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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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
ACT Scores Fall for the Class of 2022
In Alabama and across the country, average scores on the ACT, the widely-used college readiness test, dropped for the pandemic-plagued Class of 2022, with Alabama scores reaching their lowest point since 2015.
Compared to the Class of 2021, Alabama public high graduates’ average composite score dropped by almost a point from 18.6 to 17.7 on a 36-point scale.
That’s down from a high of 19.2 reached by the Class of 2017. The 2022 drop was sharper than but parallel to a half-point decline in the national average ACT score. ACT reports that the 2022 composite is the lowest national score in over three decades. The percentage of students rated college ready also dropped in every tested subject.
In Alabama, only 12.5% of seniors in the Class of 2022 scored at or above the college-ready benchmark in all four subjects. The subject with the highest college-ready rate was English, in which 40% of students met or exceeded the benchmark. In math, only 16.9% met the college-ready standard.
This PARCA analysis of ACT results includes interactive charts to explore and compare the performance of your local school and school system. Use the tabs above the graphs to explore different views of the data. Use the menu options on the right to change the subject being viewed or toggle through results for various demographic subgroups.
Why the drop in scores?
The most immediate explanation for the drop in scores is the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the Class of 2022 experienced a relatively normal senior year in 2021-2022, their sophomore and junior years, key ACT preparation and testing years, were disrupted.
In their sophomore year, in-person schooling ended abruptly in March 2020. Their junior year, which began in the fall of 2020, featured an uneven mix of remote and in-person learning. All Alabama juniors take the test in the spring, with some retesting into the senior year.
At the same time, many colleges dropped the requirement that students take a standardized admission test. So, students who previously would have taken the test several times in hopes of improving their scores were less motivated to do that.
On average, students who take the test multiple times improve their scores. According to ACT, the number of Alabama students taking the test three or more times declined from approximately 21,000 in 2017 to 13,000 for the graduating class of 2022. The results presented in this dataset and previous years are based on the highest scores achieved by graduates.
The drop in scores was prevalent across most Alabama schools and systems. There was no discernable pattern in the performance decline across schools and systems. Neither the socio-economic mix of the student population, per-student funding, or previous ACT score performance correlated with the changes.
Among demographic subgroups, White and Hispanic students saw steeper drops in performance than Blacks and Asians. As with most standardized tests, score gaps exist between racial, ethnic, and economic groups. On average, Blacks and Hispanics earn lower test scores, and a smaller proportion of test-takers in those groups reach the college-ready benchmark. Asians, on the other hand, outscore Whites.
Students from economically disadvantaged households are also less likely to earn a college-ready score than students who aren’t economically disadvantaged.
While the pandemic’s disruptions are the most immediate and obvious cause for declining scores, the downward trend in performance in Alabama and across the country predates the pandemic. What would have caused scores to rise in Alabama through 2017 and then decline? What factors would be so widespread that scores across the country on all four subjects could be affected?
ACT points to the declining percentage of high school students taking four or more years of core classes: four years of English and three or more years of math, social studies, and the natural sciences. Across demographic groups, students who take the full complement of core academic classes perform better on the ACT.
Why is the ACT important?
Many colleges use a student’s ACT score as a factor in admissions and as a qualification for scholarships. The ACT tests student skills needed for college success in four subject areas: English, reading, math, and science.
Each subject test is scored on a 36-point scale, and the subject scores are averaged to form a composite score. Through research, ACT established a benchmark score in each subject. Scoring above the benchmark is associated with having a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher in the entry-level course in the subject area. Alabama tests all juniors as a way to encourage and support college aspirations among students and also as a measure of how well high schools are preparing students for college.
The ACT has been taken by all Alabama public school students since 2015 when the state began giving the test to all high school juniors. Because all students in Alabama take the test, the state’s scores shouldn’t be compared to the national average or to other states where the test is only taken by a subset of students, those applying to college.
The ACT serves as one of several measures of college and career readiness for students. Students whose score meets or exceeds the college-ready benchmark on one of the subject area tests are deemed college ready.
By giving all students the ACT, the state provides an opportunity for all students, regardless of wealth or family background, to take the test and consider pursuing a college education. Performing well on the ACT can attract the attention of colleges seeking and qualifying students for scholarships. Alabama is one of 16 states that test all or most high school students using the ACT.
The ACT also serves as a measure of how well high schools are doing at preparing students academically. Federal and state governments require a standardized test as part of their accountability requirements, and Alabama uses the ACT as its measure.
The ACT’s role in accountability and the decline in scores has some in the education community advocating for replacing the ACT.
At March’s Alabama State School Board meeting, at least two board members questioned whether the ACT was the proper test for accountability purposes. The ACT is designed to predict student preparation for success in college-level classes and doesn’t necessarily reflect the content required by Alabama’s course of study.
At the same time though, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has set goals for raising Alabamians’ level of educational attainment. Some rise in attainment levels can be accomplished through technical training. The resulting credentials can improve income and career path. But a bachelor’s degree or higher still provides a more significant boost when it comes to better job prospects over the course of a lifetime. So, raising college-going and competition rates remains a key priority.
And despite the fall in scores on the ACT over time, Alabama’s high school graduation rate has increased over the same period, and the percentage of those graduates going on to four-year college has remained steady. Those two factors have meant the number of Alabama students proceeding on to four-year college has increased, despite the overall student population trending down. Meanwhile, the pandemic and the high demand for workers have led to a drop in the number and percentage of students going straight into two-year colleges. That’s not uncommon. In periods of low unemployment, more people are drawn directly into the workforce. For a more detailed analysis and discussion of college-going in Alabama, you can consult PARCA’s analysis of the most recent college-going rates.
Who Cares About Childcare? PARCA Annual Forum, 2023
Gov. Kay Ivey identified affordable and high-quality child care as a key priority in her speech to the Public Affairs Research Council’s Annual Forum, held Friday, March 10, at the Harbert Center in Birmingham.
“Many Alabamians and others across the country face a dilemma in finding safe, reliable childcare,” Ivey told the crowd of close to 400, “As more and more Alabamians join the workforce, which is a very positive development for our state and quality of life, more working families will also be in need of childcare services. There is no better time than right now to address this fundamental need facing this state.”
Friday’s Forum featured researchers, parents, childcare providers, and employers discussing the state’s challenges in fostering an adequate supply of affordable, convenient, and high-quality care for young children and their working parents.
Below you can find the program for the event, which includes biographies of the featured speakers.
Speakers included Alison Hooper, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama’s College of Education, whose research has mapped childcare availability and access across the state, and Cynthia Osborne, the executive director of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center and professor of Early Childhood Education and Policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.
Osborne’s center has developed a 50-state comparison of key policies that relate to childcare, plus statistical comparisons of child well-being and policy options for delivering additional support to children and families. That includes a summary of findings for each state, including Alabama.
The Forum also included a panel facilitated by Janina Nobles, Child Development Instructor and Program Advisor at Bevill State Community College. The panel included a collection of parents, a childcare provider, and an employer to provide a range of perspectives on the issues happening in childcare.
Alabama’s College-Going Rate Begins Recovery; Still Below Pre-Pandemic Rates
Alabama’s 2021 public high school graduates entered higher education at a slightly higher rate than the Class of 2020, according to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. However, with only 55% of graduates entering higher education the year after graduation, the 2021 rate was still much lower than in the years before the pandemic.
Remarkably, though, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling at 4-year colleges is tied with its highest rate on record, with 32% of Alabama high school graduates enrolling at 4-year schools. Even more notable is that the 4-year college-going rate for Black and White high school graduates was equal among the Class of 2021: 33% of Black high school graduates and 33% of White high school graduates in Alabama enrolled in a 4-year college the year after graduation. Historically, there has been a gap between the rate of enrollment of Black and White students in college.
The new data comes from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the state’s higher education coordinating body. ACHE annually queries the National Student Clearinghouse of Data to check which of Alabama’s high school graduates enrolled in college, either two-year or four-year, anywhere in the country in the year following their high school graduation. Maps, college-going destinations, and rates are available for high schools and public school systems by exploring the tabs in the visualization.
The figures for the Class of 2021 show a continuing decline in the number of recent high school graduates enrolling in two-year colleges. Only 11,389 or 23% of graduates enrolled at a community college compared to the more than 15,000 typically normally enrolled in community colleges in the years prior to 2018.
The number and percentage of students enrolling at 4-year colleges increased to 15,856 or 32% of recent high school graduates. Prior to 2019, the number and percentage of students who enrolled in four-year colleges and two-year schools were about equal.
College-going rates have been affected by multiple factors over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2020, as Alabama’s high school graduation rate climbed from 72% to over 90%, the percentage of those high school graduates going immediately into college declined. Some of those additional graduates likely lacked the academic preparation to go straight into college.
Also, in the current economy, demand for workers is at historic highs. Low unemployment and a strong economy typically drive down two-year college enrollment. And statistics support the idea that more high school graduates are entering the workforce rather than pursuing education. According to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, 32.6% of individuals between the age of 16-19 were in the labor force in Alabama in 2014. By 2021, 39% of 16 to 19-year-olds were in the labor force, according to Census.
The Covid-19 pandemic also disrupted college enrollment, particularly at two-year colleges. For graduates of the Class of 2020, two-year enrollment fell under 12,000, marking the lowest total since 2014, the earliest year in the dataset. And for the Class of 2021, the numbers were lower still, 11,389.
While those recent high graduates may be delaying entry to community college, other enrollees have begun to return to two-year colleges. At the height of the pandemic, overall Alabama community college enrollment dropped by 10,000, from approximately 80,000 to 70,000. Recovery began in 2021, and preliminary overall fall enrollment was above 75,000. Some students who didn’t immediately enter may now be returning to pursue a degree.
A final factor appears to have some bearing on the equation. An increasing number of high school students are also enrolled at community colleges, which is known as dual enrollment. In 2018, only 15,372 students took dual enrollment courses. By the 2021-2022 school year, 23,483 students were dually enrolled. Students taking dual enrollment classes can graduate high school with college credit, with an industry-recognized credential, or even with an associate’s degree. That will increase the chances the student will enroll at a four-year college after graduation or flow into the workforce. Those dual enrollment students aren’t captured in the college-going rate data which tracks high school graduates in the year after their high school graduation.
Meanwhile, recovery was more rapid at four-year schools, with 15,856 graduates of the Alabama public high school Class of 2021 enrolling at 4-year colleges. That’s more 4-year enrollees than any year in the dataset, and it comes in a year when there were fewer high school graduates.
In terms of destination, the Class of 2021 sent more students to Alabama 4-year colleges but also increased the number of students going to out-of-state public and private schools. Enrollment at Alabama private colleges was slightly lower for the Class of 2021.
Interesting patterns emerge when college-going statistics are broken down by race. White public high school graduates are more likely to enroll in higher education than Black and Hispanic/Latino graduates: 58% of whites compared to 51% of blacks and 39% of Hispanics.
As mentioned above, White and Black high school graduates are enrolling in equal proportions at 4-year schools. But there has been a significant shift at 2-year colleges. In 2019, 25% of Black high school graduates enrolled at a 2-year school in the year after graduation. In 2021 only 18 percent did.
And among all groups, there has been an uptick in the percentage of recent high school graduates who did not enroll in college the year after graduating. According to the statistics cited above, these individuals are likely finding employment. It’s also possible that some of these high school graduates earned certificates that will allow them entry into a career with plenty of upward mobility. However, state policy should ensure these individuals have ready access to return to the education and training system if and when they need more advanced skills to pursue a more promising career path.
Another Banner Year in Alabama Tax Collections, but Inflation Will Take a Bite
Alabama tax collections grew at an eye-popping rate in the 2022 fiscal year, with particularly strong growth in income tax collections (up 27% over 2021) and online sales (up more than 20%). The strong collections produced surpluses in both primary state accounts, the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and the General Fund (GF).
While the growth is sparking talks of rebates and tax cuts, it will be important for legislators to keep in mind that inflation will increase the cost of operating state government. At the same time, rising interest rates and diminishing levels of federal relief will likely slow growth going forward.
Alabama has had a string of record years when it comes to tax collections, with no discernable drag caused by the pandemic shutdown and the subsequent recovery. Preceding the pandemic, Alabama experienced historically low unemployment and was beginning to increase labor force participation rates, drawing discouraged workers off the sidelines and contributing to income gains.
While the pandemic sent a sudden jolt through the economy, federal relief kept paychecks coming for many and provided stimulus money to households as well. Alabama’s dip in the second quarter of 2020 wasn’t as sharp as some states, and the economy reopened more quickly than some.
In FY 2021, the continued federal stimulus and the recovering job market produced record growth in tax collections. And in FY 2022, total collections grew even faster, 18% across both funds, with the strongest growth in the Education Trust Fund.
The Education Trust Fund
The ETF receives the receipts of state sales and income tax, plus a handful of other revenue streams.
Income and sales tax collections rise with a growing economy and can shrink when the economy contracts and goes into recession. Inflation, which has averaged below 3% over the past 20 years, averaged over 7% during 2022. Since people spend more, sales taxes rise, and tax collections also grow.
At the same time, during FY 2022, there was a strong demand for workers, with historically low unemployment. To attract and retain employees, employers increased wages. Alabama’s workforce returned to and exceeded pre-pandemic numbers in FY 2022. Alabama’s labor force participation rate is still 5% lower than the U.S. rate, but the strong job market has drawn more people back into the labor force.
During FY 2022, the number of people working in Alabama surpassed pre-pandemic peaks, though that didn’t occur until July 2022.
With more workers receiving higher pay comes higher income tax collections. The income tax receipts were up 27% in FY 2022, contributing a total of $7.2 billion to the ETF, up $1.5 billion from 2021. And 2021 wasn’t a down year. Income tax collections increased 21% in 2021. Even in FY 2020, the fiscal year that included the pandemic contraction, income tax collections rose almost 7%.
Rising income tax collections resulted from a variety of factors. In addition to rising wages, corporate profits have been, and continue to be, high. Alabama corporate income tax collections were up 33% in 2022, an increase of $325 million over FY 2022.
Another likely contributor to the substantial 2022 collections was stock market gains in 2021, a year in which the S&P 500 was up by 27%. Taxes on those gains would have flowed in during the 2022 fiscal year.
Considering the poor stock market performance in the 2022 calendar year, revenue from that source will be down in Fiscal Year 2023.
A final contributing factor to the growth of income tax collections is the return to a normal level of auditing by the government after pandemic-related restrictions on face-to-face interactions slowed those efforts. Some of the gains may be attributed to settlements from prior years and increased compliance in the current year.
Meanwhile, state sales tax collections were up 7.66%. Inflation over the period is estimated to have been 7.7%. The state makes some adjustments to the sales tax before making a final deposit in the Education Trust Funds, which slightly decreased the percentage gain to the Education Trust Fund. Ultimately, revenue from sales taxes flowing to the ETF increased 6.8%, or $159 million. The Use Tax, a companion to the sales tax but assessed on out-of-state purchases of goods and machinery, was up 18%, contributing an additional $35 million to the ETF.
The state portion of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT), a tax on online purchases, was up 21%, suggesting a continuing migration toward online shopping. Overall, the SSUT brought $311 million, but 75% of the proceeds went into the General Fund. The SSUT contributed $78 million to the ETF, $13 million more than in 2021.
Overall, the Education Trust Fund grew 21%, an increase of $1.78 billion, with total collections at $10.42 billion.
Because of the Rolling Reserve Act, the ETF is budgeted conservatively, with spending capped by a formula. That formula computes a historical growth rate for the fund, keeping lawmakers from overspending in periods of high growth and preserving funds for lean times. It more than did its job in FY 2022. The ETF bought in $2.75 billion more than the state budgeted for education spending in FY 2022.
When the Legislature convenes in March of 2023, the body will decide what to do with that surplus. While some are proposing tax rebates or cuts, others are urging caution.
The massive injection of federal aid for education, which amounts to over $3 billion over three years, will be tapering off in 2024. Teacher compensation will need to increase to keep pace with inflation and to attract young people into the profession. Regardless, the state has healthy reserves and has continued to budget conservatively with state funds. The FY 2023 ETF budget calls for spending $8.3 billion out of the ETF, $2 billion less than what was collected in FY 2022.
The General Fund
The General Fund also grew, but not at the same rate. This has been typical of the General Fund compared to the Education Trust Fund performance pattern. The Education Trust Fund grows fast when the economy grows, while the General Fund sees a slower growth rate. The General Fund is made up of a hodgepodge of revenue sources. It supports the operation of all the government’s non-education agencies, including Medicaid and the state prison system.
The Legislature has made several adjustments in recent years to increase growth in the General Fund. That’s important because expenses inevitably rise. Not only that, the state has chronically underinvested in some supported by the General Fund, the Department of Corrections, for example. A stable, growing revenue base is needed to address longstanding needs.
Simplified Seller’s Use Tax
The most successful of those adjustments was the establishment of the Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT). The Legislature chose to devote 75% of this tax on Internet sales to the General Fund, which has been one of the state’s fastest-growing revenue sources. The move continued to pay dividends in Fiscal Year 2022.
Revenue from the SSUT was up 21%, an increase of $40 million, for a total contribution to the General Fund of $233 million.
While it continues to grow rapidly as more commerce moves online, the SSUT’s growth rate is slowing. Between 2019 and 2020, revenue from the SSUT doubled, then grew by almost 40% in 2021. In the first years of the tax, revenue grew quickly as vendors who previously hadn’t collected online sales taxes joined the system. Digital commerce also grew especially quickly during the pandemic. The shift toward digital commerce will continue, but revenue gains won’t likely advance as rapidly going forward.
Insurance company taxes also provided a major boost to the General Fund in 2022, up 13% or $65 million more than it did in FY 2021. The tax is assessed on the value of insurance premiums issued. The Insurance Company tax is the largest tax source in the General Fund at $554 million in FY 2022. Before FY 2021, $30 million of the Insurance Company Tax was transferred to the Education Trust Fund. That has ended, providing more support for the General Fund.
The Use Tax, at $272 million, was the second largest contributor to the General Fund. This is a tax on purchases of cars, machinery, boats, mobile homes, or other goods in other states for use in Alabama. A 2015 change in the distribution formula for the Use tax has allowed a greater portion of the tax to flow to the General Fund. In 2022, revenue to the General Fund from the Use Tax increased by 18%, providing an additional $35 million than in 2021.
Rising interest rates increased revenue from the interest earned off State deposits. Revenue doubled, increasing by $20 million to $40 million.
Higher energy prices boosted the tax revenue from Oil and Gas Production taxes, up by 80%, an increase of $17 million.
Total growth in the General Fund increased 8.4%, a slightly higher rate of increase than the inflation rate during the period. Total collections increased from $2.56 billion to $2.87 billion, up $31 million. By the end of 2022, receipts to the General Fund were $351 million above FY 2022 budgeted expenses. The Legislature anticipated the surplus and applied it to the 2023 budget.
The Big Picture
The revenue flowing into the General Fund and the Education Trust fund presents only a portion of the state government spending in Alabama. In addition to the taxes earmarked for the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund, other state revenue streams flow directly to agencies. For example, taxes on motor fuels flow to the Alabama Department of Transportation for highway building. State colleges and universities collected tuition. Federal funds help pay for highways, Medicaid, education, and social services.
About half of Alabama’s public spending is for education, and half is for non-education agencies.
If a recession does cause a contraction in revenues, Alabama is in a better position to weather a downturn than in the past. According to a recent analysis by Pew Charitable Trust, Alabama has the 20th strongest reserves, with $1.4 billion stashed away in Rainy Day Funds. According to Pew’s calculations, Alabama could run 49 days on the amount it has in reserve.
Despite Headwinds, Alabama Gains in 4th Grade Reading and Math
Alabama 4th-grade students performed better in both reading and math between 2019 and 2022, leading to improved national rankings for Alabama on The Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That progress came despite the pandemic, which took a heavy toll on academic performance nationwide. Nationally, NAEP scale scores recorded their worst drops ever.
Alabama was the only state where 4th graders improved in math performance. It was one of only five states to see improvement in Grade 4 reading. Only Louisiana had a higher gain in 4th-grade reading.
To be clear, Alabama’s average scale score gain in both reading and math was not large enough to be considered statistically significant, but, when compared to sizeable scale score declines in many other states, the shift was notable. Alabama’s 8th-grade scale scores were down in reading and math, though, in the case of math, because Alabama lost less ground than other states its national rank improved.
Figure 1. NAEP Performance over time, Alabama vs. U.S.
NAEP results are derived from standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in each state. The most recent test was administered in the spring of 2022. The NAEP is the only assessment that is given in every state and thus provides comparative information across the nation.
Figure 2. Average NAEP scale scores for U.S. States, 2022. Menus change views by grades and subject
Similar findings from state-level assessments
In a separate analysis of state-level assessment data, Alabama’s results have gotten national attention. An analysis produced by educational researchers and shared with al.com showed that Alabama school districts showed greater stability and improvement from 2019 to 2022 than schools in much of the rest of the country.
Since 2003, Alabama students have ranked at or near the bottom in math on the NAEP in both grades tested, 4th and 8th. In reading, Alabama 4th graders had improved enough to meet the national average by 2011 but drifted downward in subsequent years. Alabama 8th-grade reading scores have been in the bottom five consistently.
In 2019, Alabama 4th graders ranked No. 51 in math compared with students in other states and the District of Columbia. In 2022, Alabama 4th graders ranked 39th. In reading, Alabama 4th grade student performance rose from 48 to 38.
Average scale scores for Alabama 8th graders declined in both reading and math. However, other states experienced steeper drops in math, so Alabama’s rank climbed from 51 to 46. In 8th-grade reading, Alabama maintained its rank of 48 out of 51.
Figure 3. Scale score rank of states, by grade and subject
The improvements in 2022 indicate some progress, but Alabama has a long way to go before it is providing a nationally competitive education to all students. In the 2022 results, students in Mississippi once again scored ahead of Alabama in both reading and math at both grade levels. Alabama did close that gap with Mississippi in math and in 4th-grade reading, but the gap widened in 8th-grade reading.
Figure 4. Alabama, Mississippi, and U.S. NAEP scores compared
Results coincide with investments
The positive results coincide with the recent infusion of money and effort in early grades reading. The Alabama Literacy Act in 2019 was accompanied by increased funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). ARI provides professional development and support for teachers. The state also requires a dedicated reading coach to work with K-3 teachers. The coach and teachers monitor reading data, identify struggling readers, and provide enhanced support. That includes providing services from specialists trained to diagnose and work with children with learning challenges like dyslexia.
In math, Alabama realigned its math standards in 2019, with one of the aims being to align better with national expectations represented by the NAEP. The Alabama Math and Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) also altered its tactics, allowing it to reach more schools and teachers. Extra federal relief money also allowed some districts to hire math coaches to work with teachers. In 2022, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Numeracy Act, which provides increased funding and calls for a strategic approach to improving math performance, borrowing some of the approaches deployed to support literacy.
While the gains on the NAEP in 4th-grade reading and math might not be statistically significant, those results mirror improvements Alabama students posted on the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), the state’s standardized test. Compared to 2021, the state saw gains, particularly in early grades mathematics.
Comparing NAEP to Alabama’s test of proficiency
Alabama has administered several different achievement tests over the past decade, which leads to confusion about how Alabama students are performing. Complicating the picture is that the different tests, including the NAEP, have different measures of proficiency. Figure 5 compares the results of the 2022 NAEP with the results of the ACAP, also given in the spring of 2022.
The results of both tests are expressed in terms of the percentage of students who scored proficient or above on the tests.
The bars in red represent the percentage of Alabama students scoring proficient on the NAEP and on the ACAP at both grade levels and in both subjects.
The green bars present the percentage of students in the U.S. that scored proficient on the NAEP.
Figure 5. Scores from Alabama’s ACAP vs. NAEP, 2022, by subject and grade
Comparing NAEP and ACAP results, it is apparent that Alabama’s ACAP English Language Arts assessment is much more generous when it comes to grading student proficiency in English.
In contrast, ACAP produces results similar to NAEP’s in math.
Except for the ELA scores on the ACAP, both tests indicate that only somewhere around 20-30% are reaching proficiency. The National Assessment Governing Board sets proficiency levels and describes them as follows: “Students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” They specify that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent “grade level proficiency” as determined by other state assessment standards.
Figure 6 presents three levels of achievement on the NAEP: the percentage of Alabama students scoring “at or above Basic,” the percentage scoring “at or above Proficient,” and the percentage of students scoring “Advanced.”
Figure 6. Percentage of Alabama Students at each NAEP Achievement Level, 2003-2022
In 4th grade reading and math, students today are ahead of where they were a decade ago: a greater percentage of students are scoring above basic, above proficient, and at the advanced levels.
In 8th-grade math, there has been some progress, while 8th-grade reading gains seen in 2015 and 2017 have fallen away substantially.
The NAEP and the ACAP have provided evidence that Alabama educators and students can improve even in challenging circumstances. The investment and attention to early grades reading and mathematics need to be sustained and accelerated. Alabama has a long way to go to catch the national average or even our neighboring state, Mississippi.
But even as further gains are pursued for younger learners, Alabama needs to find ways to sustain learning gains into middle and high school. The erosion in proficiency in the middle grades could have lasting negative effects in preparing students for high school, college, and careers.
Demographic Change in Alabama, its Counties, and Cities, 2010-2020
Alabama’s population became more diverse over the past decade as the number of non-Hispanic Whites declined and more Alabamians identified as being of a different race, a mixture of races, or of Hispanic descent. In 2010, 67% of Alabama’s population identified as non-Hispanic White; By 2020, that percentage was down to 63%. That’s according to 2020 Census data released earlier this year.
The 2020 Census marked the first decennial census in history that either Alabama or the U.S. recorded a decline in the White population. Demographers expected a decline due to falling birth rates and the aging of the population, including the unusually large and predominately White Baby Boom population. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian populations all increased. But the biggest change was in the number of people identifying as More than One Race, indicating an erosion in traditional ethnic and racial distinctions.
The Census Bureau cautions that some portion of the decline in the “Non-Hispanic White alone” population is likely due to changes in how people responded to new wording on the race question. The Census Bureau changed the wording and presentation of the race question on the 2020 Census. In 2020, for the first time, the “White” choice was followed by example countries of origin in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Similarly, the Black or African American option listed African and Caribbean nations as example origins. All respondents were asked to elaborate on their origins in a text box below their selection. This change from 2010 appears to have led more individuals to reclassify themselves as not being “White alone” but instead as being of more than one race or origin. Regardless, the Bureau believes the new totals present a more accurate picture of an increasingly diverse nation.
Nationally, the non-Hispanic “White alone” population decreased by 5 million or 2.6% from 2010 to 2020.
In Alabama, that population declined by 33,000, from 3.20 million to 3.17 million. Meanwhile, the number of people identifying as non-Hispanic and of more than one race far exceeded the increase in any other category, 124,173, compared to the 78,445 increase in the Hispanic population, the second fastest growing group. The number of non-Hispanic residents who reported themselves as White in combination with another race rose by 118,249, a 222% increase, from 53,260 to 171,509, from 1.2% of the population to 3.6%. The number of respondents who reported themselves as Black in Combination with another race also rose sharply, up 130% in Alabama, the third highest growth rate in the country in that category, a numerical increase of 38,767 over 2010.
Hispanics now make up 5.3% of the Alabama population, while non-Hispanic Blacks make up 25.6%. Non-Hispanic individuals of more than one race make up 3.7% of the population, now the fourth largest demographic group.
Both in Alabama and across the country, non-Hispanic whites remain by far the largest racial group representing 58% of the population nationally and 63% of the population in Alabama. Alabama’s non-Hispanic white population percentage ranks No. 30 among the states. The state with the highest share of its population identifying as non-Hispanic White was Maine at 90%, followed by West Virginia (89%), Vermont (89%), and New Hampshire (87%).
Hawaii has the lowest percentage of non-Hispanic whites, 22%, followed by California (35%), New Mexico (40%), and Texas (40%). Among its Southeastern neighbors, Georgia’s population in 2020 was 50% non-Hispanic white, while Florida’s was 52%. In all states besides Hawaii, non-Hispanic whites decreased as a percentage of the total state population.
Hispanic or Latino growth rate slows
Unlike the changes to the Census question on race, the question of whether or not the individual is of Hispanic or Latino origin has been consistent for several administrations of the Census. The official definition of “Hispanic or Latino” is a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
The number of Alabama residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino continued to grow between 2010 and 2020, but at a more modest pace than in previous decades. Alabama’s Hispanic population increased from 78,445 to 264,047, an increase of 42% over the course of the decade. In 2010, Hispanic or Latino individuals made up 3.9% of the Alabama population; by 2020, 5.3%.
The chart below presents decennial Census results from the U.S. Census Bureau supplemented with Census counts from the 2000 and 1990 Census analyzed by the Alabama State Data Center at the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
Even without immigration, the Hispanic and Latino population will likely continue to grow more rapidly than the non-Hispanic White population because Hispanics are younger and more likely to be of child-bearing age.
The median age of non-Hispanic Whites in Alabama is 43. The median age among Hispanics is 25. Over 8% of the Alabama population under 18 is Hispanic compared to less than 2% of the population 55 and above.
Also, Hispanic mothers have a higher total fertility rate than other demographic groups. The Total Fertility Rate is the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes. Reducing that rate to an average per female, Hispanic females average 1.9 children over a lifetime, Blacks, 1.7; for Whites, 1.5.
Demographers calculate the replacement level, the rate of births it would take to replace any given generation, to be 2.1 children per female. Generally, since the 1970s and consistently since 2008, the U.S. birth rate has been below replacement level, meaning that, absent immigration, the population will eventually decrease because not enough children are being born to replace the previous generation.
Hispanic and Latino individuals are widely dispersed across the state, appearing in every county. Much of the Hispanic population growth likely came from natural increase, state residents giving birth, rather than new immigration. For Alabama, the Census Bureau estimated that 57% of all population growth came from natural increase, 32% from international immigration, and 11% from domestic migration.
Hispanic Population in Alabama Counties
In Alabama, the counties with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents are in North Alabama, in a band stretching from Franklin County in the west to DeKalb County in the east. Those counties where the Hispanic population is most concentrated are also centers for the poultry industry, which was an initial draw for Hispanics settling in Alabama. Secondary concentrations are evident in Tuscaloosa and Pickens counties and in Southeast Alabama’s Wiregrass region. Those are also coincidental with poultry industry concentrations. Higher percentages of Hispanics can also be found in counties like Shelby, Madison, Baldwin, Lee, and Limestone, where residential and commercial construction jobs are plentiful.
But in terms of numbers, the most Hispanic and Latino residents are found in Alabama’s more populated metro counties. Jefferson County’s Hispanic population is now nearly 35,000, while neighboring Shelby is home to over 16,000. Madison County is second in the state with almost 25,000 Hispanic and Latino residents, complemented by strong Hispanic populations in neighboring Marshall (15,658) and Morgan (12,377) counties. Madison added more Hispanic residents than any other Alabama county over the previous decade.
Hispanic Population in Alabama Places
Parallel geographic concentrations of Hispanic individuals can be seen in the population of Alabama cities, towns, and places. Alabama now has two municipalities where a majority of the population is Hispanic: Allgood in Blount County and Collinsville in Dekalb, according to the 2020 Census.
Among cities with a population of 20,000 or more, Albertville (population 22,386) has the highest Hispanic percentage of population, with the 7,545 Hispanics living there constituting 34% of the city’s population.
In terms of numbers of Hispanic inhabitants, the larger populations are found in the state’s big cities. Huntsville has more Hispanic residents, 16,669, than any other Alabama city, followed by Montgomery, Birmingham, and Decatur, each with over 9,000 Hispanic residents.
Near Birmingham, Hispanic communities along the Interstate 65 corridor in Hoover, Pelham, and Alabaster total over 10,000. Out of 597 Alabama cities, towns, and places, 450 saw either flat or increases in the Hispanic population. Among Alabama cities above 20,000 in population, only two, Hoover and Homewood, saw a decline in their Hispanic populations over the decade. Homewood was down by 417, Hoover by 211.
Black and White: Enduring Patterns and Subtle Changes
While the Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial populations are of interest because of their rate of change, the enduring story of Alabama is the population patterns of Black and White, a story stretching back to statehood.
The general pattern remains in Alabama: 11 counties are majority black, the south central Alabama counties of the Black Belt, named for their rich soil, counties that historically had the highest concentration of cotton plantation agriculture and enslaved persons. Those black majorities persisted after emancipation and continue today.
Greene County has the highest percentage of non-Hispanic Black population, over 80%. The most populous majority black county is Montgomery County, with over 229,000 residents, 55% of whom are Black.
Meanwhile, Winston County, in rural northwest Alabama, has the highest percentage of Non-Hispanic White residents at 92%, with Cleburne (91%), Cherokee (90%), Cullman (89%), and Marion (89%) not far behind.
In 11 counties, the Non-Hispanic White population increased. Baldwin County saw the largest increase over the decade, with a gain of 34,000, followed by Madison, Lee, and Limestone. However, those counties all diversified as well. Blacks, Hispanics, and other groups also grew in numbers.
The counties with the most significant decline in the number of residents identifying as Non-Hispanic White were Mobile (-17,201), Jefferson (-15,961), and Montgomery (-14,745). Remember that some of that “decline” in the count may be attributed to individuals reclassifying themselves. However, those population changes in the white population correspond with overall population counts and flows that show continuing movement to suburbs located in adjacent counties.
In each of the central metro counties, the percentage of the population identifying as non-Hispanic White has declined as a share of the population as the Black, Hispanic, and other racial and multiracial subgroups increase. Non-Hispanic Whites represented 52% of Jefferson County’s population in 2010; by 2020, that percentage was 48%. Blacks make up 42% of the Jefferson County population in 2020, roughly the same percentage as in 2010. The Hispanic population grew by over 9,000, increasing from 4% to 5% of the population. The group with the biggest increase in Jefferson County was non-Hispanic More than One Race, up 12,921, constituting 3% of the population.
In Montgomery County, 38.4% of the population was non-Hispanic White in 2010; In 2020, 32%. The Black majority in Montgomery County increased from 55% to 57%. Hispanics increased by 2,370, now representing 2% of Montgomery County’s population, up from 1% in 2010. Asians 3,160, now 4% of the population, while the non-Hispanic More than One Race category increased by 3,519 and in 2020 representing 3% of the population.
In Mobile County, the non-Hispanic White population percentage went from 59% in 2010 to 55% in 2020. The Black population increased by 3,163, or 35% of the county population. The Hispanic community increased by 3,489, raising its share of the population to 3.2%. Like Jefferson County, Mobile County’s biggest growth category was in the non-Hispanic More than one race category, which gained over 10,000, making it the second most populous minority group at 3.7% of the population.
Meanwhile, Madison County’s non-Hispanic White population increased by 16,000, but its Black population grew by 16,052, non-Hispanic More than One Race population grew by 13,027, and its Hispanic population increased by 9,532. Despite the growth in the non-Hispanic White population, its population percentage decreased from 66% of the population in 2010 to 61% in 2020.
Just as whites have sought out new housing opportunities in the suburbs, Blacks make up an increasing percentage of the population in Shelby and St. Clair Counties around Birmingham and are also an increasing percentage of the population in Autauga and Elmore counties outside of Montgomery.
Meanwhile, the Black population is also decreasing in Alabama’s Black Belt,
Race in Alabama Cities, Towns, and Places
When looking at cities, some subtle shifts can be seen in the data. Birmingham, which saw decades of White flight, saw an increase in the White population but not enough to offset significant outflows of Blacks. Meanwhile, Montgomery and Mobile, which had maintained more racial balance for longer than Birmingham, saw outflows of White residents and growth in other demographic groups.
In Huntsville, populations increased across all racial and ethnic groups, though that multifaceted growth also produces a diversified population.
Between 2010 and 2020, Birmingham saw a modest gain in its non-Hispanic White population, with an additional 1,000 residents identifying as non-Hispanic White. Meanwhile, Birmingham’s Black population declined by almost 20,000. The city added about 1,500 Hispanic residents, and the number of individuals identifying as non-Hispanic More than One Race was up 2,685. The city saw a net decline of 11,504. Because of the shift, Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites now represent a slightly higher percentage of Birmingham’s population. In contrast, the Black percentage of the population declined from 73% to 68%., with 23% White, 5% Hispanic, 2% More than one Race, and 2% Asian.
The situation was different in Montgomery. The City of Montgomery’s Black population grew by 4,348, but the White population declined by 17,000. The Hispanic population of Montgomery increased by 1,671. But the most growth came from an increase of 2,591 Asian residents and 3,022 in those reporting More Than One Race. In 2020, Montgomery’s population was 60% Black, up from 56% in 2010. Non-Hispanic Whites dropped from 36% of the population to 28%. Asians climbed to 4% of the population, just ahead of More than One Race at 3%.
In the City of Mobile, the White population declined by 10,570, the Black population declined by 2,697, and the Hispanic population increased by 1,434. An additional 3,410 people in Mobile identify as More than one Race compared to 2010. The Black population now represents 51% of Mobile’s population, up from 50% in 2010. The White population represents 40%, down from 44% in 2010. Hispanic and individuals of More than One Race each make up 3% of the population, while Asians represent 2%.
Meanwhile, in Huntsville, each of the four largest groups grew: Hispanics (+6,157) and non-Hispanic Whites (+14,100), Blacks (+6,745), and non-Hispanic More than One Race (+6,184). The non-Hispanic White population decreased in its share of the population from 58% to 55%. The Black population share decreased from 31% to 29%, but the Hispanic share increased from 6% to 8%. Individuals of More than One Race increased to 4.6% of the population, while the Asian share of the population increased slightly to 2.5%.
Growth in the Asian Population
Though the Asian population in Alabama is smaller in comparison to other demographic groups, there has been notable growth in some areas.
The small fishing town of Bayou La Batre in south Mobile County is the Alabama city with the highest percentage of Asians in the population. The Vietnamese community there, established by people fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War, represents 20% of the city’s population. However, over the past decade, the number of Asian residents declined by 162.
Meanwhile, the Asian population has grown significantly in several communities and counties along the Interstate 85 corridor, home to Hyundai, Kia, and automotive suppliers with ties to South Korea. Auburn’s population is 10% Asian, after adding 4,580 Asian residents between 2010 and 2020. Montgomery’s Asian population increased 2,591, and neighboring Pike Road added 472 Asian residents.
The Asian population also increased in the Birmingham metro — Hoover (+1,793), Birmingham (+1,123), and Vestavia Hills ($897) — and in Huntsville (1,112) and Madison (+1,452).
Alabama and the nation continue to diversify due to birth, death, and migration trends. But the statistics from the 2020 Census show that the nation is also changing through marriage and evolving attitudes toward racial identity as customs and generations change. The chart below looks at the Alabama population by age, with the population color-coded first for race and then for ethnicity. Both charts note the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the younger population.
The shifting demographics challenge Alabama to continue progress toward common goals and increasing equality of opportunity for all.
State Test Results Showed Across the Broad Improvement; Gaps Widened Though
Alabama public school students showed increased proficiency in math, science, and English at all grade levels and across virtually all demographic groups in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the recently released results of the statewide standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP).
Figure 1. Proficiency By Subject (Grades 3-8), 2021 and 2022 compared
While the improvement is welcome, there is a long way to go.
Only half of students across the tested grades (3-8) scored proficient in English Language Arts (ELA). In math, only 28% of students were proficient. Students were tested in science in grades 4 and 8, and 40% of students were found to be proficient. A sub-set of the ELA questions is used to measure whether second and third-graders are “reading on grade level,” a different measure than proficiency. Those results, released by the state department this summer, showed that 22% of third-grade students were below grade level in reading.
This is the second year students have taken the ACAP as the statewide standardized test. Developed specifically for Alabama, ACAP is not taken by students in other states. Comparing ACAP scores to scores on previous assessments (ACT Aspire, Scantron), ACAP finds similar though slightly higher proficiency rates in ELA/Reading as previous statewide standardized tests found. The one national benchmark test, the NAEP, has historically graded tougher, with reading proficiency rates about half what other assessments show. In Math, ACAP seems to be the toughest measure of all, with scores in the range of but slightly lower than NAEP. Past statewide assessments have tended to grade student math proficiency more generously.
A Rebuilding Year
The 2021-2022 school year marked a return to closer-to-normal conditions compared to the 2020-2021 school year, which was marked by the disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic. Improvements were seen not only across all subjects and all grades but across almost all school systems.
Looking at the results by subject and grade, improvements were strongest among the youngest students. The gains were highest in early grades mathematics, a welcome development considering Alabama students’ long-term poor performance in math. The math proficiency rate among third greater increased by 9 percentage points and by seven percentage points in grades 4-6. With urging and support from the Legislature, the Alabama Department of Education is putting additional emphasis on early grades mathematics. The early grade gains show promise. However, the percentage of students scoring proficient in math declines sharply in the upper-grade levels, as it has for years.
ELA scores are also highest in those early grades, with a drop after fourth grade, then a recovery in 8th. In response to the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act, schools and systems statewide have been providing an unprecedented level of professional development for reading instruction for teachers in Grades K-3. As one might expect, growth in ELA scores from 2021 to 2022 was highest in Grade 3.
Figure 2. Proficiency by Grade, 2021 & 2022 compared
Results by Subgroup
Most subgroups of students showed improvement, with the strongest gains being among White, More than One Race, and Asian students. While Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students all posted gains, the higher level of increase among White, More than One Race, and Asian students led to a widening of the score gap between the groups. Nationally and within the state, evidence indicates that systems serving economically-disadvantaged and minority students tended to be harder hit by the pandemic and were slower to return to normal functioning as conditions improved. That may play some part in explaining the disparity.
Figure 3. Proficiency by Subgroup, 2021 & 2022 compared
Proficiency in Context
In general, systems with low rates of economic disadvantage tend to have a higher percentage of students scoring proficient. Schools and systems with higher concentrations of economic disadvantage tend to have lower rates of proficiency. This pattern is consistent nationally across most standardized tests. The economic disadvantage for a system or school is measured by the percentage of students who automatically qualify for a free lunch under the national school lunch program.
The chart below presents school systems according to both their rate of proficiency (the vertical axis) and their rate of economic disadvantage (the horizontal axis). Systems with higher rates of proficiency are higher above the baseline, while the systems to the left of the chart have high rates of economic disadvantage, with economic disadvantage decreasing as you move right. The line sloping up to the right represents the relationship between the two variables and predicts where the proficiency rate of a system at a given level of economic disadvantage. Thus, systems above the line of prediction are performing better than predicted given the level of poverty among students.
Piedmont City Schools, for instance, generated an overall proficiency rate of 60% despite having 54% of students qualifying for a free lunch. That compares to a 2022 state average proficiency across all grades and all subjects of 38% and an average economic disadvantage rate of 41%.
Figure 3. System Proficiency in the Context of Poverty, 2022
Using the same approach to present proficiency results for schools, the relationship between proficiency and economic disadvantage levels is still there, but it is not as determinative, with greater divergence from the line of prediction. That provides further evidence the efforts of educators and communities can make a difference.
Use the menus provided to explore the data or to highlight schools and systems of interest.
Figure 4. School Proficiency in the Context of Poverty, 2022
Student scores on the ACAP fall into one of four levels. According to the scoring system, Level 4 students have an advanced understanding of grade-level standards. Students scoring on Level Three have a strong understanding of standards. Students on Level 2 have a partial but incomplete understanding of grade-level standards, while students scoring on Level 1 demonstrate minimal understanding of the material for the grade level.
Figure 5 presents the percentage of each system’s students that earned scores at each level. Two lines are presented for each system, allowing a comparison of the 2021 and 2022 results. Overall state results are at the top for comparison.
Figure 5. Percentage of students scoring at each level by system
Figure 6. presents the same information on student levels for individual schools. Menus allow the selection of systems. When comparing schools keep in mind the socio-economic mix of the students being served, as well as the school’s status as a magnet or charter school. Results for schools where students are selected or self-selected should be understood in that context. It is also important to remember that schools can change from year to year. Some schools may close or merge with other schools. New schools may open. Grade levels may be added or removed. Any such changes need to be considered before drawing conclusions about performance.
Figure 6. Percentage of Students scoring at each level by school
Large Performance Gains
In 2022, the system that showed the highest overall percentage point gain was Cullman City School, with an 11.6 percentage point gain in proficiency in all subjects combined.
Cullman’s gains were particularly strong in math. Jumps were seen in all grades ranging from a 14 percentage point gain in 8th grade to a nearly 27 percentage point gain in fourth grade.
Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff attributed the success to teachers, students, and parents. Cullman invested federal relief and recovery money in four math coaches across its five schools. Those coaches received intensive summer training from the state department of education’s Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). They continued to receive AMSTI support throughout the year.
With support from the coaches, teachers and students began engaging in number talks, a way of discussing math problems that encourage students to develop mathematical reasoning skills. Cullman teachers also recognized that the rigor of Alabama math standards required them to supplement their math instruction to ensure the standards were covered. to make sure that the math standards were covered.
Teachers paced lessons so that the match standards were covered by April, which allowed time for review and targeting of areas where students needed additional support.
Figure 7. Cullman City Math Proficiency Gains
Explore the data
PARCA provides its analysis and visualization of the ACAP data for the benefit of school leaders and teachers, for parents, and citizens at large. The tabs in the visualizations provide a variety of ways to evaluate relevant data. Use the “full screen” option at the bottom right of the visualizations to access a larger view of the data.
Comparative data is useful for understanding performance in the context of your community and the state. Comparisons over time and with similar schools can be useful in gauging your school’s progress and identifying areas where improvement is needed.