The Alabama Constitution Reformed: Is There Still Work to Do?

In 2022, Alabama adopted a “new” constitution, an improved and reorganized version of the Alabama Constitution of 1901. The vote was the culmination of decades of advocacy and was rightly celebrated.

The new Constitution removed the racist and unconstitutional provisions that were relics of the White Supremacist 1901 Constitution.

Printable PDF version available here

It reorganized the document, moving relevant statewide amendments into their proper place in the main body of the Constitution, removing duplicative and repealed provisions, and organizing local constitutional amendments by county to the end of the document.

But is the work finished?

Is Alabama free from the shackles of the anti-democratic and pre-modern Constitution of 1901? Or are fundamental flaws still embedded in our Constitutional DNA?

Despite the new Constitution, we remain governed by the basic operating system established by the 1901 Constitution. And that operating system was recognized as obsolete and an obstacle almost as soon as it was adopted.

Alabama Governor Emmet O’Neal, in a 1914 address, observed, “No real or permanent progress is possible in Alabama until the present fundamental law is thoroughly revised and adapted to meet present conditions.”

Have those revisions been made? In this election year, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) will examine that question.

PARCA was founded to provide objective, non-ideological research to citizens and leaders, supporting the improvement of state and local governments. PARCA research is intended to help governments function efficiently and effectively in hopes that those governments provide equal treatment and opportunity to the people of Alabama.

As the Constitution is fundamental to the functioning of state and local governments, it has been a central focus of PARCA’s work.

Over the next year, PARCA will issue a series of reports examining Alabama’s current constitutional framework, identifying remaining obstacles to a modern constitution and possible paths forward in areas such as education, economy, healthcare, democracy, liberty & justice, finances, and related areas.

The project is supported, in part, by the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (ACCR). Both ACCR and PARCA are nonpartisan organizations, and our members and supporters are Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Former Governor Albert Brewer and former Samford University President Thomas Corts, both deceased, were founding leaders in both organizations.

The mission of ACCR is to educate and advocate for an Alabama Constitution that protects and enhances life for all Alabama citizens. To that end, ACCR has two branches:

  1. A foundation that focuses on educating the public about the Alabama Constitution and underlying issues that affect our citizens.
  2. A nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve the Constitution.

The foundation is providing support for PARCA’s re-examination of the Alabama Constitution. ACCR’s advocacy organization will use the research to recalibrate its ongoing work on Constitutional reform.

Alabama’s Constitution of 2022 is still, by far, the longest state constitution in the United States, three times as long as the next longest state constitution. Though now better organized, it is still complex and contradictory.

It is not a basic template and statement of principles, which should be the ideal. It more closely resembles a law code, with almost 500 pages worth of amendments that relate to localities rather than to the state as a whole.

Alabama voters have finally removed the most noxious provisions of the Constitution of 1901, which was explicitly formulated to strip the political rights of Black Alabamians, but which also disenfranchised poor whites. Gone are provisions that mandated segregated schools. Deleted are provisions allowing for involuntary servitude for those convicted of crimes. The Constitution now recognizes that females have a right to vote.

But other aspects of the Constitution remain unchanged. Power is still concentrated in the hands of the state Legislature in Montgomery. Should that power be more dispersed? Should citizens be able to initiate change and call for referendums, rights available to citizens in other states? Should more decisions be made by local communities rather than by legislators in Montgomery?

Alabama still collects less in state and local taxes than virtually any other state through a constitutionally-embedded tax system that falls disproportionately on poor Alabamians. At the same time, low taxes, particularly on property, reflect voters’ preferences. Are there changes voters would support that could increase adequacy and fairness?

Thanks to the Constitution, Alabama still earmarks more revenue than any other state. That limits legislators’ ability to shift revenue toward pressing priorities. On the other hand, voters like earmarks and don’t necessarily trust lawmakers. Is there a way to change the culture of distrust with changes that increase both flexibility and accountability? 

Does the Constitution inhibit economic development and mass transportation? Does it promote public safety and justice? Does it adequately promote the general welfare, health, and education?

Alabama’s Constitution should reflect our values. It should promote engagement in our democracy and free and fair elections. It should provide for equality of opportunity and equal treatment under the law. With the adoption of the Constitution of 2022, the people of the state took a step forward, removing obvious anti-democratic and discriminatory provisions left from a darker past.

But does the Constitution reflect the needs and aspirations of Alabamians today? Does it provide us with the outlines of a modern, efficient, effective, and responsive government? Is there still a need for Constitutional reform? We will explore those questions in the months to come. 


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

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

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

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

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

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


Alabama’s Population Growth Accelerating

Alabama’s population increased by 34,000 last year to 5.1 million, driven by increased domestic migration and a decreasing number of deaths, according to the latest population estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau, covering the period between July 1, 2022 and July 1, 2023.

That’s the 15th fastest rate of growth among U.S. states and ranks 11th in terms of the number of people added. Still, Alabama’s growth rate trails other Sunbelt and Mountain West states, including Southeastern neighbors like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South and North Carolina.

Alabama’s death rate fell from the third-highest in 2021 to the sixth-highest in 2023. Still, more people died in Alabama than were born here, according to the 2023 estimates. But the gap narrowed. Births were up by about 150, and the estimated number of deaths in 2023 was down by almost 10,000 from the 2021 peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most of the population change resulted from people moving in from other states. The state received 30,744 domestic migrants, 2,000 more than moved in the year before. International migration into Alabama increased to 5,364 net new arrivals, or about 1,000 more than the year before.

In 2023, Alabama’s rate of domestic immigration was the 10th highest in the U.S. However, Alabama still has one of the lowest rates of international immigration among states, ranking No. 45.

Texas and Florida added the most people. New York, Illinois, and California saw the biggest declines. All the Southeastern states, with the exception of Louisiana and Mississippi, recorded population increases. That pattern has been consistent since 2020.

Census population and change estimates for counties, metro areas, and cities will be released later in the year. Use the tabs and menus in the visualizations to explore the data.


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.


Alabama Standardized Test Scores Rise in 2023

Alabama public school students improved their performance on statewide standardized tests in 2023, with the percentage of students testing proficient rising across most of the tested grades (3-8) and subjects (English Language Arts (ELA), math, and science).

Printable PDF version available here.

Figure 1. Trends in Proficiency by Subject

Just over half of Alabama students, 52%, were proficient in English Language Arts across all grades, and only 31% demonstrated grade-level proficiency in math. Fourth and eighth graders were tested in science, with 41% scoring proficient.

Figure 2. Trends by Subject and Grade Level

English Language Arts

The broad-based improvement comes as a relief since earlier this summer, a subset of the test, 3rd-grade reading results, showed a decline in the percentage of students reading on grade level. Those third graders also showed a slight decline on the broader test of English Language Arts, with the percentage of students proficient declining from 54% to 53%. Eighth graders’ ELA proficiency rates declined by almost 3%, to 50%. However, for students in grades 4-7, the percentage of students scoring proficient in ELA improved. The 2023 ELA test was adjusted to reflect updates to the ELA course of study. It is unclear how those changes might have impacted scores.

But across all grades in English Language Arts, a curious pattern is present. The percentage of students scoring at the highest level of proficiency is growing but the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level of proficiency is also growing.

The test groups students into four levels:

  • Level 1: Minimal understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 2: Partial understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 3 Strong understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 4: Advanced understanding of grade-level standards

Figure 3. ELA Results, by Percentage of Students at Each Level of Proficiency

Across all grades on the ELA test, more students are testing at Level 4, while at the same time, more students are scoring at Level 1, the lowest level.

Math

The math results are different. Math proficiency has long been Alabama’s Achilles heel, with our students scoring consistently at or near the bottom on national tests. While proficiency is still low overall, math results on the ACAP are improving. As in ELA, more students are testing at Level 4 in math. But unlike ELA, the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level is also shrinking.

Figure 4. Math Results, by Percentage of Students at Each Level of Proficiency

In math, students in every grade improved their proficiency rates. However, another long-running problem for Alabama’s math proficiency is that it declines steeply as children move into middle school. In 3rd grade, 44% of students are proficient, but by 8th grade, only 21% are.

The Challenge of Poverty

One constant about standardized test scores is that the socioeconomic composition of a school correlates with performance on standardized tests like the ACAP. In schools and systems where rates of economic disadvantage are low, a higher percentage of students achieve proficiency. Schools and systems where economic disadvantage is concentrated, standardized test performance is lower.

Figure 5 allows the presentation of both factors at the school system level. Systems in dark red and on the left of the chart have higher concentrations of economic disadvantage. Systems that are dark green are on the right side of the chart. Systems high on the chart have high rates of student proficiency. Systems lower on the chart have lower rates of proficiency. The line slopes up and to the right to reveal the pattern in the data: a lower percentage of students in poverty, the higher the percentage of students achieving proficiency.

Figure 5. Percent of Economically Disadvantaged Students vs. Proficiency Percentage

A similar array, but looking at performance at the school level, is also available. While this pattern recurs across datasets, these charts highlight the fact that some schools with high levels of economic disadvantage outperform peer schools with similar levels of poverty.

Another encouraging note is that the widespread improvement observed in the results, across grades and subjects, was not restricted to one race or ethnicity, or to a socioeconomic subgroup. Performance gaps between groups remain. But almost all economic and demographic subgroups improved their overall rates of proficiency in the three subjects. In both 4th and 8th grade, the declines in English Language Arts proficiency declines were also distributed across all subgroups.  

Figure 6. Trends among Student Subgroups

Alabama students and faculty continue to recover from time and learning lost during the Covid 19 pandemic. Results indicate that teachers are becoming more successful at teaching learning standards, and students are mastering those standards at higher rates. On all fronts, Alabama has a long way to go if it is going to provide a nationally competitive education. Proficiency in math is a long-running concern; in nearly 20 districts, 10% or less of students are scoring proficient. In English Language Arts, the rising percentage of students scoring at the highest level is a cause for celebration. However, the growing number of students scoring at the lowest level is a particular concern as Alabama emphasizes literacy.

Record education budgets, supplemented by pandemic-related federal aid, have allowed for higher levels of education spending than ever. The Legislature has invested in more systematic approaches to literacy and math instruction. It is imperative that schools, systems, the state, the Legislature, the Governor, and the general public identify money being spent that is producing positive results. Successful approaches should be maintained when the inevitable constriction of revenue arrives. Ineffective spending should also be identified and reprogrammed.


New Reading Scores Released As Schools Head Toward Full Literacy Act Implementation

About one-quarter of Alabama third graders were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, leaving them vulnerable to academic struggles as they progress in school, according to data from the reading subsection of the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program released Thursday.

Printable PDF version available here.

Among second graders, 11,622 or 22% of students statewide were below grade level at the end of second grade. Parents and educators have a year to get those struggling readers caught up to grade level. Next year, the final piece of the Literacy Act is set to go into effect. Third graders who haven’t caught up to grade level by next spring could be vulnerable to being held back.

Since the Literacy Act was passed in 2019, the State Legislature has provided major increases in funding for reading instruction and services, re-energizing the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) and school-based reading coaches. Teachers from Kindergarten to third grade across the state have received intensive professional development designed to improve the teaching of reading, an instructional approach based in the science of reading.

ARI has deployed extra support to high-needs schools. Alabama’s Literacy Act was based on similar legislation in Mississippi and Florida. Both those states have seen significant gains in early grades literacy after implementing reforms.

This year, 24% of Alabama third graders tested below grade level. That’s up from 22% in 2022. State Education officials pointed out that the 2023 test was updated to reflect the state’s new course of study and differed from the 2022 test. (See information from the Department). Also, this year’s third graders were in kindergarten when schools closed in Spring of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their first-grade year was, in many cases, disrupted by continuing complications of the pandemic, including remote learning during a critical period for their reading instruction.

Not all students reading below grade level would be retained under the act. The Literacy Act contains good cause exceptions for students who are receiving services for diagnosed learning disabilities. The Act also provides alternative methods of measuring a child’s literacy level. However, the goal of the Act is to encourage parents and schools to identify struggling readers early and provide needed interventions, so they are ready for the educational pivot that occurs in fourth grade.

Alabama Reading Initiative Director Bonnie Short told State Board of Education members Thursday that initial analysis indicates systems where more teachers were trained in and fully implemented the research-based approaches to instruction gains in reading performance were higher.

By fourth grade, students are expected to know how to read and to use reading to learn. According to research:

  • A child not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade is four times more likely to fail to graduate from high school. Among students who failed to complete high school, 2/3 were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
  • A struggling reader who is also poor is three times more likely to fail to graduate than a struggling reader who isn’t living in poverty.
    • Source: Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

All students from kindergarten through third grade who aren’t reading at grade level are provided literacy boot camps in the summer. In high-need schools, all students are offered the opportunity. According to Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey, about half the students who take advantage of the summer program test at grade level by the end of the summer. However, not all of the identified children attend the summer literacy programs, as they are not required to. The state department and school systems are trying to encourage attendance and remove barriers. This summer, the state has authorized the use of transportation support for the literacy camps.

The highest concentration of students testing below grade level tend to be found in school systems where the poverty level is highest. The graphic below shows that correlation.

But demographics are not destiny. At the school level, there is a wide variation in the percentage of students reading below grade level. Thus, school-based leadership, teaching, training, culture, and resources make a difference.

You can explore your local system and compare results to peer systems, systems with similar economics and demographics.

Results are also available at the school level.


2022 City and MSA Population Estimates

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

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

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

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

Alabama’s Four Large Cities

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

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

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

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

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

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

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

Growth in Smaller Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grad Rate Dipped, but Career Readiness Climbed for Class 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifts in Readiness

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

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

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

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

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

School and System Results

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

Fig. 4 CCR and Graduation Rates by System, 2022

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

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

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

Fig. 5 CCR and Graduation Rates by School, 2022

Gaps Between Subgroups

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

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

Fig. 6 CCR and Graduation Rates by Subgroup, 2022

WorkKeys

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

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

Fig. 7 WorkKeys Results, Statewide Trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 9. Percentage Workforce Ready by System, 2022

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

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

Most Alabama Counties Grew in 2022, Reversing Trend

People are moving to Alabama, and according to most recent population estimates, the growth is more widespread than it has been. Out of 67 counties, 36 saw population growth between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, the period covered in the latest Census Bureau release. In the prior year, only 29 counties saw positive growth. Throughout the 2010s, only 24 counties grew.

Fig. 1. Numeric Change 2021-2022

The growth is particularly noteworthy because four factors were putting downward pressure on population growth:

  • Death rates were still elevated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The large Baby Boom generation is entering years of increased mortality
  • Smaller succeeding generations have lower birthrates
  • International immigration is still lower than historical norms

Printable PDF available here.

But in the counties that grew, and for the state as a whole, domestic migration — a net positive number of U.S. residents moving into the state — overcame the headwinds.

Fig. 2 Domestic Migration 2021-2022

The strongest growth was among the usual suspects: Baldwin County in the south and Madison and Limestone counties in the north, with Lee, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa counties also continuing positive growth trends. The Huntsville area’s growth continues to spread across North Alabama, with population growth accelerating in The Shoals (Lauderdale and Colbert), Cullman, Morgan, and Marshall counties.

The Wiregrass and Northeast Alabama counties also grew, including Calhoun County, which had been on an extended population losing streak. Calhoun added over 600 new residents through domestic migration for a net population gain of 111. Etowah County attracted 524 new residents, but since deaths exceeded births, the population total declined slightly, down just 55 residents.

In percentage terms, Limestone County grew the fastest. That’s likely growth not only in Athens, the county seat, but also from Huntsville and Madison, which have spread from Madison County into Limestone. Generally, counties along the Interstate corridors are growing, as well as counties bordering Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. On the western border with Mississippi, most counties are losing population.

Urban losses

Alabama’s traditional urban centers — Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile — lost population, primarily due to domestic outmigration.

That population loss parallels national trends among urban counties: in the wake of the pandemic, most population centers lost population. According to the estimates, Jefferson County’s population decreased 4,588 in 2022. Since the 2020 Census, Jefferson County’s population has decreased by almost 9,000.

Rate of Domestic Migration, 2021-2022

There are signs of a turnaround, though. Nationally, large urban centers began seeing population recovery in 2022. Jefferson County’s population loss was lower in 2022 than in 2021. International immigration and natural increase helped fuel population growth in urban centers elsewhere, including among Southern neighbors. Alabama’s big cities saw some population growth through international immigration. However, Alabama generally sees much lower rates of international in-migration.

Rate of International Migration, 2021-2022

Divergent Rates of Change

Alabama’s Black Belt and other more remote rural counties continued to lose population through residents moving away and through higher death rates. According to the estimates, Lowndes, Perry, and Greene Counties are each now below 10,000 in population, with Greene being the least populous at 7,422. Bullock, Coosa, and Wilcox are close to 10,000. Nationally, about 1,000 of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. have 10,000 or fewer residents.

Population Estimates, 2022, U.S. Census Bureau

In addition to outmigration, rural counties tend to have negative rates of natural change: in other words, more deaths than births. Those counties tend to have a higher median age, with a higher share of the population over 60. That’s a population that has an increased risk of death from natural causes.

Rate of Death, 2021-2021

On the opposite end of the spectrum are counties with a higher proportion of the population who are young adults or in their child-bearing years. In only eight counties have births outnumbered deaths since 2020: Lee, Shelby, Madison, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Limestone, Marshall, and Autauga.

Rate of Natural Increase, 2021-2022

The tabs above the images allow you to explore statistics for individual counties for births and deaths, and domestic and international migration, as well as numeric change over time.

The National Picture

Alabama’s population change is occurring in the context of national trends that are visible when zoomed out to the national level. Population losses in Alabama’s Black Belt are connected to patterns along the Mississippi River from Mississippi and Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and even Illinois. Baldwin County’s growth rate has echoes along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina coasts. Huntsville’s growth sits at the edge of the mountain interior southern region stretching across Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Northern and Central Georgia.


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.

Printable PDF version available here.

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.