a student took the test subsequent to the administration at their high school, the student’s highest scores in each subject would be counted.

School Systems That Have Shown Improvement

In 2018, 85 out of 137 school systems in Alabama posted higher average composite scores on the ACT than they did in 2015. The top 10 systems in terms of improvement on students’ average composite score between 2015 and 2018 are listed below. A more complete listing can be found in the interactive charts.

RankSystem2015 Average Composite Score2018 Average Composite Score
1Opp City18.0919.69
2Fayette County17.9819.53
3Sumter County14.5715.91
4Pike County16.818.08
5Jasper City19.9721.22
6Homewood City22.824.04
7Alexander City18.4919.7
8Thomasville City17.3318.52
9Trussville City21.7322.9
10Auburn City21.3222.49

Keeping Demographics in Mind

On average, students from economically disadvantaged families tend to score lower on standardized tests than students who are not at an economic disadvantage. Similarly, schools where a higher percentage of the student body is economically disadvantaged, the average test score tends to be lower. Comparing schools that have similar demographics is a fairer way to evaluate relative performance. Scatterplot charts, like the one featured below, present score data and student poverty levels at the same time. The vertical position of the school or system is determined by the average test score, while the horizontal location of the school or system is determined by the percentage of the student body directly eligible for a free lunch under the national free lunch program.

ACT Scores and College Admission

Keep in mind that a composite score of 18 is considered a minimum threshold score for college admission at several state colleges.  Others have lower thresholds, including open admissions.  On the other end, a score of 25 or higher is expected at more competitive colleges, while 30 is the minimum threshold at some of the nationally elite schools such as Princeton. The table below lists the median entering ACT composite score students at Alabama colleges. Historically black colleges consider it part of their mission to admit students who may not have had the academic preparation to perform well on the ACT. The average ACT score for black students in Alabama is 16.5.


Prisons, education, taxes, trust in government. What do Alabamians think?

See the Full Survey

A slight majority of Alabamians oppose building new prisons, but an overwhelming majority support expanding rehabilitation and re-entry programs for people leaving prison, returning nonviolent offenders to the community, and spending more on education.

These are among the key findings of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s Public Opinion Survey: 2019 Edition, released today.

The survey, conducted in partnership with Samford University and led by Dr. Randolph Horn, again found high levels of agreement on critical issues facing the state.

Alabamians value education, rating it a top priority among major state services. State residents say education investment should be increased, as too little is now spent on education. While not agreeing on the source of revenue, a majority of residents are willing to pay more in taxes to increase funding for education.

There is some evidence that the current tax system is seen as regressive: majorities of residents say low-income residents pay too much, and those with higher incomes pay too little.

Consistently high percentages of Alabamians feel that they have no say in Montgomery or that state officials do not care what they think suggests that Alabamians do not believe state government is responsive to their concerns.

 Corrections

  • 86% support expanded rehabilitation and re-entry programs for people in prison.
  • 83% support moving people with nonviolent convictions back to the community.
  • 58% oppose building new prisons to address overcrowding.  
  • 54% believe only violent offenders should go to prison.  

Education

  • 74% believe the state spends too little on education.  
  • 69% support increasing taxes to support education, but no single option garners majority support.  

Taxes

  • 45% say they pay the right amount of taxes.  
  • 45% say lower-income earners pay too much.  
  • 52% say upper-income earners pay too little.  

Trust in Government

  • 82% support keeping the General Fund and Education Trust Fund separate.
  • 69% believe state government officials do not care about their opinions.
  • 57% believe they have no say in state government.

The survey of 410 randomly selected Alabamians was conducted between January 28 and March 3, 2019 and yields a margin of error of +/-4.8 percent.

See the Full Survey


Lower Percentage of College Freshmen in Need of Remedial Education

The percentage of first-time college students assigned to remedial education before embarking on college courses continues to drop, according to the latest data provided by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).

The data follows Spring 2017 graduates of Alabama high schools who enrolled at Alabama public colleges in the fall after graduation. The data indicate that 28 percent of those who enrolled in higher education were required to take a course in either remedial math or remedial English or both.

A remedial course is designed to bring students up to the educational level needed to succeed in a college course. That percentage needing remediation is down from 34.6 percent in 2011. This drop in remedial rates is occurring at a time when high schools have driven up graduation rates and have sent additional students to college.

Remediation rates are calculated for two subjects: math and English. The most progress has been made in decreasing the percentage of students having to take remedial English. In 2017, the percentage of students needing remedial courses in English dropped to 14 percent, down from 17 percent in 2013.

The percentage of enrolled students taking remedial math also declined to 24 percent in 2017, compared to 26 percent in 2013. 

Why the Remediation Rate is Important

With the implementation in 2012 of Plan 2020, the state’s strategic plan for higher education, K-12 educators set a goal of driving down the number and percentage of students required to take remedial education. Providing remedial courses in college duplicates cost to the state, and remedial education drives up the cost of college for students and families. Remedial courses, since they cover high school level material, don’t count toward a college degree.

The continuing progress on rates of remedial education is noteworthy since it has come during a period in which high schools are charting higher graduation rates. Those higher graduation rates have prompted concern that, in some instances, schools might be lowering standards for graduation in order to show higher graduation rates. However, this data suggests that the students who are going on to college are entering better prepared.

When high schools do a better job of preparing students for college-level work, it produces savings for the student, their parents, and the education system in general.

Higher Education Working to Lower Remediation Rates

The decline in the remediation rate may also be influenced by changes taking place at colleges. Both two and four-year colleges are implementing measures aimed at decreasing the number of students needing remedial courses.

Approaches include using new assessments that identify students’ areas of weakness and prescribe specific remedial material rather than requiring a whole course.  Colleges are also developing extra aid courses that can be taken in tandem with college-level English or math. The supplementary course can provide the extra help that some students need while allowing the student to proceed on the regular college track. The community college system is also partnering with some high schools to offer college prep courses in high school. If high school student earns a B in that college prep course, he or she is considered qualified to start college-level work.  

Explore on Your Own

In the visualization below, you can explore the statics for remediation for local schools and systems. You can sort each column from low to high or in alphabetical order by using the tool on top of each column.

Bear in mind that the ACHE report only captures high school graduates who enrolled in the fall after their graduation in Alabama public colleges. The remediation rates for schools that send significant numbers of students to private colleges or to out-of-state colleges will not necessarily reflect the outcomes for the entire graduating class.


College-Going Rates for Alabama High Schools

The college-going rate for Alabama public high school graduates declined in 2017, and for the first time in three years, the number of high school graduates who went on college declined as well, according to new data provided by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).

The data, drawn by ACHE from the National Student Clearinghouse, follows Alabama public high school students who graduated in the spring of 2017 and enrolled in higher education in 2017 or the spring of 2018. The data includes records for in-state and out-of-state institutions, both public and private.

In 2014, the first year this set of statistics was produced, 65 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college the year after their graduation. In 2017, 62 percent of graduates enrolled. While the college-going rate has edged down, the number of high school graduates has been going up, as high school graduation rates have climbed. So though the rate was lower, more students entered higher education.

But in 2017, for the first time since 2014, there was a dip in the number of students enrolling. One factor was that the graduating Class of 2017 was smaller than the Class of 2016. Also, the number of students going to community colleges experienced most of the decline, something that tends to occur when unemployment is low, and graduates are drawn directly into the workforce. The number and percentage of high school graduates not enrolling in higher education the year after graduation also increased for the Class of 2017 when compared to previous years: 38 percent of high school graduates did not enroll the year after their graduation.

The intersection of high school graduation and college-going is an area of keen interest as Alabama has set a goal of improving the education and skill levels of its workforce. It benefits the state to have more of its students graduating high school, rather than dropping-out. But those graduates need to have either earned a meaningful occupational credential while in high school or have graduated high school prepared for advanced training or higher education.

Alabama’s public high school graduating class of 2017 totaled 49,764, about 200 students less than the Class of 2016. Among those graduates 15,738, or about 30 percent, enrolled in a two-year community college, according to the data. That’s about 600 students fewer than the previous year.

The number and percentage of students enrolling at a four-year college increased to 15,804, up 128, accounting for 32 percent of graduates. The total number going to public 4-year colleges in Alabama dipped by 122, but that dip was offset by an increase in the number of students going to in-state private colleges or going to four-year colleges out of state. Still, the overwhelming majority, 91 percent of those who enrolled, went to Alabama institutions and 92 percent of those who enrolled went to a public college or university.

The remaining 18,826 high school graduates, 38 percent of graduates, were not found to have enrolled in higher education. Data for individual schools and for school systems is available by exploring the tabs about the data display.

Why is this important?

Alabama trails most other states in educational attainment levels. Higher levels of education generally translate into more job stability, higher pay, and better health. As the economy continues to shift toward jobs requiring a higher level of education and training, the need for a better-educated population grows.

Alabama has set a goal of adding 500,000 new highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025 in order to meet and exceed the anticipated demands of the evolving economy. To reach that goal, virtually all high school seniors need to graduate ready for college or career, ready to go into advanced training related to employment or into college, prepared for college-level course work.

Alabama’s public high school graduation rate has increased substantially since ACHE began providing this data on college-going rates. During the period since 2014, the number of high school graduates has increased, as has the number of graduates enrolling in higher education. However, the number of students not enrolling has also increased. In round numbers, high school graduates have increased by 4,000 a year, the number of students going to college has increased by 1,000, and the number of students who don’t enroll in the year following graduation has increased by 3,000. This produces a dip in the college-going rate, or percent of graduates attending college.

Other observations from deeper in the data

The new data from ACHE and Student Clearinghouse allows comparisons between Alabama school systems and schools. But when making comparisons, it is important to keep in mind socioeconomic factors that affect college-going. College is expensive. Systems with higher levels of affluence will send a greater share of the students to college. At the same time, some less affluent schools and systems achieve a high college-going rate by sending more students to two-year colleges, a more affordable alternative.  Research shows a number of factors can play into a student’s decision to attend a two-year college.  Examples include (from Community College Review):

  • Open admission policies at many schools that allow students who did not perform as well in high school the opportunity to pursue a higher education
  • A lower tuition rate that can reduce the cost of earning a four-year degree
  • A flexible schedule that provides both day and night courses for students who have families and must work full time
  • Technical training that provides a more direct route to particular careers
  • Proximity to to home

Two-year colleges were originally created in part to provide assistance (a second chance) for students who did not become college ready and could not get into the four-year college of their choice.  Four-year colleges know this and prepare to help them transition into their college when they arrive, or they should. This will include a number of students from lower economic backgrounds, but others too.

For instance, the number one school system for college-going is Mountain Brook, with 92 percent of graduates enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Almost all of those students enroll in four-year college or university.  Students in Mountain Brook are more likely to come from a college-going family with expectations or goals for attending a four-year college than in other systems.  Some systems and schools are likely to be more richly resourced and focused around this objective. By contrast, the system which posted the second highest college-going rate this year, the Oneonta City System, sent 50 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and 36 percent of its graduates to two-year college, for an overall college-going rate of 87 percent. While two-year colleges have historically been a choice because of needed academic catch-up or cost, with new ideas around a changing workforce they may increasingly become the first choice for students in a variety of systems.

The college-going data also highlights the high-performance levels of magnet high schools. For instance, as a system, Montgomery County Schools have an overall college-going rate of 56 percent among its graduates. However, three of its magnet high schools, Booker T Washington, Loveless Academic Magnet Program, and Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, have college-going rates above 90 percent, which ranks all three in the top 10 among Alabama high schools for college-going.

The data is also presented for schools and systems in statistical form or as represented on a map. Look for selectors on each of the data visualizations that allow you to change the statistic, the schools or systems in the comparison, or the year of the data.

College-going rates are a building block for educational attainment, though entry into college is only one step on the journey to a degree. The rate at which student persist in and graduate from college is also important. Alabama lags behind other states in terms of educational attainment, according to statistics generated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Educational attainment levels also vary widely by county. Half the adult population of Shelby County has an associates degree or higher, the highest level of educational attainment in the state.


On the opposite end of the rankings is Conecuh County, where only 14 percent of the adult population has an associates degree or higher, according to Census estimates.


Making the Workforce System Work for Alabama

Gov Kay Ivey addresses PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel of agency leaders involved in workforce development.

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

WIOA challenges states to build:

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

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

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

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


The Lasting Effect of Alabama First Class Pre-K

Students who attended the First Class Pre-K program in Alabama are more likely to be proficient in reading and math compared to other students — and this academic advantage persists over time.

This is the key finding of an ongoing study of Alabama First Class Pre-K conducted by researchers from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, the UAB School of Public Health, and the UAB School of Education. This research was funded by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

Key Findings

These findings add to previous findings that showed students receiving Alabama First Class Pre-K:

  • demonstrate higher readiness for kindergarten;
  • are less likely to be chronically absent;
  • are less likely to be held back a grade; and
  • are less likely to need special education services in K – 12

All of these measures produce savings to the education system that recur year after year as students progress through school.

Why is Pre-K Important?

The early years of school through the 3rd grade are a critical time in a child’s brain development. These early years provide a window for developing a foundation for sustained success. Problems that emerge during the early years are more difficult to address later on. High-quality pre-k programs provide opportunities to address gaps in early child development and to improve school readiness.

UAB-PARCA Research

The effectiveness of quality pre-k in preparing students for kindergarten has been well

documented. However, recent studies in other states have suggested the impact of pre-k programs fade away once students are in school, especially in the later grades. In response our UAB-PARCA research team, as part of its on-going assessment, specifically examined whether or not this happens with the Alabama First Class Pre-K program.

We studied three years (2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17) of student scores on state reading and math assessments, comparing students who received First Class Pre-K with those who did not receive First Class Pre-K.

We also compared the percent of students who were proficient in reading and math to identify differences between pre-k and non-pre-k students over time. We wanted to know if — after allowing for differences in poverty, race, gender, school attended, and general statewide trends — the academic benefit for students who received First Class Pre-K persisted as the students aged.

Study Findings

The UAB-PARCA team found that students who received First Class Pre-K were more likely to be proficient in reading and math compared to students who did not receive First Class Pre-K, and the benefit of First Class Pre-K persisted over time and did not fade out.

Specifically…

  • The percent of students earning a proficient score in reading were 1.6 percentage points higher for students receiving First Class Pre-K than for students who did not receive First Class Pre-K, all else equal, and this difference persisted at least through the middle school years.
  • The percent of students earning a proficient score in math were 3.2 percentage points higher for students receiving First Class Pre-K than for students who did not receive First Class Pre-K, all else equal, and this difference persisted at least through the middle school years.

Conclusion

Studies in other states have suggested the academic effects of pre-k are minimal and decline over time. Our study finds this is not the case in Alabama. Similarly, a new study from Duke University finds long-lasting effects of pre-k in North Carolina. These studies indicate that program design and implementation are key to a successful pre-k program.

Students who attended First Class Pre-K are more likely than other students to be proficient in reading and math, all else equal, and this academic advantage continues into at least middle school. These findings show that by making a positive difference in academic proficiency — something highly resistant to positive change — the Alabama First Class Pre-K program is working.

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PARCA collaborates on new research showing Alabama’s First Class Pre-K students are performing better on academic assessments than others

Alabama public school students who participated in the state’s publicly funded First Class Pre-K program performed better on academic assessments than those who did not, and the improved performance persists as students progress through the early grades and into middle school.

That is according to newly released findings from the First Class Pre-K Research Evaluation Team. The team, which includes faculty and staff from the UAB School of Public Health, UAB School of Education, and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama – provides ongoing, rigorous assessment of the program’s effectiveness. This research collaboration has been ongoing for the past five years and is funded by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The findings are important because some studies of Pre-K programs in other states have suggested that that the academic benefits of Pre-K “fade out” after third grade. In Alabama, that is not the case. According to study findings: “Students who received First Class Pre-K were statistically significantly more likely to be proficient in math and in reading compared to students who did not receive First Class Pre-K. … The analyses also indicate no evidence of fade out of the benefits of First Class Pre-K over time.”

The First Class Pre-K classrooms in Alabama are funded through a competitive grant process in which sites must meet specific quality assurances and abide by rigorous operating guidelines. Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program has been awarded the highest quality rating by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) for the past 12 years.

The new research supports previous findings. In 2012, PARCA provided a comparison between students who had received First Class Pre-K and those who did not for the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs, now the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.  That snapshot of results depended on the results of the 2012 Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) for students in grades three through six.

In general, those comparisons showed that students who received First Class Pre-K performed better than those who did not and that the gap between poverty and nonpoverty students closed, even for students in the 6th grade. Encouraged by that snapshot, a more rigorous research design was implemented to examine multiple cohorts of students over time. UAB researchers provided the statistical analysis that found that the initial cross-sectional observation based on the 2012 snapshot was not a fluke.

“Observed differences in performance of First Class Pre-K students did not change over time and…the positive benefits persist as children age and progress to later grades,” the report states.

Read the briefing here.

More research on Alabama’s First Class Pre-K will be coming soon.

Several media outlets have covered the brief in recent days. Read select articles below:

Former Alabama Pre-K students score better in reading, math

Ivey touts Alabama’s nationally-recognized Pre-K program at conference

Study: Pre-K has long-term results


K-12 Education Ranks as the #1 Priority Among Alabama Voters

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Key Findings

  • Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.
  • Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial, or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.
  • Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

This summer and fall, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#1: K-12 Education

What is the issue?

K-12 public education is the highest concern for voters in Alabama. Seventy percent said they were very concerned, and this issue cuts across all political parties as a major concern. Eighty percent of Democrats indicate they are very concerned, followed by 60% of Republicans and 66% of independents. The key concerns cited by voters included funding, teacher preparation, class size, and low student achievement.

Funding

Forty-four percent of voters said that funding was their top priority related to education.

Alabama ranks 39th among the 50 states when it comes to per-pupil spending on K-12 education. According to data from the Alabama Department of Education, there is a wide disparity between spending in Alabama school systems, ranging from over $12,000 per student in Mountain Brook to $7,615 per pupil in Autauga County.

In 2015 Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates (APA) was commissioned by the Alabama Department of Education to study the adequacy and equity of school funding in the state.

To determine adequacy, APA looked to see what successful districts in Alabama spend per student. They also formed fifteen panels of school representatives from across the state tasked with estimating the resources needed to educate any student in Alabama and meet state standards. Chart 1 shows that the expenditures of state and local funds per student across the state in 2013 was considerably less than the estimated expenditure per student needed to provide an adequate good education, as estimated by the two approaches used by the APA study.

These actual and estimated expenditures of state and local funds per pupil are from 2012-13. Actual expenditures per pupil in 2015-2016 were $7,900 per pupil, still below what is recommended.

In addition to concerns about adequate funding, there is concern about the equity in the distribution of state school funds.

Alabama’s funding formula essentially treats all general education students the same, regardless of whether they need extra assistance, which costs money.

Differences in local property wealth enable wealthier districts to spend more on education and potentially create unequal opportunities to learn. A number of analytical studies have shown that Alabama’s school finance system has not met accepted equity standards.

Teacher Preparation

Surveyed voters expressed concern over teacher preparation, with 24% indicating it is their greatest concern related to education.

PARCA has documented the importance of teaching quality in developing student success. Effective teachers can produce gains of 1.5 grade levels, compared to gains of only a half grade among teachers at the bottom of the pool.

In September 2018, the Alabama State Department of Education issued report cards for the state’s teacher training programs, the   Overall, new teachers scored on knowledge of teaching methods, but teacher candidates at a number of colleges fared poorly on mastery of the subject matter they planned to teach. In some cases, only 25% passed these subject matter exams on their first try, though most did pass by their third attempt.

Also included were results from a survey of school principals assessing the degree to which first-year teachers in their schools showed promise as effective teachers.  The pie chart below shows that the majority (59%) entered the profession as effective teachers, with 41% still emerging and needing support, and a small percent needing more corrective remediation.

These are mostly encouraging results as research shows that new teachers learn and grow and become better with experience. Still, state policies surrounding teacher certification vary, and there is debate on what aspects of teacher training are most important. Knowledge of teaching methods and human development continues to be highly valued, but critics in the field argue that more time needs to be spent actively learning through practice teaching in the field with a mentor observing and providing meaningful feedback. Studies are also showing a strong connection between teacher subject matter knowledge and impact on student learning.

Class Size

Class size was identified as a concern by voters in Alabama, and 10% said it was the issue about which they were most concerned. In Alabama, mandated class sizes are established through a teacher-pupil ratio, which provides for smaller classes in earlier grades. Established ratios in Alabama include Grades K-3: 1-18; Grades 4-6: 1-26; and Grades 7-8: 1-29. When districts have to cut their budgets, teachers are let go and class sizes rise.

Support for reducing class size came from research that found small classes could have a positive influence on student achievement. Other researchers have warned that caution is needed, finding that teachers do not necessarily change their instructional practices when class size is reduced and that some subjects may be taught equally as well in larger classes.

Still, it does appear that very large class-size reductions of 7-10 fewer students per class can have significant long-term effects on student achievement. The academic effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, for subjects focused on hands-on group activities, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. They may also be largest in classrooms of teachers who are less well prepared and effective in the classroom. This leads critics to point out that concentrating on developing effective teachers is the best approach since effective teachers can help students learn in both large and small classes.

Student Achievement 

Student achievement was identified as an important issue and was the top concern of 16% of voters. In reality, each of the concerns identified in this brief are justified as concerns primarily in how they affect student achievement or student learning, the primary goal of schooling in most settings. Ultimately student achievement is influenced by a number of factors. Research has found that the education level and income of a student’s parents are the most influential factors shaping how a student performs in school and their later success. At the same time factors at the school and teacher level can make a difference:

  • High-quality expectations for all students
  • A rigorous and relevant curriculum
  • Extracurricular activities that encourage student personal growth
  • High-quality teaching that encourages student investigation, active learning, and methods that appeal to students with different learning styles
  • Enriched use of new technology in teaching and learning
  • Effective use of small classes
  • After school support, tutoring, assistive technology, and more intense individual support as needed
  • Effective instructional leadership
  • Quality leadership, culture, and resources

Why Does Education Matter?

Education is important to a number of people because it will impact their future and the future of their children. Research shows that education has a positive impact on employment, lowers cost for crime, and improves personal health.

Employment and Economic Development

In 2017 the median wage for college graduates was more than twice that of high school dropouts and more than one and a half times higher than that of high school graduates. The unemployment rate was three times lower than for high school drop-outs and two times lower than for high school graduates. Eeducation supports economic development and helps build communities that draw businesses and strengthens cultural institutions.

Lower Crime

Research has found that schooling significantly reduces the probability of incarceration. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 56% of federal inmates, 67% of inmates in state prisons, and 69% of inmates in local jails did not complete high school. Education becomes a strategy for reducing crime, personal tragedies, and the economic costs associated with crime.

Impact on Health

Finally, among many other outcomes, education is positively associated with good health. In the US, adults without a high school diploma can expect to die nine years sooner than college graduates. In today’s knowledge economy, an applicant with more education is more likely to be employed and land a job that provides health-promoting benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and retirement. Conversely, people with less education are more likely to work in high-risk occupations with fewer benefits. Furthermore, education is positively associated with the likelihood of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly.

How Does Alabama Compare?

Unfortunately, Alabama’s education system has consistently ranked among the lowest in the nation, and low among other southern states. Education Week, a highly recognized national publication, annually publishes a ranking of state educational systems using rigorous methods focused on 1) student chance for success (family income and education, enrollment in pre-K, enrollment in postsecondary education); 2) adequacy and equity of educational funding; and 3) student achievement measured by math and reading performance, high school graduation and results from AP testing. Their ranking continually places Alabama between 43rd and 45th among the states, with a grade of D- or C- overall. Where Alabama ranks best is in “chance for success” (grade of C )[i].

Ed Week gives Alabama’s education funding a D+ overall. On various spending indicators it gets an F. Alabama’s education spending is low when compared to other states and the nation. But when spending is adjusted for cost of living differences, it is comparable to other southern states, though still below national averages. For equity, it gets a B+, which raises a few eyebrows. The state share of all education funding is relatively high in Alabama and in other southern states, as well as the amount generated by Federal funds. This creates equity. It is in the capacity of local districts to raise funding through property taxes that inequities occur. Still, the relationship between per-pupil spending and district wealth in Alabama is comparable to other southern states.

Ed Week’s rankings gave Alabama an F for the current status of student achievement, though the state received a D+ for improvement over time and a B for lower achievement gaps between low- and high-income students.  There clearly are large differences in scores on state tests between the wealthiest and poorest districts in the state, and performance appears to be correlated with wealth. At the same time, PARCA’s report on student achievement in 2017 found both high poverty and low poverty students in Alabama scoring low when compared to national averages on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides standardized tests in math and reading that serve as benchmarks for comparing Alabama to other states. Chart 2 compares the percentage of students in Alabama and the US scoring proficient or above on those tests.

NAEP tests are highly demanding, and students in the highest performing states generally do not score beyond 50-60% proficient or above. On a positive note, though Alabama’s results on NAEP have not substantially changed in recent years, results show significant improvement over the past 12-15 years.

What Can Alabama Do?

Strengthen student-based funding

The Augenblick and Palaich report recommended that Alabama consider adopting a student-based funding model that recognizes differences in student needs. This model would seek to spend funds strategically to help each student reach their potential. Another related approach is to adopt a zero-based method focused on estimating costs for meeting state standards that would account for student differences.

Other proposals for improvement focus on setting a long-term plan for achieving adequacy in funding and increasing local funding as a percent of total funding. One approach is for the state to provide a match for local funds with extra fund devoted in low-wealth communities. Both solutions require more funds devoted to public education. One frustration is that increasing funds for education does not always lead to better schools, teaching, and student achievement. While a fair, base amount of funds is critical, other issues get in the way, such as how districts and schools use their funds and the degree to which high performing teachers are motivated to teach in particular communities or schools. Still, studies have demonstrated that when local funds are strategically targeted at supporting students who have been flagged for needing assistance, a positive impact on learning can occur.

Improve Teacher Effectiveness 

Alabama’s report card for teacher training program indicates that new teachers would benefit from greater expertise in subjects they will be teaching. A review of varying approaches to strengthening knowledge of subjects being taught is merited.

Practice in a live classroom setting is essential for new teachers. Alabama already assesses classroom performance in the credentialing process, but attention should also be paid to giving prospective teachers experience in a variety of settings including high-poverty and high-risk schools.

Research has also shown value in pairing prospective teachers with experienced teacher coaches and mentors. Moreover, once teachers enter teaching, it is important that they continue to be supported by access to high-quality, standards-aligned instructional resources and curriculum-based professional learning.

Decisions regarding class size reduction should be made strategically and combined with professional development.

The substantial expenditures required to sustain smaller classes must not only be justified by the impact on student learning by itself but also weighed in regard to other interventions that impact learning.

Research has identified conditions under which small classes and class size reduction is most effective. Rather than mandating across the board reductions or increases in size (in response to budget cuts) districts and schools might benefit from having the freedom to strategically maintain small classes where they are most needed and increasing class size where they are less likely to make a difference.

Furthermore, not all teachers are prepared to take advantage of the benefits of a small classroom. Implementation of small classrooms needs to be accompanied with professional development on how best to maximize learning in a small class.

In addition to the Alabama Reading Initiative, expand access to high-quality Pre-K educational support.

The early years of school through the 3rd grade are critical points in brain development and in shaping a child’s educational and life experiences. Learning to read in the early grades, as promoted through the Alabama Reading Initiative – is an essential part of early development.

But even before that, a stimulating and supportive environment during the preschool years provides a foundation for sustained success.

Pre-school services in Alabama are offered through a diverse delivery model that includes public school systems, childcare centers, Head-start centers, university-based labs, and community organizations such as the YWCA.

To improve the quality and availability of Pre-K education, Alabama nationally recognized First Class Pre-K program provides training, materials, and financial support through the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (DECE), Office of School Readiness (OSR). Continued investment in the spread of quality Pre-K is warranted as many families and children are still on waiting lists for attending First Class Pre-K programs

Strengthen the capacity of local school systems to collect, analyze and use performance data aligned with college and career readiness.

Alabama has made progress in setting standards for college and career readiness that can serve as benchmarks goals for helping students learn and grow. Assessment data can be used to measure the impact of school and classroom interventions on student learning. Effective assessments that produce fine-grained data identify students who need assistance. Support can be targeted at helping these students through after-school programs, tutoring, study skills workshops, personal counseling and mentoring, and individual reading support. Currently, a number of districts lack the capacity to effectively engage data in this way and assistance through regional centers, universities, or organizations like PARCA is needed.

Experimenting with School Vouchers for Low-Income Students

School vouchers provide funded scholarships that allow students to attend a private school of the family’s choice, an option otherwise unavailable to low-income families. After reviewing research some analysts have surmised that vouchers are not likely to increase or reduce student learning, but that competition induced by vouchers has led to improved public schools. This needs to be studied further.

The Alabama Accountability Act provides for a form of vouchers through a program which distributes scholarships to low-income students in Kindergarten through 12th grade to use in participating non-public and public schools. Through the scholarships, parents can choose school environments they perceive as being better equipped to help their children succeed as well as develop attributes and values that go beyond academic test scores.

Recent research conducted by the University of Alabama Institute for Social Science Research found that students receiving scholarships performed similarly to public school students on standardized tests.  The study did not compare scholarship recipients with students attending the public school they would have attended without the scholarship, but rather compared them with public school students across the state. Continuing attention should be paid to assessing the results on for students benefiting from scholarship and the impact on of the scholarship program on public schools.

Conclusion

Developing an education system that helps all children learn is good for Alabama. Low performance and unequal opportunity to learn in public education are often described as “wicked problems” because they are highly resistant to being resolved. PARCA believes Alabama can do better. With effective Pre-K, the growing belief that all students can learn, and new economic development led by strong leaders – Alabama’s educational goals are within reach – and this gives us hope.

[i] Ed Week (2018).  State grades on K-12 Education: Map and rankings.  Quality Counts 2018https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/quality-counts-2018-state-grades/report-card-map-rankings.html

To read the full PDF brief, including tables and charts, click here.


PARCA Annual Survey Addresses Representation in State Government, Public Education and Payday Loans

PARCA collaborated with Samford University to conduct our annual telephone survey of Alabama citizens between June 4 and July 18, 2018. The survey was directed by Dr. Randolph Horn and was under the field direction of Grace Okoro.

The survey addressed topics including the quality of representation in state government, and, in partnership with the Alabama Association of School Boards, questions about public education in Alabama, and, in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, questions about payday loans.

Many trends remained the same from previous years, but some of the results were surprising.

Read the full report here. (PDF)