Most Alabama Cities Grow; Losses Moderate

After being hit hard with declines during the Covid-19 pandemic, Birmingham and Mobile saw an ebb in population declines, while Huntsville and cities in Baldwin County, along with Auburn-Opelika and Tuscaloosa, continued to grow at a rapid pace. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates released this month point to widespread growth in cities in the northern tier of the state, and in the Wiregrass.

Printable PDF available here.

Populations in smaller towns of the Alabama Black Belt, and west and central Alabama continue to decline modestly, according to the estimates. The population also dropped in Montgomery. The capital city didn’t lose as many people as Birmingham in the first year of the pandemic but has seen steady losses over the past three years.

Montgomery’s estimated population decline of 1,657 was the largest drop among Alabama cities and compares to a decline of 695 in Mobile and 243 in Birmingham.

That allowed Birmingham to return to No. 2 in population among Alabama cities. Huntsville continues to move farther into the lead, with a population now topping 225,000.

In terms of metro area population, Birmingham is still more than twice as large, but growth there is occurring away from the central city.

Close-in suburbs Vestavia, Mountain Brook, and Homewood saw population declines, but farther from the city center, Shelby County cities like Chelsea, Pelham, and Calera saw growth.

Despite declines in Montgomery, Pike Road, Prattville, and Millbrook saw increases.

While Huntsville added the most people, adjacent Athens and not-too-distant Decatur and Florence are continuing to see population growth.

Though Mobile County cities are experiencing some population declines, it is clear that the growth in nearby Baldwin County is coming from domestic in-migration. Far more people are arriving in cities like Fairhope, Foley, Daphne, and Gulf Shores than the population declines in Mobile County would produce.

When looking at the entire country, it is plain to see that whatever population change is going on in Alabama pales in comparison to the movement in other parts of the country. New York City’s population declined by over 77,000 in 2023 according to the estimates. Meanwhile, Texas cities like Fort Worth and San Antonio passed more than 20,000 new residents apiece. Closer to home, Atlanta added over 12,000, Charlotte over 15,000, and Jacksonville, Fla, over 14,000.



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Graduation and College and Career Readiness

More Alabama high school students graduated ready for college or careers in 2023, according to data recently released by the Alabama Department of Education.

Printable PDF available here.

Students in the Class of 2023 made gains on all measures, bouncing back from the setbacks suffered during the pandemic and closing the gap between the percentage of students receiving a diploma and the percentage of students meeting the definition of college and career readiness: 91% of seniors graduated, 84% of seniors were college and career ready. That’s the highest readiness rate ever recorded.

The results show progress toward a goal established by the state Legislature and adopted by the State Board of Education that all students demonstrate college and career readiness in order to graduate.

More seniors graduated in 2023, even though this cohort of seniors was smaller than the Class of 2022. Alabama’s college and career readiness rate (CCR) increased by five percentage points over the levels recorded in 2022.

In percentage terms, student readiness increased on every measure. However, college readiness, as measured by scores on the ACT, is still lower for the Class of 2023 than it was for graduating classes before the pandemic.

Still, improved performance on the ACT accounted for the biggest gains in the number of students reaching the CCR benchmark. Follow this link for PARCA’s analysis of ACT Scores for the Class of 2023.

Close behind were big gains in the number of students earning the CCR by successfully completing career-oriented courses taught at high schools, vocational centers, or community colleges, courses known as career technical education. Also, the number and percentage of students earning a career-ready score on ACT’s WorkKeys test increased. A deeper dive into 2023 WorkKeys results is available here. The number of students earning credit through dual enrollment courses at community colleges or universities also increased.

Alabama’s high school graduation rate is among the highest in the country, though that is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2012, Alabama’s high school graduation rate was 75%, trailing the national average of 80%. By 2018, Alabama’s graduation rate had climbed to 90%, exceeding the U.S. rate of 85%. In 2022, the most recent available year for comparison, Alabama’s graduation rate was tied with the U.S. at 88%.

With the sharp rise in the graduation rate came concerns that some students were being awarded diplomas but weren’t prepared for the next step. In 2018, despite that 90% graduation rate, Alabama’s college and career readiness rate was still at 75%.

Pressure to close that gap between graduation and college and career readiness has been building. Last year, the Legislature passed a requirement that by 2026, all students, in order to graduate, must have met one of the Alabama Board of Education’s definitions of college and career readiness. The Legislature subsequently provided $25 million in FY 2024 to support schools in expanding opportunities for college and career readiness. Last year, Gov. Ivey’s Commission on Teaching and Learning recommended allocating $25 million in ongoing support for the grant program.

Students can demonstrate that they are ready for college or the workforce in several ways:

  1. Achieve a benchmark score in one subject on the ACT. Benchmarking on the ACT indicates that a student is likely to succeed in a college class in that subject.
  2. Earn a Silver Certification or above on the ACT WorkKeys test. WorkKeys is a test of knowledge, communication, and comprehension as they are applied in the workplace. Scoring Silver or above indicates a student is ready to enter the workforce in most career fields.
  3. Earn college credit through Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses taken in high school.
  4. Earn college credit through dual enrollment. A high school student can complete courses at a community college or university while in high school. These can be academic or career-related courses.
  5. Complete a progression of Career Technical Education courses in a field.
  6. Earn an Industry Recognized Credential as part of a career technical education course.
  7. Participate successfully in an In-School Youth Apprenticeship Program approved by the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship.
  8. Successfully enlist in the military.

While progress is being made, gaps remain.

In 29 school systems, all graduates were college and/or career-ready. In 20 of those systems, more seniors were college and career-ready than graduated.

On the other hand, in six school systems, the CCR rate was 20 percentage points lower than the graduation rate, indicating that 20% or more of the students who received diplomas hadn’t demonstrated readiness for college or the workforce.

The gaps in graduation rates between subgroups within the school population are relatively narrow: 93% of White students graduate compared to 89% of Black Students and 87% of Hispanic students. Gaps are wider when it comes to college and career readiness: 89% of White students graduate college and career-ready, but only 76% of Blacks and 79% of Hispanics do. Looking at the individual CCR measures, the gap between Blacks and Whites is highest in the percentage of students benchmarking on the ACT. It’s narrowest in terms of the percentage of students earning credit through career technical education. In that category, Black and Hispanic students have a higher CCR rate than Whites.

Using the tabs and menus in the visualization, you can explore the results for individual schools and school systems.



Please consider supporting PARCA. A contribution to PARCA is an investment in our state’s future. As a 501(c)3, charitable contributions allow PARCA to maintain its independence and ability to provide non-partisan support to communities throughout the state. All donations are tax deductible.


Huntsville and Baldwin Continue Population Gains, Birmingham Remains in Top 50 of U.S. Metros

The Huntsville area and Baldwin County continue to add more new residents, while growth in Shelby County and St. Clair County helped the Birmingham Metro Area return to positive growth after two years of population loss. That’s according to new estimates of population change in U.S. counties and metro areas published by the U.S. Census Bureau. The new estimates identify population totals and components of population change as of July 1, 2023.

Printable PDF available here

In addition to the growth in Shelby and St. Clair, Birmingham’s metro population got a boost from an accounting change. In the 2022 estimates, the Birmingham-Hoover MSA ranked No. 50 in population among metropolitan areas and seemed destined to fall out of the top 50 metro areas.

However, in 2023, Walker County was re-added to the Birmingham metro, which boosted the Birmingham MSA population by almost 65,000 and allowed it to climb to the 47th most populous metropolitan area.

Metro areas are clusters of counties where a significant percentage of the population moves back and forth across county lines for work and commerce. According to the most recent data, about 26% of Walker County’s resident workforce commuted to work in Jefferson County or other counties in the MSA. That’s above the 25% threshold that triggers inclusion in the MSA. Walker was historically part of the MSA.

Consisting of 7 counties with a population of 1.2 million, Birmingham is the state’s largest metro area. Huntsville’s MSA, comprised of Limestone and Madison Counties, is second with 527,254.

Trends

As observed in the PARCA’s analysis of state-level estimates released earlier this year, the decline in deaths related to the Covid-19 pandemic improved baseline conditions for population growth. In the 2021 and 2022 estimates, deaths far outnumbered births. In 2023, the number of deaths in Alabama continued to drop, though, due to an aging population and lower birth rate, deaths still outnumbered births.

International immigration to Alabama remains low, but domestic immigration continues to accelerate, according to the estimates. Alabama netted 30,744 new residents through domestic in-migration in 2023, building on an upward trend.

Domestic in-migration is powering population growth in hot spots like Madison, Limestone County, and Baldwin, as well as in suburban counties around Birmingham and Montgomery. In the latter cases, the central county is losing population while suburban counties gain. Across Alabama, 38 of the 67 counties are seeing more people moving into the county than moving out.

Calhoun and Etowah counties, home to Anniston and Gadsden, respectively, are showing population growth after years of decline. Mobile County also grew, breaking a streak of decline. In fact, all of the state’s metro areas posted population gains except for the Columbus, GA—Metro Area, which includes Phenix City and Russell County.

Rural counties, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt, continued to lose population. The biggest drop in percentage terms was Bullock County, where the population declined by 2.4%, or 246 residents, according to the estimates. Hale County was the exception to the Black Belt trend. Hale added 289 residents, which amounts to a 2% population increase in a year.

In numeric terms, Jefferson County lost the most people, with a decline of 2,186. That is less of a loss than in 2021 or 2022. Deaths were down, births were up, resulting in a positive natural change of 394. International migration added 818, a slight increase over the year before. However, domestic migration remained a drain, with 3,417 more people moving out of the county than moved in, according to estimates.

Montgomery County also continues to see significant domestic outmigration, but a slight rise in international migration and births and a drop in deaths helped offset the outmigration. Montgomery County’s population has decreased by 1,321. Autauga, Elmore, Chilton, and Lee counties grew.

Mobile County grew with a smaller net decline in domestic migration, a slight increase in international migration, and a return to positive natural change (more births than deaths). According to the estimates, Mobile County posted a net addition of 242 residents.

Next-door neighbor Baldwin County added 6,976 people, mostly because of people moving to the coastal county. In percentage terms, the Baldwin County metro area, officially the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley MSA, grew faster than any of the state’s other metro areas.

However, the Huntsville MSA netted the most new residents, with Madison County adding 8,995 and Limestone County adding 3,786. Adjacent North Alabama counties like Lauderdale, Morgan, Marshall, Jackson, Lawrence, and Cullman grew.

The Dothan-area Wiregrass counties also saw population growth, as did counties on the Alabama-Georgia Border like Cleburne, Randolph, and Cherokee.  

Most counties bordering Mississippi lost population. The median age in rural counties tends to be higher, which correlates with higher death rates.

Those counties also tend to experience more people moving out than moving in.

Use the tabs and menus to explore the estimates for counties and metros you are interested in. If you want to see how Alabama compares with the rest of the United States, visualizations of the population estimates and change are available for counties and metros across the country.

Similar stats are available for metro areas as well. Use the controls to zoom in on areas of interest.


Alabama Public Opinion Survey

PARCA’s most recent public opinion survey finds, once again, aversion to certain taxes, support for public education, and mistrust in state government. At the same time, the survey finds a lack of consensus on how the state should respond to other critical issues.

Among the findings:

  • Alabamians continue to rank education as the most important state government activity.
  • Large majorities of Alabamians say the state spends too little on education and healthcare.
  • Alabamians have an aversion to taxes but say upper-income residents pay too little.
  • Alabamians are willing to pay more taxes to support education but do not agree on which taxes should be increased.
  • A plurality (48%) of Alabamians would prefer to educate their children in public schools.
  • A majority of Alabamians support school choice options.
  • A large majority believe private schools receiving state funds should meet all standards required of public schools.

PARCA’s annual public opinion survey was conducted between October 24 and December 26, 2023. The mixed-mode sample includes a mix of respondents from a statewide random digit dialed (RDD) sample of cell and landline numbers and an Internet panel provided by Qualtrics. The poll of over 500 Alabama residents was conducted by Dr. Randolph Horn, Samford University, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Research and Professor of Political Science. 

Results of the survey indicate many opportunities for officials to demonstrate responsiveness to public concerns and leadership in crafting public policy solutions.

Download the full report here.


More Students Workforce Ready in the Class of 2023

The number and percentage of high school seniors graduating workforce-ready rose with the Class of 2023, according to the results of ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment, a test of skills given to public high school seniors. The results are another sign that student performance is recovering from post-pandemic lows, though the recovery is not complete.

Printable PDF available here.

The WorkKeys test measures practical math, reading, and graphical literacy skills as they are employed in the workplace. That’s different than the ACT, which tests for knowledge and skills needed in a college classroom. In 2023, 72% of seniors took the test statewide, and 62% of those tested scored at or above the silver level of workforce readiness.

Figure 1. WorkKeys Results, Statewide Trends

WorkKeys is optional, and school systems vary in the percentage of students tested. WorkKeys was given to all seniors through 2019, but the State Department of Education stopped mandating the test. Some systems still test all seniors. Some systems make the test an option for students who haven’t demonstrated college and career readiness by another measure. WorkKeys is one of seven options for demonstrating college and career readiness.

Figure 2. Numbers and percentages of participation and passing the workforce-ready benchmark

In addition, a student’s score on WorkKeys can be a recognized credential in the job market. Some businesses, particularly industrial employers, build WorkKeys into their hiring practices. Working with ACT, those employers have determined what level of proficiency, as measured by WorkKeys, is needed in particular jobs. Depending on their test performance, students earn a platinum, gold, silver, or bronze National Career Readiness Certificate. A student scoring Silver or above has the foundational skills for 67% of jobs that ACT has profiled, and that student is considered college and career-ready by the Alabama Board of Education.

Figure 3. Percentage of all students workforce ready (scoring Silver or Above), by system, 2023 (Pictured are systems in which 90% of students were tested. Adjust filter to see other systems)

In Figure 3, the school systems are shaded by the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in each system. In general, systems with higher poverty percentages tend to have lower percentages of students scoring workforce ready. However, on WorkKeys, the correlation is not nearly as strong as it is with other measures, like the ACT college readiness test. WorkKeys seems to provide a more even playing field for comparative performance.

However, the 2023 WorkKeys test results do show a pattern similar to other assessments in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. After dropping in 2020, 2021, and 2022, WorkKeys results rebounded more strongly among nonpoverty students in 2023. In contrast, students from low-income backgrounds have been slower to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 4. Percentage Workforce Ready by School, 2023

The visualization below presents the results in a more detailed fashion. Each color represents the percentage of tested students scoring at each level: platinum, gold, silver, bronze, and no certificate earned. Use the menus to adjust the comparison and use the various tabs, to explore different aspects of the data.

Figure 5. WorkKeys Results, by level of certification, by system, 2023

Alabama ACT Scores Climb

ACT Scores for Alabama public high school students improved in 2023, bucking a downward trend nationally and providing another clue that Alabama schools began recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic more quickly than schools nationally. Students in the graduating class of 2023 were in ninth grade when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S.

Printable PDF Document Available Here

Figure 1. Alabama Public High School Average Composite Scores, 2015-2023

Alabama’s Class of 2023 still trailed the score levels of classes tested prior to the academic disruptions wrought by COVID-19. The average composite score in 2023 was 17.72 on the ACT’s 36-point scale, up from 17.69 in 2022 but down from 18.58 in 2021.

The percentage of test-takers who achieved ACT’s college-ready benchmark in all four tested subjects – English, reading, science, and math – climbed to 12.8%. According to ACT, students scoring at or above the benchmark on a subject test have a 50% chance of earning a B in an introductory college course in the subject and a 75% chance of earning a C.

Figure 2. Percentage of students scoring at or above the college-ready benchmark in 2023, by subject

The scores of students from low-income households fell further during the pandemic and have not recovered to the same extent as students from non-poverty households.

The percentage of non-poverty students who were college-ready in reading was higher in 2023 than in the graduating Class of 2020. In English and science, the non-poverty students in the Class of 2023 had nearly closed the gap. In math, non-poverty students still have some catching up to do.

In comparison, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who scored college-ready in 2023 remains significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 3. Comparing Poverty and Non-poverty Students’ College Ready Percentage, by subject, by selected years

Compared to other states

Nationally, a shrinking percentage of students of students were college-ready in 2023. In all four subject areas, the percentage of students scoring at or above the college-ready benchmark was the lowest in recent history. The average Composite score declined by 0.3 points, from 19.8 in 2022 to 19.5. Immediately before the pandemic, the U.S. average ACT composite score was 20.7 in 2019. While Covid led to sharp drops in scores, the national average score on the ACT has been trending down for several years. In 2017 and before, the national average composite was 21.

Comparing Alabama’s average composite score to the national average isn’t appropriate because of the difference in the universe of test-takers in different states. All Alabama public high school students take the ACT. In many states, only college-bound students take the test. Other states focus on the SAT instead, leaving only a small portion of students to take the ACT.

Looking strictly at the states where 100% of students took the test, the average composite score was 18.3, compared to Alabama’s 18 (When it comes to state-to-state comparisons, ACT provides a different state average than the data strictly focused on Alabama public school students).

Data provided by ACT and accessible through ACT’s online dashboard indicates that White students in Alabama have caught up to and scored at the same average as White students in other 100% states. However, Black and Hispanic students in Alabama haven’t regained as much ground. There also appears to have been a steep jump in the percentage of students scoring in the lowest ranges of the test. The percentage of Alabama students who scored 15 or below jumped from 34% to 41% during the pandemic.

Figure 4. Trends in the percentage of ACT test-takers in score ranges US vs. Alabama

Focus on Alabama Scores

Alabama students’ average scores improved in reading, English, and science but not math.

Figure 5. Trends in scale scores by subject

System Level Results

At the school system level, systems with a higher proportion of non-poverty students post higher average scores. Systems with a higher concentration of poverty post lower average scores.

Using the menu options on the right of the visualization, you can adjust variables to see the data through different lenses. Figure 6 presents the average scale score of non-poverty students in each system. Applying this different lens helps identify high-performing systems where higher poverty percentages might affect overall performance. More than half of the students in systems like Brewton, Huntsville, Haleyville, Jasper, and Demopolis are economically disadvantaged. But the Non-poverty students in those systems post average scores that rank them in the top 20 of school systems,

Figure 6. Non-poverty student’s average scores, by system

Meanwhile, Figure 7 compares the average scale score of economically disadvantaged students attending the various systems. Again, this different lens reveals a different set of high-performing schools. More than 40% of students in Satsuma, Saraland, Arab, and Oneonta are economically disadvantaged, and yet economically disadvantaged students there score higher than the all-students average statewide. Economically disadvantaged students make up more than half the student body in Brewton and Winfield, but despite that concentration, the system average for students in poverty ties or beats the state all-student average.

Figure 7. Economically Disadvantaged Students’ Average scores, by system

Examining results at the school level is also important for identifying high performance. Figure 8 presents the average scores of Black students by school. The highest average scores are found in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Huntsville magnet schools.

Figure 8. Black students’ average scores, by school

Use the menus and tabs to explore data on your own, find your school or system, and make comparisons keeping in mind student body socioeconomic composition. Available data options include:


Shifts in Public School Enrollment Seen in the 2023-2024 Fall Attendance Data

Alabama’s public school enrollment is down slightly for the 2023-2024 school year, with a decline in the number of white students enrolled, partially offset by a growing enrollment of Hispanic students. Just over half of public school students, 51% are white, 32% Black, and 11% Hispanic. This year’s enrollment continues a long-term trend. In 2000, 62% of students were white, and the percentage of Hispanic students barely registered.

The percentage of students identified as economically disadvantaged is at an all-time high, with 60% of enrolled students directly qualifying for a free lunch under the National School Lunch program. Qualification is based on having a household income that qualifies for federal benefits like housing, food, or health care support. The percentage of children identified rose substantially after Alabama’s Medicaid program began working with the Department of Education to identify students who qualified for Medicaid and related benefits. Coming out of the Covid pandemic, the number of families and children is elevated. Federal law prohibits states from removing patients from Medicaid rolls during a public health emergency. With the public health emergency now over, Medicaid is reassessing which households remain eligible.

The school systems seeing enrollment gains are generally found in places where the population is growing: north Alabama systems in and around Huntsville and to the south in Baldwin County. Growth in enrollment is also occurring at public charter schools that are starting up or adding grades. School systems offering online or virtual school programs have also shown gains. Read Al.com’s reporting on trends in school populations.

Rural systems saw the largest declines in percentage terms. Large county and city systems in Mobile, Montgomery, Shelby County, and Birmingham accounted for the larger numeric declines in enrollment.

Use the tabs to explore data, for your local schools and systems.


Changes to the State Standardized Test and its Scoring

The Alabama State Board of Education voted on Thursday to change the test score students must earn to be considered reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The change was recommended by testing experts due to changes made in the content of the 2023 test and shifts in results.

Using the score the state had in place, 24% percent of third graders who took the state standardized test in the spring of 2023 would have scored below the grade level reading mark. Using the target adopted by the board on Thursday, 17% of those students would have scored below grade level.

The grade-level reading target will take on increased importance this spring when the retention provision of the Alabama Literacy Act takes effect. At that point, students testing below grade level by the end of third grade could be held back. (Students will have a chance to get up to grade level during an intensive summer literacy camp. Other exemptions and methods of evaluation are also available).

The second and third-grade reading cut score changes received the most attention because of the implications. However, the changes to the state standardized tests of English Language Arts (ELA) were made across all grades in 2023. Along with changes in test content, the test scale was shifted, and proficiency cut scores adjusted. The changes make performance comparisons and trends across years difficult to interpret.

The Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP) is a series of standardized tests specifically built for Alabama, designed to test students at each grade level as they progress through the Alabama’s courses of study in English Language Arts, Math, and Science.

The original ACAP reflected the course of study in place in 2020. However, in 2021, the state adopted a revised ELA course of study. That revised course of study included a heightened focus on reading skills as called for by the Alabama Literacy Act. Changes to the course of study included:

  • phonemic awareness and fluency added in grades 2-3;
  • phonics added in grades 2-5
  • listening skills added in grades 2-8
  • text-dependent writing added to grades 2-3
  • Recognizing and producing writing in different modes: narrative, informational, and opinion writing added in grades 2-8

Thus, with new concepts and points of emphasis added to the test, the test results were re-examined in light of the changes. Cut scores for the four achievement levels were adjusted. As a result, the test score a student needed to be considered proficient, i.e. scoring at either level 3 or level 4, was changed.

Comparing 2023 and 2022 results, average numeric scores in 2023 were lower in every grade but 6th. However, since the tests were changed and the scales were changed, the state department recommends against comparing scores from year to year.

While mean scores were down, proficiency rates were generally up. The percentage of students earning a score in the proficient range increased in all grades except third and eighth, where proficiency declined by 1% and 3%, respectively. The biggest jump in proficiency was in fifth grade, where the percentage of students scoring proficient jumped 9 percentage points. That is despite a large decline in the numeric mean score in 5th grade.

Because the tested material changed and the test scale was shifted, it is difficult to say if the score changes and proficiency changes were due to changes in student performance, changes in the scoring, or a combination of those and other factors.

Three of eight State Board of Education members voted against lowering the cut score that determines which students are reading below grade level. Those members expressed concern that students who weren’t prepared for the next academic level would be promoted and find themselves far behind and without the literacy support available in the early grades.

However, the majority of board members expressed support for following the advice of testing experts, recognizing that students this year were essentially taking a new test that required a new evaluation of results. Even with the lower cut scores, education officials are expecting a sharp increase in the number of students being required to repeat third grade in order to catch up in reading.

About half the states have some sort of retention provision. Alabama’s approach is modeled after Florida and Mississippi efforts. Both those states have seen large gains in reading on national assessment after implementing a systematic approach to literacy instruction.

Like those states, Alabama has dramatically increased funding and professional development for reading instruction and has especially targeted schools and systems with high concentrations of struggling readers.


2022 City and MSA Population Estimates

Huntsville continued to surge ahead as Alabama’s three other largest cities lost population to surrounding suburbs. However, the pace of decline slowed in Birmingham and Montgomery, as it did in many cities nationwide that were hit hard by pandemic-driven change.

That’s from the latest estimates produced by U.S. Census Bureau. The estimates cover the period between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, a period during which the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continued to echo.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many urban centers have seen an erosion in population, both from heightened death rates and outward migration due to changes in work and commuting patterns. In 2022, some central cities began to bounce back, particularly in the South. Nashville and Atlanta returned to population growth.

Meanwhile, other Southeastern cities barely slowed during the pandemic and have since accelerated. Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Florida, landed in the Top 10 for growth in 2022, along with Florida and Texas cities.

Alabama’s Four Large Cities

As the 2020 Census approached, the state’s four largest cities had converged at about 200,000 residents each. As the cities have changed ranks, population trends have become increasingly closely watched. (Coverage by Al.com).

Long the state’s largest city, Birmingham’s population peaked in 1960 at 340,000. After 1960, almost all Birmingham-area residential growth occurred in surrounding suburbs rather than the city. A downtown urban residential renaissance in recent years hasn’t been enough to offset the shift to newer housing farther from the city center. According to the estimates, Birmingham is now the third largest city, behind Huntsville and Montgomery. However, Birmingham’s urban core remains larger, and its metro area is more than twice as large as Huntsville.

Meanwhile, Huntsville’s population growth has been spurred by both private and public defense and technology investment, as well as by the successful recruitment of manufacturers like Mazda-Toyota and Polaris. And unlike Birmingham, Huntsville has been able to add population because it strategically annexed land where residential and job growth is taking place. Instead of being surrounded by a ring of suburbs, Huntsville now encircles its largest suburb, Madison.

Mobile has seen steady population loss but is pursuing an annexation campaign to boost its population above Birmingham and Montgomery.

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

When looking at groupings of urban counties known as metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the state’s largest MSA, Birmingham-Hoover, saw a population decline according to the estimates. Data released earlier showed that growth in Shelby and St. Clair County didn’t offset the larger out-migration from Jefferson County and the elevated rate of death rate experienced in Jefferson County. In the new 2022 estimates, most of the inner ring of Birmingham suburbs also showed a population decline, with the growth concentrated farther from the city center. Mobile, Gadsden, and Columbus, GA-AL MSAs also saw declines. The rest of the state’s MSAs posted population gains.

A cluster of north Alabama MSAs — Huntsville (Limestone and Madison County), Decatur (Morgan County), and the Shoals (Colbert and Lauderdale Counties) — saw the most growth. In percentage terms, Baldwin County MSA grew the fastest.

Growth in Smaller Cities

Most of the population growth occurred outside of the big four cities. Tuscaloosa and Auburn-Opelika continued to see population increases. Tuscaloosa has seen Alabama’s most significant bump in its total population since the 2020 Census. Part of the rise in the numbers was due to what amounted to a recount. Tuscaloosa successfully argued that the 2020 Census undercounted the city’s population since most students had left for home during those early days of the pandemic. After considering new data, the Census Bureau now counts Tuscaloosa’s population at over 110,000, more than 10,000 residents higher than the 2020 estimates base.

Huntsville neighbors Madison and Athens were among the big gainers, as were more distant neighbors in its orbit like Cullman, Florence, and Muscle Shoals.

Baldwin County’s growth is widespread to the south, with several cities — Foley, Daphne, Fairhope, Gulf Shores, and Loxley — among the top 20 for growth in Alabama cities.

The most recent estimates showed close-in Birmingham suburbs Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Mountain Brook, and even Hoover as declining in population. The high cost of houses and short supply in the already-developed suburbs has likely affected the trajectory of population levels in those communities. Meanwhile, newer suburbs farther afield, like Helena, Chelsea, and Calera, continue to see growth.

Montgomery, which was long the only sizeable city in Montgomery County, is seeing population growth in its relatively new neighbor, Pike Road, which has added more than 1,000 new residents since 2020. Prattville is seeing similar growth levels.

The population is growing modestly in Wiregrass communities, the biggest gainer being Enterprise which has added about 1,000 residents since 2020.

Cities surrounding Anniston and Gadsden have continued to see very modest population changes.

Across Alabama, about 55% of cities lost population in the most recent year. Wide swaths of rural Alabama, particularly in the west and central part of the state, are experiencing population decline. Only 50 cities statewide out of 460 added 100 people or more between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, according to the estimates.


Grad Rate Dipped, but Career Readiness Climbed for Class 2022

As graduation approaches for the Class of 2023, there’s new data available allowing us to look back on last spring’s graduates.

The Class of 2022 faced particular challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which struck when they were sophomores and persisted through their junior year. In both those years, the number of kids who dropped out was elevated: over 1,000 juniors from the Class of 2022 cohort dropped out, more than double the number of juniors that dropped out in the Class of 2021.

In the end, 89% of seniors graduated, compared to 92% in 2011, but those that persisted were more likely to finish college- and career-ready (CCR).

The Class of 2022 posted a significant jump in the percentage of CCR seniors, thanks to a jump in the percentage of students earning workforce-related credentials and an increase in dual enrollment.

In 2022, 79% of seniors were certified as CCR, up from 76% in 2021. That gain was despite a large drop in the percentage of seniors testing college ready on the ACT. (See PARCA’s previous analysis on the ACT results).

Fig1. Trends in High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness

The Class of 2022 broke a trend of smaller graduating classes, and despite the elevated dropout rate, more students graduated.

State leaders had been calling on schools to close the gap between graduation and career-ready rates.

A lower graduation rate combined with college-and-career readiness means that the gap between graduation and readiness narrowed to 10 percentage points, compared with 15 percentage points the previous year.

Shifts in Readiness

High school students can demonstrate college and career readiness in several different ways. Figure 1. allows you to explore trends on each measure. Diving below the surface on these measures presents a mixed picture of the Class of 2022.

Fig. 2 College and Career Readiness Measures, by Percentage of Seniors Earning

College and career readiness can be demonstrated by one or more of the following: 

  1. Earn an Industry Recognized Credential through Career Technical Education: 39% of students earned an industry-recognized credential through career technical education in 2022, the highest rate for any class. These credentials result from taking work-oriented courses offered at high schools or K-12 career tech centers. Credentials must be tied to a student’s course of study and should be valued in a career field that is in demand in the regional job market. According to State Department of Education data, in 2022, the biggest jump in credentials earned was in certifications in the use of Microsoft software. Big gains were also posted in the number of students earning Certified Guest Professional credentials, a credential associated with the hospitality industry, and in Adult Beef Quality Assurance, an ag-related credential. Also posting gains were credentials associated with healthcare, construction, forestry, and the military’s ROTC programs. Across all grades, the 2021-2022 academic year saw more students earning CTE credentials than ever before: 33,535 compared to the pre-pandemic peak of 31,062 in 2019. While the growth is laudable, attention should continue to be focused on the quality and value of the credentials available.
  2. Earn Credit Through a College: a higher percentage of students earned college credit while in high school in 2022 than ever before: 18%. That’s up from 17% in 2020. These courses, also known as dual enrollment, tend to be taken through a local community college but can also be through a university. The student must successfully complete the course and earn credit to qualify as CCR.
  3. Earn a Qualifying Score through College-level Courses Taught in High Schools: Advanced Placement (AP) courses are taught in a high school but have the rigor and approach of college courses. In 2022, 12% of students qualified as CCR through AP, which is tied for the highest percentage ever. To count as CCR, a student has to score three or higher (out of 5) on the national end-of-course test, a level at which a college might award college credit. The number of students qualifying through success in International Baccalaureate (IB) classes also increased. IB is similar in rigor to AP, though less widely used.
  4. Earn a qualifying score on WorkKeys: 39% of seniors demonstrated college readiness by performing well on ACT’s WorkKeys test. This marked a recovery in the number and percentage of students qualifying by this measure. After dropping from 2019 to 2021, 2022 saw a recovery of 5 percentage points in 2022. WorkKeys is a standardized test designed to measure whether students have the math and communication skills expected in workplaces. WorkKeys is no longer required, and, in many systems, students who have already demonstrated college and career readiness by another means opt out. (More on WorkKeys results below)
  5. Earn a benchmark score in a subject test on the ACT: The percentage of students scoring at or above the college-ready benchmark on the ACT was down by 8 percentage points in 2022, to 37%. This rate has been dipping consistently every year and is now down 14% from 2018.  A student scoring above the benchmark has a 50% chance of earning a B or above and a 75% chance of making a C or above in that course in college. Covid disruptions may have had some bearing on students’ ability to prepare for and take the ACT, which tests readiness for success in college. Alabama’s drop in performance coincides with a national drop that began before Covid but appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
  6. Successfully enlist in the U.S. Military: The same percentage of students gained admission to the military, but that represents an increase of from 519 in 2021 to 590 in 2022. However, that total is less than half of what it was in 2018 when 1,129 seniors entered the military after high school.
Fig. 3 College and Career Ready, by Number of Seniors Earning

The Class of 2022 deviates from recent trends. Over the past few years, fewer students have been progressing through Alabama public schools. From 2018-2021, class sizes were down 7%. During that time, we saw a 6% decrease in graduates and a 5% decrease in career or college-ready students. In 2022 however, we saw a class size increase of 5%, a 2% rise in graduates, and an 8% rise in career or college-ready students. This symbolizes a return to pre-pandemic numbers. However, the new generation of students is known to be smaller. In light of this and the ongoing elevated demand for skilled workers, Alabama must focus on graduating every student with the skills needed to succeed in higher education and/or the workplace.

School and System Results

Last year, one system and twenty-four schools reported a 100% on-time graduation rate. This year, one system, Magic City Acceptance Academy, and only fourteen high schools reported a 100% on-time graduation rate. Fourteen high schools reported both 100% graduation and 100% CCR rate. In some schools, a higher percentage of seniors demonstrated college and career readiness than graduated.

Fig. 4 CCR and Graduation Rates by System, 2022

On the other hand, fifteen schools had graduation rates below 75%. Nineteen high schools had CCR rates below 50%. Only nine school systems had a gap greater than 25% between their graduation rate and the college and career readiness rate. In those systems, more than a quarter of students receiving diplomas hadn’t demonstrated their readiness for college or work, despite having met Alabama’s requirements for obtaining a high school diploma.

In the visualizations below, school systems and schools can be sorted by either graduation rate or college and career readiness rate. The solid-colored horizontal bar represents the graduation rate; the short vertical bar represents the CCR rate. Through the tabs above the visualization, other data is accessible, including a graph of the gap between the graduation and CCR rate by system.

The same set of sortable data is available by school. In order to protect student privacy, results for small subpopulations of students are not presented.

Fig. 5 CCR and Graduation Rates by School, 2022

Gaps Between Subgroups

Historically, there have been gaps in the high school graduation rate between students of different races. In 2022, the gaps in graduation got slightly bigger, and the gap in overall CCR was slightly reduced. Some trends seen in past years are continued or even exaggerated. CCR rates for economically disadvantaged students are well behind those of non-economically disadvantaged students. Examining the subcomponents of CCR, the gap is widest on the ACT despite everyone achieving lower numbers from years past.

Only 18% of Blacks and 22% of Hispanics benchmarked in a subject on the ACT, compared to 47% of whites. Asians are much further ahead, with 68%. By contrast, there is almost no racial gap in college and career readiness rates in career technical education: 38% of Black students earned an industry-recognized credential through CTE compared to 40% of whites and 40% of Hispanics.

Fig. 6 CCR and Graduation Rates by Subgroup, 2022

WorkKeys

The number of high school seniors taking ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment increased by almost 4,000 in 2022, a major reversal in a downward trend in the use of the test.

Along with higher participation, a higher percentage (60%) and a greater number of students (2,833) qualified as college and career ready as a result of their scores.

Fig. 7 WorkKeys Results, Statewide Trends

WorkKeys is given to seniors and is designed to measure practical math, reading, and graphical literacy skills as they are employed in the workplace. That’s different than the ACT, which tests for knowledge and skills needed in a college classroom.

WorkKeys was given to all seniors through 2019, but the State Department of Education stopped mandating the test in 2019. While some systems still test all seniors, some systems make the test an option for students who haven’t demonstrated college and career readiness by another measure.  

Some businesses, particularly industrial employers, build WorkKeys into their hiring practices. They have determined what level of proficiency, as measured by WorkKeys, is needed in particular jobs. Depending on their test performance, students earn a platinum, gold, silver, or bronze National Career Readiness Certificate. A student scoring Silver or above is considered college and career ready.

Jefferson, Mobile, Montgomery, Limestone, and Lauderdale County systems, as well as city systems in Huntsville, Birmingham, Florence, and Madison recorded large increases in the number of students taking WorkKeys and successfully earning credentials.

Fig. 8. Number of Students Workforce Ready 2022 and Change from 2021

The visualizations that follow present WorkKeys results statewide and in systems where more than 90% of seniors took the test. The percentage of students scoring workforce ready are those that score Silver or above.

Fig. 9. Percentage Workforce Ready by System, 2022

The visualization below presents the results in a more detailed fashion. Each color represents the percentage of tested students scoring at each level: platinum, gold, silver, bronze, and no certificate earned.

Fig. 10. WorkKeys Results, by Level of Certification, 2022