SAIL-ing to academic gains

Summer Adventures in Learning, the Birmingham-centered collaborative of summer learning programs, has expanded to 30 sites this summer offering academically-enriched summer recreational camps, primarily to low-income children.

Children from low-income families often re-enter school in the fall having given up academic progress they’ve made during the school year. SAIL aims to counter this phenomenon, known as the “summer slide,” by providing learning opportunities along with summer fun. The most successful of these programs have seen children make two to three months of academic gain rather than the typical two to three months of slippage that low-income students typically experience.

SAIL was launched in 2012 with the support of six funding foundations and organizations. In 2014, ten funders have provided a total of $675,000 enrichment grants, an increase from the $500,000 provided in 2013. The programs are being offered throughout the Birmingham region, spreading out as far as Jasper and Pinson to the north and Alabaster to the south.

PARCA is assisting in the administration of testing for the students before they begin the programs and as they complete them. The results are used to identify the success of particular models and approaches and flag areas needing improvement. Since early June, 1,344 students have taken STAR assessments for Renaissance Learning, a testing program widely used in public schools. Testing has been conducted at computer labs at multiple Birmingham City and Jefferson County Schools and with the assistance of computer resources from the Woodlawn Innovation Network and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Testing will be performed again at the end of the camps, which typically last five to six weeks.

SAIL funding organizations include the Alabama Power Foundation, the Belk Foundation, the Joseph S Bruno Foundation, the Caring Foundation (Blue Cross and Blue Shield), the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, the Mike & Gillian Goodrich Foundation, the Independent Presbyterian Church Foundation, the Junior League of Birmingham, and the United Way of Central Birmingham. The supporters meet throughout the year with the summer camps and instructional providers to examine the generated data, to learn from each other, to devise quality standards, and to exchange cost-effective solutions to common problems.



Tuscaloosa Community Comes Together to Talk About Schools

IMG_4470The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama hosted an education summit this month, featuring presentations from state Superintendent Tommy Bice, Tuscaloosa City and County School System superintendents, and an analysis of school financial and academic performance data from PARCA.

PARCA Executive Director Jim Williams praised the county system’s innovative plan to divide its far-flung schools into three cohesive feeder patterns and Tuscaloosa City’s plan to grant high school credit for career-related coursework.

There were signs of improvement in school performance data, though both systems have work to do in raising graduation rates and closing the gap between poverty and non-poverty students.  Here’s a link to the full presentation.

“It’s important to recognize the successes that you can celebrate, as well as areas that you might consider focal points for improvement,” Williams said to the crowd assembled at the Bryant Conference Center. “We do this type of analysis at PARCA because we believe that every student can learn at higher levels, and that means every school can improve its results from year to year.”

PARCA works with schools systems and education foundations around the state to help translate education data for the general public and to provide a picture of how local schools are performing in comparison to peer schools and to the state average. Tuscaloosa City has a level of per pupil spending ($9,593) that is higher that the state average ($7,932). But it also serves more children from low-income households: 64 percent of students, compared to the state average of 59 percent. At $7,048 per student, Tuscaloosa County spends less that the state average. It has a slightly smaller percentage of low income students (54 percent) than the state does. Both systems have high school graduation rates (72 percent for the city and 77 percent for the county) that trail the state average of 80 percent.

Both Tuscaloosa City and County are experimenting with new models for school improvement. The city has increased its focus on career education. At its Career and Technology Academy, it offers programs in fields like engineering, animation and film, finance, information technology, mechatronics, and medical science. Under a waiver granted the system the May, advanced students will be able to take end-of-course tests early when they have mastered the content, allowing them to accelerate their course toward college.

Tuscaloosa County system is implementing a plan to divide its schools into three clusters built around feeder patterns from elementary to middle and high schools. Under this plan, each cluster is headed by a director who will tailor the schools to fit the needs of the area they serve.


Tuscaloosa City Schools have improved the number of student student subgroups scoring above the state average on the Alabama Reading and Math Test.


Final look at the Alabama Reading and Math Test

Use this visualization to explore the results for the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) over time for the school system you’re interested in. The ARMT, which tested children in grades 3-8, was administered for the final time in the spring of 2013. The test was given statewide and was designed to gauge how well students in a given system were mastering material in the state’s course of study in comparison to their peers around the state.

In the spring of 2014, Alabama students took the ACT Aspire instead. That test will serve as the new basis for gauging learning levels going forward.

In the interactive chart linked to below the ARMT system results are presented by subject and by grade for four demographic subgroups: poverty, non-poverty, black and white. The performance of each demographic subgroup within the local system is then compared to the state average for that group. For a discussion of statewide trends in the ARMT data, check out the PARCA Quarterly, Spring 2014.

To view the interactive chart, click here.


2013 School System Performance on the Alabama Math and Reading Test

In the spring of 2013, Alabama students in grades 3-8 took the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) for the final time. This spring, new tests developed by the ACT testing company will be given in place of the ARMT and will serve as a measure of student and school performance in these grades.

For the past several years, PARCA has worked with local school foundations and school systems to help them understand their test results. The ARMT has provided a lot of data. Test results are presented in terms of the percentages of students scoring at four levels of mastery, with Level IV in effect being an “A.” Results are available by grade and subject and can be broken down by demographic and economic subgroups within the school population. But the results don’t make much sense unless you have something to compare them with.

So, PARCA developed a system for comparing school and system performance to the state averages, focusing on the percentage of students scoring at Level IV, which best correlates to mastery in national terms. To help make the results more comprehensible at a glance, PARCA color-coded them: dark green to indicate results 10 points or more above average, light green for above average, gray for average, light red for below average and dark red for 10 points or more below the state average.

The chart below presents a summary of the ARMT results for every school system from spring 2013. It shows the percentage of results for white, black, non-poverty, and poverty students that beat or trail the state average, color-coded as described above. The school systems are ranked according to the percentage of green, or above-average results.  In the highest-ranking systems, virtually all results are green; in the lowest-ranking systems, virtually all are red. As you follow the bars down the chart, fewer and fewer results are above average (green); more and more are below average (red).

At the bottom of the chart on the far right side of the bar, you can follow a link for a full screen version of the chart. From there, you can also download the chart in PDF format, for closer examination.

This link takes you to a large PDF file that contains system level 2013 results for all school system in the state.

Separate PDF documents provide a look at trends in performance from 2005 through 2013 for white students, black students, non-poverty and poverty students. 

The table below contains the data used in the chart above. The numbers represent the percentage of student ARMT results within the schools that are either exceeding, meeting, or trailing the state average.

Remediation: The High School to College Handoff

A smaller percentage of students graduating from Alabama high schools went to Alabama’s public colleges immediately after high school in 2013, but, among those enrolling, the percentage of students requiring remedial classes was lower. That’s according to new figures on remedial education from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).

Each year, ACHE publishes what is known as the High School Feedback Report. Colleges report to ACHE the number of Alabama students that enroll, what high schools they went to, and whether those students were required to take additional classes in math or English in order to get them up to college standards. This map produced by PARCA, allows you to explore that data for high schools throughout the state. The map also includes information from the Alabama Department of Education on high school graduation rates for schools and systems. To use the map, navigate to the school you’re interested in and click on the button representing the high school for results.

In 2013, the remediation rate for entering freshman decreased slightly.  Over the past 10 years, the percentage of students assigned to remedial classes has ranged from a low of 26 percent in 2005 to a high of 35 percent needing remediation in 2011. In the fall of 2013, 32 percent of entering freshmen needed remedial coursework in at least one subject.

Higher Education Enrollment Down Slightly in 2013

Enrollment at Alabama colleges and universities was down slightly this fall, according to data released this month by the Alabama Commission on High Education. Full-time four-year college enrollment was up by 664 students, but two-year colleges saw an overall drop of 1,415 students, resulting in a net decline of 751 students.

Enrollment, particularly at community colleges, reacts to changes in the economy. When jobs are scarce, people tend to enroll at a higher rate. When jobs conditions improve, they return to the workforce, hopefully having acquired a higher level of skill. Other factors are at work too, said Alabama System Chancellor Mark Heinrich. In 2012, Congress made changes to Pell Grants, the federal program that helps low income students pay for college. Starting in the fall of 2012, a student faced a new limitation of 12 semesters for Pell Grants, down from a prior total of 18. The income threshold for qualifying for a full Pell Grant was also lowered.

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center has studied the effect of changes in the Pell Grant program, and it concluded the changes were having a negative impact on enrollment. According to the report, 63 percent of full-time two-year college students in Alabama received a Pell Grant in 2011. Heinrich also pointed out that the cost of tuition at Alabama Community Colleges, which is higher than in most other states, can be a barrier for students.


On the other hand, enrollment at four-year institutions continued to increase. By far, the largest enrollment growth has been at the University of Alabama, which has added 12,579 since 2003. With a full-time enrollment of 30,200 students this fall, UA has increased its enrollment 70 percent over the past 10 years.