Setting the Course for Continuous Improvement in Tuscaloosa City and County Schools

Thanks to Plan 2020, the state’s strategic plan for improving the state’s public schools, schools and the communities they serve have increased access to data on school performance measures.

Local systems are examining how their students perform on the Aspire, the new benchmark test given to student in grades 3 through 8. Systems are also tracking graduation rates, remediation rates, and scores on the ACT, the widely-known college readiness test.  These performance measures, and others, can be used in goal-setting and evaluation. Through a careful analysis of the results, school systems can recognize areas of strength and areas of weakness, and then craft plans to improve.

In Tuscaloosa, The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and the Schools Foundation, for the third year in a row, commissioned PARCA to take a close look at the Tuscaloosa City and County Schools Systems and present the results to city and county school leaders and to the public at large at their annual Education Summit, held this year on June 16.

PARCA’s report put the two systems’ results in context, describing the financial and personnel resources each system has to work with and the demographics of each system’s students. PARCA identifies similarly situated systems in the state, creating a peer group of schools, and then compares the Tuscaloosa City and Tuscaloosa County results with those of peer systems.

“We believe that every student can learn at higher levels, and that means every school can improve its results from year to year,” Williams told the audience. “There is no such thing as a perfect school or school system, or a perfect organization of any type for that matter. A school system has a number of goals, and it needs to focus on meeting all of them. Like any organization, it will do some things very well, other things pretty well, and still others not so well. So we don’t give school systems a single rank. Rather, we analyze the key indicators so that a system can build on its successes and at the same time improve where that is needed.”

How does your school compare on the Aspire?

Take a look at the 2014 ACT Aspire results for Heard Magnet Elementary school in Dothan.

The following images show the percentage of students at each grade level scoring proficient on the Aspire, the state’s standardized test. Students scoring proficient on the tests of math and reading are considered to be on track to advance through their academic career toward an ultimate goal of graduating from high school ready to succeed in college level coursework.

The charts show the results for All Students at the school and also display the results for students who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program (identified as “Poverty” in the chart), and also for the students who don’t qualify (“Nonpoverty”).

What do we see at Heard? Here are some important things to note:
1. High percentages of students are academically on track. The percentage of proficient students at Heard is far above the state average proficiency rate (The state average is represented by the red reference line).
2. The gaps in performance between students from poverty households and students from nonpoverty households are relatively small. In some grades, the success rate for poverty and nonpoverty students is practically the same.

Heard’s results are an exception. In general, across Alabama, there is about a 30-point gap between the success rate of nonpoverty and poverty students on these benchmark tests. That’s true in both reading and math. However, Heard’s results are proof that the performance gap is not inevitable.  Similar results can be found in schools around the state.

It should also be noted that Heard has some advantages on these performance measures. It is a magnet school. It is drawing students and parents that have high expectations for academic success, which may mean that it isn’t working with the children who have the highest degree of disadvantage. Also, Heard’s student population doesn’t have the same concentration of poverty as other schools in the state. About 36 percent of Heard’s students are in the poverty subgroup. Statewide almost 60 percent of children are in that poverty subgroup. At some schools, virtually all the children come from poverty households. When we look at results statewide and across subjects and grades, a lower percentage of students achieve the proficiency benchmark in schools where poverty is more concentrated. All these considerations should be kept in mind when viewing and comparing school results.

Previously, we launched a tool for viewing 2014 ACT Aspire results that allowed you to look at your local system’s results in comparison to the state average. The default view in that tool showed separate results by grade for All Students, for Nonpoverty students, and for Poverty students. Below, we’re making a new tool available, one that allows you to look at the 2014 ACT Aspire results at the school level.

In the table below, you can look at 2014 ACT Aspire results, school-by-school, for grades 3-8. As at the system level, this tool will allow you to look at results for the various demographic subgroups available.

You’ll notice that in this view we’ve included a blue reference line labeled “Poverty.”

This is the statewide percentage of students from the poverty subgroup who scored proficient on the Aspire test in the featured grade level and subject. We include that reference line because in some cases, the state did not publish a Nonpoverty or a Poverty result. The state withheld those results in cases where the number of students in one of the groups was small enough that the reported scores might be linked to individuals.

In cases where the Poverty and Nonpoverty results are withheld, only an “All Students” result will appear. That scenario tends to occur most often in high-poverty schools and school systems. That is why we included the Poverty reference line, so that the All Students result can be compared to the statewide proficiency percentage for students for poverty households.

In subsequent posts, we plan to make available additional capabilities, like the ability to compare multiple schools or school systems on individual measures.

PARCA’s school analysis for Dothan

Each year, PARCA travels to Dothan to present data on the city school system to educators, parents, and the public.

The PARCA analysis, sponsored by the Dothan-based Wiregrass Foundation, presents Dothan City School enrollment, financial data, and test scores results as they compare to peer school systems and to state and national averages. How does the system stack up over all? How do students from poverty backgrounds perform compared to similarly-situated students statewide? How do nonpoverty students perform compared to peers elsewhere? What is the system’s ultimate success rate in preparing students for college as measured by the ACT (the college readiness assessment) and by the rate at which Dothan students have to take remedial education courses after enrolling in college?

The deep dive into the data is part of the Dothan City School System’s commitment to continuously improve. The analysis provides a basis for understanding the test results. The system takes ownership of the results, providing an opportunity to celebrate successes, but also to identify areas in need of improvement. Strategies are developed to counter weaknesses. Resources are devoted to those strategies, and future results are monitored.

It’s an approach that has led to success. In 2005, over half of Dothan’s system-level results on the Alabama Reading and Math Test were below the state average. By the 2012-2013 school year, all the system’s results were at or above the state average.

Starting in 2014, Alabama changed its statewide assessment test to the ACT Aspire, and it was the results of the new test that were presented this week, along with financial data and college readiness results from ACT. Dothan’s baseline results showed that on the new tests, Dothan, as a system, bested the state average on most measures. However, when the results are viewed at the school and grade level, it is clear there is room for improvement. Like school systems across the state and nation, Dothan sees a wide disparity in results between poverty and nonpoverty students. Dothan schools with high percentages of poverty in the student body generally showed results that trailed far behind state averages. On the other hand, on several measures, poverty and nonpoverty students at Dothan magnet schools scored proficient at almost the same rate, erasing that stubborn achievement gap. In fact, in some grades and subjects, poverty students at Dothan magnets beat the proficiency rate of non-poverty students statewide.

How does your school system compare with state averages?

PARCA has been working on a new system for presenting information about Alabama’s public schools.

In the next few posts, we will be rolling out some tools that we hope educators, parents, students and communities will find useful in understanding how their local schools stack up: where they are succeeding and where they might improve.

Our first offering is a way of looking at ACT Aspire results from 2014. The display below compares the performance of Alabama systems with the state average result for students in grades 3-8 in either reading or math. The results represent the percentage of students who scored at or above the level the state considers proficient at that grade level. The state average result for all students is represented by the red reference line in the graphics.

You can explore the results by picking which system you want to compare with the state.

You can look at the results for all grades or choose to focus on one.

You can also choose to look at the results by demographic subgroup. By default, the results displayed are for the following subgroups of students within the system: “All Students,” “Nonpoverty,” and “Poverty.” You can choose to add other subgroups to the comparison or focus on a specific one.”

Across the state, you’ll note gaps in the results between various subgroups.  Students from poverty households tend, as a group, to perform less well on these tests than students from nonpoverty backgrounds. It’s true here and it’s true across the country. It’s one of the great challenges of public education. It’s also true though that kids from poverty backgrounds perform better in some systems than in others. This creates the potential to learn from those successes and replicate best practices.

These were tests administered in the spring of 2014. Students across the state are currently taking the ACT Aspire for 2015. 2014 was the first year the ACT Aspire was taken statewide. Because it’s the first year of a new test, results were slow to be published. It is hoped that results from the testing going on right now will be available much more quickly. And we plan to be in a better position to analyze and publish them quickly. The Aspire tests are one of the cornerstone measures in the state’s strategic plan for educational improvement, Plan 2020.  In future posts, we’ll present additional avenues for looking at Aspire data and will explore the results of other measures that are part of Plan 2020.

2014 Remedial Education Rates by High School

Alabama public high schools produced more graduates in 2014 than they produced the previous year, and more of them enrolled in Alabama public two-year and four-year colleges and universities, according to the latest High School Feedback report from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).

However, a slightly higher percentage of those entering freshman, 32.1 percent, had to take remedial courses in English or math to prepare them for college-level work, according to the ACHE report. (To explore results for schools and systems scroll to the bottom of the page). Plan 2020, the state’s strategic plan for educational improvement, calls for increasing the high school graduation rate and decreasing the need for those graduates to enroll in remedial courses.
Statewide Remediation Rate and GoalsHigh School Graduation Rate and Goals
Each year, ACHE works with the Alabama Department of Education and the state’s colleges and universities to account for how many graduates from Alabama high schools enrolled in Alabama public colleges and universities.

The report also gathers data on how many of the entering freshmen required remedial courses in college. These are courses designed to bring entering freshman up to the level of competency required to perform at the college level.

Ideally, all students graduating from high school and enrolling in college would be prepared by their high school to be college-ready.

Students who need remediation are taking courses that don’t count toward college completion. Remedial courses are a cost to the students, who are paying for non-credit courses, and a cost to colleges and universities that provide the courses.

The State Department of Education has set goals for increasing the percentage of students that graduate from high school and goals for increasing the percentage of those students who are college ready, work and who are not in need of remediation.

The latest report from ACHE tracked students who graduated from high school and enrolled in college in 2014.

Before getting too deep in the details of the data, it is important to note some limitations.

First, the only students who show up in the survey are those who graduated from Alabama public high schools and who then enrolled in Alabama public colleges and universities, both two-year and four-year institutions. Students who attended private schools for high school or who entered private colleges and universities are not counted. Neither are students who chose to enroll in out-of-state colleges and universities. So, the statistics explored don’t capture a true college-going rate for the state or for individual schools.

And the remediation rate calculated for any high school only applies to the graduates of that high school who enrolled in an Alabama public higher education institution.

As a final caveat, there is not a common definition across Alabama public higher education institutions for who qualifies for remediation. At some schools, the bar may be higher; at some, it might be lower.

So to the data:
Alabama public high schools produced 1,007 more graduates in 2014 than they did in 2013 and sent an additional 500 graduates to Alabama colleges and universities (22,872 in 2013 vs. 23,379 in 2014).

In 2014, 51 percent of graduates went on to a public two-year or four-year college in Alabama, the same percentage as the year before.

Of those recent high school graduates going to college, 11 percent needed both remedial math and remedial English; 15 percent needed only remedial math, and 6 percent needed only remedial English. In total, 32.1 percent took either remedial math, remedial English or both. That is a slightly higher percentage than in 2013 when 31.8 percent enrolled in remedial courses.

The dashboard below allows you to explore detailed results for schools. There are two tabs, one focusing on remedial data, the other on in-state public college going rates. Bear in mind that the percentage of high school graduates needing remedial math and the percentage of graduates needing remedial English won’t add up to the total percentage of graduates in need of remediation. Some of those graduates needed remediation in both subjects. The total percentage figure avoids double-counting the students in need of remediation in both subjects.


State Workforce grew slightly in 2014; Still about 5,000 smaller than 2008

Alabama state government employs 4,923 fewer people than it did in 2008, according to the figures provided by the Alabama State Personnel Department. With the exception of 2013, the total number of state government employees in 2014 was the lowest it’s been since at least 1996, according to State Department of Personnel annual reports.

From 2013 to 2014, state employment edged up slightly with a net increase of 140 employees across all departments, yielding a final total of 30,611 employees. The state employed 35,534 in 2008, before the financial crisis and the years of budget cutting that followed.

The biggest employment declines came in Mental Health (down by 1,593 employees). Much of that decline can be attributed to the closing of three mental health institutions in the state, Partlow, Greil, and Searcy. Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa was replaced by a new hospital and its patient capacity was lowered from 350 to 268. To make up for lost capacity in mental hospitals, the state shifted funding to community-based care operations. The moves were designed to provide care closer to home and family.

The State Health Department also saw a substantial decline in employees. The largest reason for the drop in employment was due to a transfer of a program serving to the elderly and the disabled to the Office of Senior Services. The Department of Senior Services restructured the program with those home care services now being administered by local Area Agencies on Aging. Those agencies, in turn, contract with home health services companies to provide the services to recipients.

A state hiring freeze was in effect for much of the period between 2008-2014, so when employees retired or left for other jobs those positions went unfilled. Some employment changes in various departments reflect other program transfers and consolidations.


Governor Pledges Bold Action on the Budget at PARCA Annual Meeting


Speaking before a sell-out crowd of more than 400 at the Harbert Center on Friday, Feb. 13, Gov. Robert Bentley said he will propose bold solutions in the face of a steep budget shortfall.

In his luncheon address, Bentley said that during his first term he had held the line on spending, shrunk the state workforce, and encouraged efficiency and reform. While efforts along those lines will continue in his second term, Bentley has concluded that additional tax revenue is needed for the state to balance its budgets. The state faces a shortfall in the general fund budget of more than $250 million. The state’s spending on education is still below its pre-recession levels.

Bentley’s remarks followed a morning of presentations on major areas of state spending: Corrections, Medicaid, and education. In each of those areas, leaders have examined the current situation, set goals for improvement, and devised strategies to pursue those goals.

In all three cases, investments in reforms should avert higher costs in the future and produce better outcomes for citizens.  PARCA Executive Director Jim Williams said the careful analysis and goal-oriented thinking in these departments should be an inspiration to the rest of state government. It points toward a better approach to management and budgeting, which is vitally important in a state that collects less tax revenue per capita than any other.

The morning featured the following presentations:

State Sen. Cam Ward and Alabama Sentencing Commission Executive Director Bennet Wright spoke on solutions to the state’s prison overcrowding problem. Wright outlined proposed changes to sentencing, prisons, and community supervision.

Alabama State Health Officer Don Williamson explained plans to move more beneficiaries of the Alabama Medicaid System away from fee-for-service system into managed care.

Care Network of East Alabama Executive Director Kim Eason and Chronic Care Coordinator Julie Wells explained how a pilot version of Medicaid’s new approach is working to improve patient outcomes and decrease use of costly hospital care.

And finally, Alabama State Superintendent of Schools Tommy Bice presented an update on the progress of Plan 2020. The high school graduation rate is climbing, but schools have serious challenges ahead in closing the achievement gap between low income students and their middle class peers and in making sure high school graduates are ready for college and career.  Some of those challenges are illustrated in graphics from Jim Williams’ presentation, on Producing College and Career Ready Graduates.

PARCA Poll of Public Attitudes on Taxes, Education, Corrections and Medicaid

According to a new poll of public opinion commissioned by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, state residents would be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid budget cuts in key areas like education, health care, and public safety. However, the public remains distrustful of government’s ability to spend tax dollars wisely.

The results serve as a backdrop to PARCA’s annual meeting, Feb. 13 at the Harbert Center in Birmingham. The meeting will focus on initiatives by leaders in those key areas to improve public trust through goal-oriented planning, targeted investment, and the transparent tracking and reporting of results.  The poll results are also relevant to lawmakers as they consider how to close a budget shortfall and improve budgeting practices.

The survey of almost 600 Alabamians was conducted between January 5 and January 21. Each year, The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama commissions a survey of public opinion to gauge Alabamian’s attitudes toward government and the issues facing the state. Randolph Horn, Samford University Professor of Political Science and Samford’s Director of Strategic and Applied Analysis, collaborated with PARCA on the design of the survey and directed the polling operation. The results were weighted to reflect the demographic makeup of the state. Text of the questions and results of the survey can be accessed here. You can find the survey results presented graphically here.

The PARCA poll found strong support for increased spending on a variety of educational priorities. It also found public support for more investment in rehabilitation of prisoners in the interest of cutting down on criminal recidivism. Also, a majority of those polled said they support expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income individuals, including childless adults.

One of the most striking things about poll results is that, on a host of issues, there is broadly-based public consensus, a set of shared opinions that  cut across demographic and partisan lines. The one exception to that in this year’s poll, Medicaid expansion, is discussed below.

The poll results contrast with the perception that voters are deeply divided along ideological lines. This year’s results are similar to the findings of PARCA polls in previous years, which have consistently found widely shared priorities.

This year’s poll finds that among the four top areas of state expenditure — education, health care, public safety and highways —  Alabamians rank education spending are the state’s most important area of investment. Health care comes in second. Public safety comes in third, with highways ranked fourth.



A strong majority of respondents said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid cuts in public education (63 percent) and health care (57 percent). A majority said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid cuts in public safety.



Focusing on education, the poll found that 79 percent of Alabamians believe that the level of funding in schools does make a difference in the quality of education provided. And 67 percent believe that too little is being spent on public education in Alabama. However, 63 percent of those polled said they thought that the money that currently goes to education is not being spent properly. Some of that sentiment may reflect Alabamian’s general distrust of government. However, in past PARCA surveys, further questioning on this subject revealed that some of that perception of improper spending stems from factors linked to inadequate spending. For instance, respondents pointed to old and tattered textbooks or parents having to pay for classroom supplies as evidence that money in education was not being properly spent. Strong majorities of those polled believed that more money should be spent in schools in a variety of categories and that the state should play a role in equalizing funding for school systems that lack resources.



Turning to corrections, the poll indicates the public believes we should be doing a better job of rehabilitating prisoners than we are currently doing. As the state grapples with a prison overcrowding problem, public support for increased investment in rehabilitation and treatment is stronger than support for simply building more prison space.


On Medicaid, there was almost universal agreement (95 percent of those polled) that the state should provide a medical safety net for low-income children, pregnant mothers, and seniors. A majority of those polled said they supported expanding Medicaid by taking advantage of federal incentives to help pay for the extension of health coverage to low-income adults, who are currently not covered.


However, it should be noted that this was the one question in the survey that produced a division along party lines.   Nearly 76 percent of those identifying themselves as Democrats favored expansion, and expansion was supported by 53 percent of those who classified themselves as either independents or as having no partisan affiliation.  However, among Republicans, 54 percent supported keeping Alabama Medicaid as it currently is, rather than expanding it.


PARCA Winter Quarterly Tackles Budgeting, Corrections, Medicaid, and Education

The PARCA Quarterly Winter 2015 edition provides perspective on Alabama’s budget challenges and reform efforts in education, Medicaid, and the state prison system.

The Quarterly provides background for our upcoming annual meeting, which is February 13 at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham.

The meeting will feature:

       State Sen. Cam Ward and Alabama Sentencing Commission Executive Director Bennet Wright presenting proposals under consideration by the Prison Reform Task Force.

       State Health Officer Donald Williamson and Kim Eason and Julie Wells of the Patient Care Network of East Alabama discussing changing approaches in the Medicaid program.

       State Superintendent of Schools Tommy Bice providing an update on the progress of Plan 2020.

       Gov. Robert Bentley delivering the luncheon address.


Friday, February 6 is the deadline for registration. Until then, you can get more details and register online.

Court cost collections continue to sag

In tough budget years, lawmakers have often looked for alternative ways to bring in revenue to support state government operations. In the case of the judicial branch of government, the Legislature has repeatedly raised the charges, fees and fines charged to the users of the court system, shifting much of the cost burden for court operations to the courts themselves.

However, court cost collections have proven to be a less than reliable source of revenue. In 2014, total criminal and civil court collections were down by $8.5 million to 2013, a drop of 6 percent. Compared to 2011, total court cost collections are down $17 million, or 10 percent. That’s a decline in collections even through the Legislature raised fee amounts during that same time period.

About 2/3 of court costs are collected through the criminal courts, amounting to just over $96 million in collections in 2014. The biggest component of that is traffic court collections. And that’s where the steepest drop in collections has come. In 2014, the state court system collected $54 million through traffic courts across the state, compared to $72 million in 2011. That’s an $18 million decline, or a 25 percent drop, over that time period.

This decline could be linked to problems in other departments. The Department of Public Safety reports that currently it has only 289 Troopers assigned to Highway Patrol statewide, far short of past staffing levels. According to figures provided by the State Personnel Department, DPS, as a whole, had 276 fewer employees in FY 2014 than it did in 2008, which amounts to an overall decrease in employees of nearly 20 percent. According to DPS, troopers issued  792,860 citations in 2012. That number fell to 690,323 citations in 2013. From January to November of 2014, troopers had issued 663,414 tickets. Beginning in 2015, DPS will be folded into the new Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. LEA director Spencer Collier has said he plans to put a priority on putting more troopers on the road.

Collections in the civil courts make up the remaining 1/3 of collections, totaling $48 million in 2014.That total is roughly the same amount collected in 2011.