Work Readiness Test Results Affected by Covid and the Now-Optional Nature of the Test

Between 2015 and 2019, an increasing number and percentage of Alabama students earned high marks on the ACT’s WorkKeys, a standardized test designed to measure skills in workplace applications of reading, math, and graphical literacy. Results for the Class of 2020 can’t be compared to those prior years for two reasons:

  1. The test is now optional, and a much smaller percentage of 2020 seniors students took it.
  2. The Covid-19 pandemic canceled the spring window for retesting, an opportunity that usually led to higher scores.

So, within the senior class that graduated in 2020, 80% of high school seniors took WorkKeys compared to 93% of seniors the previous year. Those that take WorkKeys are awarded a National Career Readiness Certificate, the highest scoring earn a Platinum, with Gold, Silver, and Bronze level following down the scale. Of those who did take the test in 2020, 59% scored at the Silver level or above, compared to 66% for the Class of 2020.

Earning a Silver certificate or above on WorkKeys is one of the six ways an Alabama high school senior can prove that they are college and career-ready. Some systems made the test optional for students who had already demonstrated college and career readiness through qualifying ACT or AP scores, students who would have likely performed well on WorkKeys.

WorkKeys, as it is administered to high school seniors, consists of three tests: Applied Math, Workplace Documents, and Graphic Literacy. ACT works with employers to evaluate jobs and determine the level of reading, math, and comprehension skills each job requires. Research from ACT finds that someone earning a Silver-level WorkKeys certificate would have the basic skills necessary to function in 69% of the jobs they have profiled.

In West and Southwest Alabama, where economic development organizations have worked to familiarize businesses with WorkKeys, the credential is valuable. Employers, particularly in manufacturing, regard the scores as an indicator of a candidate’s ability to effectively function in the workplace. A student can use the credential when applying for a job with those employers that recognize what the credential means. The map depicts the counties that have worked with ACT to document the WorkReady credentials of their workforce and to educated local employers about the test.

However, in other areas of the state, where fewer employers are familiar with WorkKeys, and in school systems where almost all of the students are going to a four-year college, the WorkKeys assessment can be viewed as extraneous. In 2020, in Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, for instance, only 25% of the students opted to take the test in 2020.

Because the pool of students taking the test was significantly altered, the results shouldn’t be considered as part of a trend or a statewide indicator of performance. However, in schools and systems where almost all students take it, the information can be useful for communities evaluating the level of preparation the students are receiving.

The different nature of the WorkKeys test has tended to allow a slightly different set of schools and systems to show up as top performers in the state. In 2020, the top-performing system was Arab City Schools, where 90% of students scored earned a Silver or better. Hartselle City Schools placed second, with 84% of students scoring Silver or above. The default listing in the visualization shows only systems in which 90% of students took WorkKeys. The slide allows the viewer to adjust that percentage. Other controls allow exploration of other views of the data, changing the year, or looking at the results for a particular demographic subgroup.

Looking at the performance of individual schools, a familiar pattern is apparent. Magnet schools from the Montgomery, Huntsville, and Birmingham school systems top the list. But joining them in the Top 10 are Arab High School, Marengo County’s Sweet Water High School, Autauga County’s Billingsley High School, Fairhope High School, and Hoover’s Spain Park.

For a more fine-grained look at performance, the chart below breaks down the percentage of students scoring at each level on WorkKeys, ranging from the percentage earning a Platinum-level certificate to the percentage of students who took the test but failed to earn a certificate. Other views of the data are also available through the tabs at the top of the visualization.


Alabama Public Opinion Survey 2021

PARCA’s 2021 public opinion survey finds a growing majority of Alabamians support spending more on education but a lack of consensus on how to pay for the increase.

Among the findings:

Taxes

  • 61% of respondents say upper-income Alabamians pay too little in state taxes. The percent of respondents who believe upper-income earners pay too little increased by 10% from 2020.
     
  • 53% say lower-income earners pay too much, up from 40% in 2016.
     
  • 49% say they pay the right amount of taxes, compared to 57% in 2016.
  • Despite Alabama’s low per capita tax yield, 69% of residents believe they pay the same or more taxes than people like themselves in other states.

Public Education

Alabamians believe education is the most important service state government provides, but its lead over other services is declining.

  • 44% rank education as the most important service, while 31.3% rank healthcare No. 1.
  • 78% believe the state spends too little on education, compared to 74% in 2019 and 68% in 2013. Large majorities in every subpopulation have this belief.
     
  • 69% support increasing taxes to support education, but no single tax increase option garners majority support.
  • This year, respondents were asked what supplemental programs might improve education. No program received a majority response, but the top priorities were expanded tutoring, increased technology funding, and more mental health counseling.

  • When asked what respondents’ top priority for new education funding would be, the highest percentage (41%) said that new revenue should go to increasing salary and benefits for teachers 

  • 59% say local boards of education are best suited to decide how education dollars are spent.

  • Respondents believe that the local board of education are best suited to decide school spending, school policy, and school closings.

Other notable education findings:

  • 77% believe that taxes on Internet sales should be distributed to local schools in the same way as sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar sales.
     
  • Alabamians are almost evenly split on tax-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. However, 61% of Alabamians believe vouchers, if allowed, should be available to all students. 

Trust in State Government

Alabamians’ trust in state government improved slightly compared to 2019 but is still well below rates reported in the early 2000s.

  • 77% support keeping the General Fund and Education Trust Fund separate, down from 80% in 2020 and 82% in 2019, but still well above the 69% reported in 2016.
     
  • 63% believe state government officials do not care about their opinions, down from 66% last year. This compares to a low of 55% in 2008 and a high of 74% in 2010.
     
  • 61% believe they have no say in state government, up from 55% last year, but well above the low of 43% in 2008.

Download the full report here.


ACT Scores Down for the Class of 2020

Average ACT scores for Alabama public high school graduates declined with the graduating class of 2020, with students now scoring lower than they did five years ago. The results mirror a national decline that cuts across gender, economic and demographic groups of students.

The scores reported here would not have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; 2020’s seniors would have taken the tests and applied for college before the disruption.

Interactive charts in this report allow you to explore the results at the state level and by system and school, subject, and year.

Statewide, the average composite score declined – from 18.9 to 18.6 on a 36-point scale – and the average score in each of the four subject areas – English, reading, math, and science – declined as well.

The data on which PARCA’s analysis is based was obtained from the Alabama Department of Education. The results consider the students’ best individual score by subject if the student took the test multiple times. 

Nationally, composite and subject scores all ticked down. The national average composite was 20.6, down from 20.7 in 2019. Alabama’s average score should not be compared to the national average score. Only half the nation’s high school graduates take the ACT, and the students who do are disproportionately likely to be headed to college. In Alabama, all public high school students take the test. But for both Alabama and the nation, this was the third year in a row of decline. For both, 2017 was the high point over the past five years—Alabama at 19.1, the nation at 21.

A better score comparison is to other states where all public high school students take the ACT. Among those 15 states, average ACT scores range from 20.2 in Utah to 17.9 in Nevada. Alabama is tied with North Carolina for the No. 10 ranking among those 15 states.

For reference, the average ACT for students entering Alabama colleges ranges from a composite score of 18 at Alabama State and Alabama A&M to 28 at Auburn and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

ACT also reports the percentage of students scoring at or above the college-ready benchmark in each subject. Only 16.3% of Alabama students scored at or above the benchmark in all four subjects in 2020. According to ACT, students scoring at or above the benchmark in a subject have a 50% chance of earning a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding introductory college course. Just under half of Alabama students, 48%, scored college-ready in English, but the ACT results indicated that only 21% were ready for success in a college-level math course.

ACT scores are also reported by demographic and economic subgroup. The data points to lingering disparities in scores between non-economically disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged students, between Asian, white, Black, and Hispanic students, and between males and females. But all groups saw scores decline in 2020.


Fewer Alabama Students Assigned to Remedial Education

The number and percentage of Alabama public high school graduates assigned to remedial courses upon entering college continued to decline in 2019, one measure of academic progress for K-12 schools and Alabama’s public higher education system.

Remedial classes are non-credit college courses covering material students should have learned in high school. Alabama’s Community College System (ACCS) has recently developed alternatives to those courses, and the decline is attributable to those schools. According to ACCS, not only are fewer students being placed in remedial courses, but also passage rates in introductory courses have risen. Meanwhile, the number of students assigned to remedial courses at four-year colleges has increased modestly.

The data comes from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the state higher education coordinating board. ACHE works with K-12 and colleges to follow the progression of Alabama high school graduates into Alabama public colleges.

The data provides feedback to high schools about how prepared their graduates are and can give colleges insight for improving student success.  Use the tabs in the visualization to explore the data. Compare the performance of graduates from your local high school or system.

This remediation data is the final dataset that looks back on students who graduated in the Spring of 2019. For that school year, PARCA previously published analyses of standardized tests, performance on ACT and WorkKeys, graduation and college and career readiness, and on college-going.

Progress Toward an Educational Goal

Decreasing the number of Alabama public high school graduates needing remediation in college was a goal identified in Alabama’s strategic plan for education, Plan 2020, adopted in 2012.

Remedial education is considered a waste of money for both the state and the individuals paying for higher education. Remedial courses cover material that should be covered in high school. Remedial classes cost students tuition and fees but do not produce credits that count toward graduation. By avoiding remedial courses, students are able to complete college work in a more timely fashion and at less cost.

A combination of factors have likely driven the decline in remediation. Factors include:

  1. Policy changes at two-year colleges that prescribe tutoring alongside introductory college classes, rather than assignment to a remedial class.
  2. Better preparation of students in K-12.
  3. Changes in college-going rates due to the high job availability.

The declines have been equal in reading and math. In 2013, 26% of students required remedial math, and 17% required remedial English. With the class of 2019, only 20% required remedial math, and 11% required remedial English.

Community Colleges Providing Alternatives

In 2018, The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) made system-wide changes designed intentionally to reduce the number of students enrolled in developmental or remedial courses. Students were still assessed for their levels of academic preparation upon enrollment, but, instead of being assigned to either regular or remedial courses, the system used a new tiered placement model. One innovation was enrolling students who needed extra support in a corequisite/tutorial course alongside college-level Math or English. Since the change, the number of students in remedial classes has declined, but the percentage of students passing gateway English and math has increased.  

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Are entering college students better prepared?

Since 2012, Alabama has pursued multiple strategies to improve K-12 education and to produce high school graduates who are better prepared for college and career.

Most directly tied to college preparation, the state has increased support for dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take courses at colleges, and for Advanced Placement courses, college-level courses taught by high school faculty members. Thanks to additional funding, the number of Advanced Placement Courses offered has increased. Much of that expansion has been in schools with higher numbers of economically disadvantaged students. The success rate on AP tests remained constant between 2013 and 2019, indicating that the expansion was maintaining quality while expanding opportunity.

Despite those efforts, scores for Alabama high school graduates on the ACT, the college-readiness test given to all students, have been flat to slightly declining. And while the number of students assigned to remediation has decreased in the two-year system, as noted, the number of remedial students has risen at four-year colleges.    

Are a different mix of students attending college?

Another factor that may be affecting the remediation rate is the choices high school graduates are making about college. Since 2014, the percentage of high school graduates going directly to college has declined from 65% to 58% in 2019. (See PARCA’s analysis of college-going trends). Over that period, Alabama’s high school graduation rate and the number of graduates produced has increased. Most of the enrollment decline has been in the two-year system. Community colleges tend to see enrollment declines when the economy is growing, and the demand for workers is high. In the fall of 2019, when Alabama’s unemployment rate was at a historic low, enrollment in the community college system dipped below 80,000, down from over 90,000 earlier in the decade as the state was emerging from the Great Recession.

It may be that a greater share of the high school graduates who would have needed remediation in college have instead gone straight into the workforce.

Conclusion

Remediation is needed for students enrolling with a major gap in their readiness for college. Given the open admissions policy in the two-year system and for some four-year colleges, remedial courses continue to play a role in higher education. For others who need some help rising to the level of college coursework, it benefits students and schools to provide alternatives to remediation. The most straightforward solution is to improve preparation in high school, and those efforts should continue. The two-year system’s strategy to provide simultaneous tutoring rather than sequential remedial courses appears to benefit students, increasing passing and progression rates. The model ACCS has developed should also be explored for replication at four-year colleges.


Stop the Slide, Start the Climb: Concepts to Enable Alabama Students to Achieve Their Fullest Potential

In March, the nonprofit Business Education Alliance commissioned PARCA to provide research describing the unprecedented challenges and opportunities in education faced by the state in this moment.

For more than a year, schools have coped with the Covid-19 pandemic: reshuffled learning environments, the unknowns of delivering education digitally, and the disruptive and unequal effects that those conditions have had on student learning.

Meanwhile, the schools are working to meet the demands of the Alabama Literacy Act, the 2019 law that requires all children to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade in order to be promoted.

At the same time though, to meet those daunting challenges, the state and federal governments are making an unprecedented amount of money available. For that investment to pay off, the money must be spent with care and forethought if Alabama is to seize this generational opportunity,

Read the full Business Education Alliance report here: Stop the Slide, Start the Climb: Concepts to Enable Alabama Students to Achieve Their Fullest Potential


Alabama’s College-Going Rate Declines With the Class of 2019

Even before the arrival of the Coronavirus, the number and percentage of Alabama high school graduates entering higher education after graduation was falling.

According to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the college-going rate for the Class of 2019 declined to 58%, the lowest percentage of high school graduates going into higher education over the past five years. The rate likely won’t recover soon. Indications are that the pandemic drove down enrollment even further in 2020.

See the college-going rate for your local high school or school system, or see college-going rates on an interactive map.

The 2019 decline in college-going likely reflected a strong economy and historically low unemployment rate. Enrollment losses were concentrated in the two-year college population. Enrollment in two-year colleges tends to fall when jobs are plentiful, and high school graduates have an immediate opportunity to go into the workforce. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2019, the number of Alabama high school graduates going on to four-year college increased slightly.

ACHE produces college-going statistics for Alabama high school graduates by querying the National Student Clearinghouse, which gathers student enrollments at colleges and universities across the country. The information is important because it provides information about the likely direction of educational attainment in the state and in local communities. Producing college and career-ready graduates and propelling them into advanced technical training or college degrees is a key priority for the state.

Downward Trend Likely to Continue in the Near Term

In a separate survey, ACHE gathers the overall fall enrollment from all Alabama public colleges. The results of the 2020 survey provide a glimpse of what college-going might look like for the Class of 2020. According to that data, the 2019 decline at two-year colleges was followed by an even steeper decline in 2020 of an additional 6 percent, as new graduates and schools navigated the pandemic, according to a separate set of data collected by ACHE.

The college-going rate drop presents a challenge in Alabama’s drive to add 500,000 highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025. Community colleges are key to producing some of the most in-demand certifications and credentials.

Despite their affordability, convenience, and centrality to the skills-based training increasingly called for by prominent Alabama employers, two-year colleges have seen enrollments decline steadily over the past decade from 93,720 in 2011 to 79,938 in 2019. Preliminary fall enrollment in 2020 was 69,814.

Where High School Graduates Go?

Alabama’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 92% percent in 2019, but, according to ACHE’s data, the 2019 graduation year also produced the highest number of graduating students, since 2011, who didn’t go on to higher education.

ACHE followed 50,840 high school graduates in the year after they graduated in 2019.

  • 29,384, or 58%, enrolled in higher education
  • 15,376 enrolled in four-year colleges
  • 14,008 enrolled in two-year colleges
  • 21,456 were not found to have enrolled
  • 90% of enrollees went to a college in Alabama
  • 92% went to a public college

College-Going Patterns

  • Magnet schools and suburban school systems send higher percentages of students to four-year colleges.
    • Three Montgomery County magnet high schools rank in the top 10 for college-going, along with Birmingham’s Ramsay High School, which is also a magnet. Suburban high schools like Mountain Brook, Vestavia-Hills, Hewitt-Trussville, and Hoover also rank in the top 10, along with Huntsville High School, a non-magnet high school in an urban system.
  • Some rural and non-metro counties and systems achieve high college-going rates based on high enrollment in the local community college.
    • Arab, Opp, and South Lamar High School rank in the top 20 for college-going due to the strength of their community college enrollments.
  • Rural counties isolated from population centers and urban high schools in high poverty neighborhoods tend to have the lowest college-going rates.

Outliers

While generalizations about performance can be made, some schools are outliers. The chart below compares Alabama high schools’ college-going rate (the vertical axis) with the student body’s poverty rate (the horizontal axis). The higher a school is on the chart, the higher the percentage of students who leave high school and enter college—the farther to the right on the chart, the lower the level of poverty. The slanted line in the middle is the average of the values, which forms a line of prediction. In general, the college-going rate rises as the student body poverty rate gets lower.

However, some schools outperform the level at which they would be predicted to perform based on the economic status of students. In 2019, examples included high schools like Wadley High School in Randolph County, Linden High School, Thomasville High School, and RA Hubbard High School in Lawrence County.

Why does it matter?

Alabama, as a state, and communities within Alabama would benefit from higher levels of educational attainment. Higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of income, better health, and longer life. States with higher levels of educational attainment have higher per capita income.

The tabs above the chart allow navigation to a variety of measures of college-going and educational attainment at the school, the system, the county, and the state level. The statistics are presented in graphics, tables, and maps.


Corporal Punishment in Alabama and the US

Significantly fewer students are receiving corporal punishment in Alabama, according to a new dataset released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and analyzed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Still, Alabama paddles more students than almost any other state. Alabama is one of only 11 states where corporal punishment was used more than 100 times statewide in 2018. 1

According to the data, 9,168 students in Alabama K-12 public schools received corporal punishment in the 2017-2018 school year. That ranks Alabama No. 3 behind Mississippi and Texas in the number of students who were subject to corporal punishment. Across the U.S. almost 70,000 students were reported to have received corporal punishment in 2018, compared to almost 100,000 in 2016. Alabama’s number of reported paddlings dropped by more than 7,000, from 16,542 in 2016. That was the largest numerical decline among the states. Ten fewer Alabama school systems reported paddling students.

Why Is This Important?

PARCA provides analysis so public agencies can understand their policies in a wider context and identify best practices in order to improve performance for public schools, much of that analysis centers on student outcomes like graduation and on standardized tests. But beyond academic preparation, success in school is influenced by student behavior and a school’s response to misbehavior.

Last year, PARCA examined the use of out-of-school suspensions in school discipline. Educational research shows that out-of-school suspensions lead to missed instructional time and disengagement. Out-of-school suspensions have been linked to lower levels of achievement and higher dropout rates.2

Proponents view corporal punishment as a more efficient alternative. It has been found to effectively motivate students to comply with school rules in the short term. However, research shows that corporal punishment does not appear to change behavior in the long run, can adversely affect achievement, and may legitimize physical violence as retribution in school and society. 3

Questions of equity also arise. The data show Black students face a higher rate of punishment than white students in both suspensions and corporal punishment. A higher percentage of disabled students are paddled compared to non-disabled students. In recent years, most states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, have banned corporal punishment on disabled students.

National Trend Away From Corporal Punishment

The fall in the use of corporal punishment in Alabama and across the country is the continuation of a long-term trend and coincides with increasing calls for ending physical punishments in schools.4

Between 1971 and 2011, 30 states outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. New Jersey banned the practice in 1867.5

In 2016, then-U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. wrote to governors and state education chief executives urging them to end corporal punishment in public schools, citing research that finds physical punishment ineffective and counter-productive.

The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have long recommended against the use of corporal punishment in schools. In 2018, the AAP issued a strongly-worded recommendation against any adults, including parents, using physical force to attempt to modify children’s behavior.

“Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term,” the Academy wrote. “With new evidence, researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children.”

Still Supported, Practiced, Particularly in the Rural South

However, corporal punishment continues to have supporters in local communities and in state legislatures. It is most common in rural, non-metropolitan school districts. Proponents argue that it is a decisive intervention that avoids separating students from school and classes, as does out-of-school suspension. Attempts to ban the practice in additional states have fallen short. Proposals for a statewide ban were considered but failed to pass in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina in recent years.  

Corporal punishment in public schools is still legal in 19 states, though in 8 of those states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Indiana, Utah, and Kansas), it is rarely, if ever used. In 2018, the 11 states where more than 100 students were corporally punished were concentrated in the Southeast, overlapping with the membership of the Southeastern Conference.

In terms of the percentage of students receiving corporal punishment, 1% of all Alabama students were paddled in 2018, ranking Alabama No. 3 behind Mississippi and Arkansas. But some schools don’t use corporal punishment. Looking only at the universe of schools where corporal punishment is practiced, 4% of Alabama students attending corporal punishment schools were paddled, which ranks behind Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Only a small number of schools use corporal punishment in Missouri, but the corporal punishment rate is high in those schools.

A Higher Percentage of Blacks and Disabled Students Receive Corporal Punishment

More whites than Blacks receive corporal punishment, and more non-disabled students are paddled than disabled. However, as a percentage of their enrollment in schools where corporal punishment is practiced, a higher percentage of Black students were subjected to corporal punishment in 2018 than white students.

The same is true for disabled students. A higher percentage of disabled students than non-disabled students were subject to corporal punishment, according to the 2018 data. In recent years, states have begun to ban corporal punishment of students with disabilities, including Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

The data on corporal punishment comes from the biennial reports submitted by schools to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The reports gather a wide range of data from enrollment characteristics, to funding, to course offering and participation, to the application of various forms of discipline.

In Alabama, 223,000 students, or 30% of the state’s public school population, are enrolled in schools where corporal punishment is practiced. Alabama had a total of 1,384 schools submitting reports; 470 of them reported that corporal punishment was used in 2018.

The following dashboards can be used to explore the use of corporal punishment in Alabama in the 2018 data, explore maps, rankings by system and school, and make a closer examination of statistics for individual schools.

Non-Punitive Alternatives

A number of schools and systems in Alabama and around the country are increasingly turning to non-punitive measures that are more directly targeting underlying causes of student misbehavior and have been found to decrease disciplinary referrals. Examples include:

  • Caring School Communities model 6
  • Character education (see character.org)
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) 7
  • Pre-K early childhood education

Among these approaches, PBIS has the strongest body of evidence, though in recent years the Caring Schools Community model, programs integrating academic and social-emotional learning, and student character education are showing promising results. PARCA is currently evaluating programs in Alabama associated with these models. PARCA’s pre-k research also suggests that students participating in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K are less likely to be cited for disciplinary infractions than students who did not participate.


2019 Likely a High Point for High School Graduation and Readiness

Alabama’s high school seniors of 2019 graduated at the highest rate the state has ever reported, 92%. And, a greater proportion of those students, 80%, were rated college and career ready than ever before. Search results for local systems and schools. Alabama’s reported high school graduation rate now ranks No. 7 among U.S. states.

The rapid rise in graduation and readiness is cause for celebration, but it also leads to questions.

  • Are rising graduation and readiness rates due to academic progress or easier-to-meet standards?
  • Do the established measures accurately gauge whether a student is ready for college or the workforce?
  • Are some schools and students seeking out shortcuts to generate higher rates of readiness?

A high point and a moment for reflection

The high school graduation rate measures the number of ninth-grade students who earn a diploma four years later, the cohort graduation rate.

The graduation rates and readiness levels recorded in 2019 aren’t likely to be matched in the short term. Schools shutdown in March of 2020, and the semester was finished online. That potentially interfered with some seniors catching up on credits or earning the certifications or scores needed to graduate or achieve readiness. Some students likely fell behind in accumulating credits for graduation, certifications from Career Technical Education courses, and other markers of college and career readiness. The altered learning experiences brought on by the pandemic will likely have effects for the next several years.

So, considering this period of uncertainty for on-time graduation and college and career readiness rates, the state and its public schools have an opportunity to make sure both a high school diploma and college and career readiness are meaningful and credible measures of achievement, that the credentials earned by students are valuable and meaningful to colleges and employers.

How goals were set and met

Alabama’s high school graduation rate has been on the rise since at least 2012. It has now topped the announced goal of 90%, set by the state plan for educational improvement, Plan 2020. By 2018, the most recent year for which national comparisons are available, Alabama’s high school graduation had risen 18 percentage points since 2011. Only Nevada’s graduation rate showed more improvement over the period.

The graduation rate’s rise coincided with several changes. First, the state’s graduation exam was scrapped. Second, alternative diplomas that had been available to special education students were eliminated and all completion pathways pointed to a regular high school diploma. Third, the state implemented a credit recovery system that allowed students who failed a course to continue working to master the material, rather than having them take the entire course again. And, finally, the graduation rate, and later the readiness rate, became an accountability measures, motivating faculty and administration to find ways to improve on those metrics.

As the graduation rate rose sharply, so did concern that schools were issuing diplomas to students who weren’t prepared for entry into the workforce or college. In 2018, then-State Superintendent Ed Richardson pointed to the wide gap between the graduation rate and the percentage of seniors who met the state’s definition of college and career-ready. For the class of 2016, for example, the graduation rate was 23 percentage points higher than the college and career readiness rate. Richardson called on schools to focus on closing that gap, demonstrating that graduates were ready.

With the release of the 2019 numbers, the gap has closed to 12 percentage points, with 92% graduating and 80% of seniors demonstrating college and career readiness, according to the measures established by the Alabama State Board of Education.

How students are rated college and career ready

The Alabama Board of Education has adopted six ways for high school students to demonstrate that they are ready college and/or career ready.

  • Score at or above the college-ready benchmark on at least one section of the ACT’s college readiness test
  • Score Silver or above on ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment
  • Earn a qualifying score on an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) test
  • Earn College Credit through a dual enrollment course
  • Earn an Industry Recognized Credential prepared for through a Career Technical Education (CTE) Course
  • Pass the U.S. military’s test for enlistment

A detailed discussion of the individual measures follows, but progress on the measures can be summarized.

College-oriented measures of readiness haven’t improved much. ACT scores and the percentage of students passing them are flat.

The percentage of students earning Advanced Placement is up by 2 percentage points, correlating with the wider availability of courses.

College credit through dual enrollment, usually through community colleges, is up 4 percentage points. Some of those courses are academic and others are CTE classes.

On the other hand, workforce readiness measures have grown more steeply. That makes sense considering the increased emphasis on Career Technical Education in recent years.

Some of those large gains on the work-oriented measures will receive additional scrutiny in the future, as state officials work to ensure that the work credentials align with courses of study and available employment opportunities.

The chart below tracks the growth between 2018 and 2019 on the various readiness measures.

ACT

From 2017 to 2019, scores on the ACT, the widely known college entrance test, have remained flat among Alabama seniors. About half of students earn a benchmark score on one of the ACT subjects: English, reading, math, and science. Students are most likely to score at or above the benchmark in English, indicating that they are ready to take English 101 and pass. According to ACT, a student scoring at the benchmark has a 75% chance of making a C or better in a college-level course in that subject. The ACT is administered in the public schools in the junior year. However, a student can take the ACT before or after that and continue to take it to improve their score.

WorkKeys

ACT also produces a test of applied knowledge called WorkKeys. WorkKeys has been a growth area. In 2017, 55% of seniors scored high enough to be considered ready for the workforce. By 2019, that percentage had climbed to 61%.

WorkKeys is a test of reading, writing, and graphical comprehension as those skills might be used in the workplace. A student’s performance on the test can earn a certificate at one of four levels: bronze, silver, gold, or platinum. Students earning silver or above are considered ready for the workforce, demonstrating a level of skill required by 69% of jobs in ACT’s database of profiled jobs.

As schools have become more familiar with WorkKeys, some have instituted training sessions for the test, recognizing that some students may be better able to earn a qualifying score on WorkKeys than on the more academically-oriented ACT.

AP/IB

AP and IB courses and tests are designed to reflect college-level learning, both in course delivery and rigor. Alabama has steadily increased its investment in AP courses in particular, spreading these nationally-recognized and benchmarked courses and tests to more school systems. To demonstrate college readiness on this measure, a student has to score 3 or above on the end-of-the-year AP test. A score at that level can allow a student to claim college credit at many colleges.

The percentage of seniors earning a qualifying score through the AP test has increased, from 10% of seniors to 12%. Credit through IB, which is offered at far fewer schools, has also increased slightly.

Due to the pandemic, AP success is likely to be negatively affected. The shut down of school in the final weeks before the tests damaged preparation. The tests were offered, online, in modified form, but it is unclear what the participation and success rate will be due to the alteration.

College Credit

This category measures the percentage of seniors who earned college credit by taking and passing a college-level course while still in high school. For the most part, these are courses offered through the state’s network of community colleges. The percentage of students earning dual enrollment credit has climbed from 10% to 14% of high school seniors, thanks to a boost in investment from the state to expand these offerings, as well as a greater effort on the part of K–12 and community colleges to make these opportunities available to students.

These dual enrollment courses can be academic in nature, but more often, are career-oriented, giving students a jumpstart on college or training for workplace certifications and licenses.

Career Technical Education

This area, which has been an area of expanded focus for schools, saw the biggest gains between 2017 and 2019.

The percentage of students earning credit through CTE rose from 22% of seniors in 2017 to 37% of seniors in 2019, the largest gain among all the measures. Some CTE credit is hard-won, the product of months or years of training and education resulting in a valuable credential or certification that can be used to secure a job upon graduation.

However, some of the fastest-growing credentials are of questionable value in the marketplace and can be earned through brief coursework and short online examinations. PARCA research for the Business Education Alliance found that some of the fastest-growing credentials included certifications such as adult beef quality assurance and certified guest professional. Thousands of additional credentials have been issued along these lines. While the certificates may reflect useful knowledge, they don’t require extensive coursework or knowledge to earn. Beyond that, the volume at which these credentials are being issued doesn’t match available employment opportunities.

According to data provided by the Alabama Department of Education, credentials issued in Adult Beef Quality Assurance and Certified Guest Service Professional constituted almost 40% of the 30,040 credentials issued in the 2018-2019 school year for students 6th – 12th grade.

State Education Department officials as well as officials in colleges, workforce agencies are working with the governor’s office and industry to provide schools more guidance on how to define an industry-recognized credential. Going forward, an industry-recognized credential that counts for career readiness should be one that is linked to a rigorous course of study, one that confirms a student has mastered the material. Further, the credential should qualify its holder for a legitimate job opportunity in an in-demand field.

Conclusion

Educators have shown that they can respond to a performance goal. Over the past decade, Alabama has seen a dramatic rise in its high school graduation rate from among the lowest in the nation to among the highest.

In an even shorter time frame, the percentage of students designated college and career-ready has also climbed significantly. Progress toward goals should be applauded. At the same time, we should ensure that the pursuit of goals should produce meaningful results for students and the broader public.

The pandemic will undoubtedly lead to some erosion in immediate measures of educational progress, but it also affords an opportunity to focus measurement and goal setting on valuable ends.

The visualizations below allow you to compare systems individual schools on graduation rates and college and career readiness. Use the available menus to select schools and systems you want to focus on. Remember, the socio-economic composition of the student body tends to affect performance.

Performance by System

Performance by High School


Cooperating for Growth in the Wiregrass

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, economic developers in Southeast Alabama recognized the advantages of pulling together as a region rather than each city and county trying to recruit new industry independently. Wanting to take cooperation to a new level, they asked PARCA to investigate how other regional economic development organizations across the state and across the nation work.

When the pandemic struck, cooperation shifted into overdrive, and more counties rallied to the cause.

“We really pulled together as a region. We shared information about challenges and opportunities in the face of the crisis, and we strengthened our relationships,” said Veronica Crock, president of the Ozark-Dale County Economic Development Corporation. “As we come out of the pandemic, we will all benefit from working together to retain our existing businesses in a time of such uncertainty, and we will benefit from working together as a team to bring new jobs and industry to our region.”

PARCA’s newly released report, Growing Cooperation in Southeast Alabama, describes the efforts of the 11 counties in the state’s Wiregrass region to turn their loose alliance into a sustainable regional organization. Together, the counties hope to broaden their appeal, extend their reach, and amplify their message, while decreasing duplication of effort and expense.

Grow Southeast Alabama consists of economic development entities in Houston, Henry, Butler, Crenshaw, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Barbour, Bullock, Geneva, and Pike counties. Most off the Interstate corridors that connect the state’s largest metros, the counties in the Southeast corner of Alabama sometimes feel overlooked and undervalued. While known for peanut farming and pine forests, the region’s strength as a hub of aerospace and defense contractors is under-appreciated. Dothan, the region’s center of gravity, is the state’s seventh-largest city and is ringed by smaller but still considerable population centers, Enterprise and Ozark. Dothan is growing and serves as a trade and healthcare hub for a wide radius of counties in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

Though the counties are united under the state’s regional workforce council system, they are spread and don’t have a long history of working together. While that’s not uncommon, some portions of the state have a head start on building economic coordination and regional identity across county lines. For instance, North Alabama counties have been working together for decades through the North Alabama Industrial Development Association and the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. There is no set pattern for how the various roles in economic development and workforce development are organized and carried out at the regional level. Sometimes a regional chamber of commerce, like the Birmingham Business Alliance or the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, may play an overarching role. And meanwhile, a locally-funded economic development organization engages in more targeted recruitment and support for existing industries.

The developers involved in Grow Southeast are sorting out which functions will be carried out by a regional organization and which will remain local. A central challenge will be sustainably financing the regional organization while preserving funding for the local economic development organizations and programs. Another will be setting up rules and expectations for working together for the region while, at times, competing on behalf of their local community.

“We greatly enjoyed working with the PARCA team and are grateful for the professional, thorough, and detailed report they provided,” Crock said. “Their research was not only instrumental in bringing to light the positive and negative aspects of working collaboratively in a competitive environment, but also confirmed our commitment to putting this competitiveness aside for the sake of the region.”

“We benefitted from the research into the framework of successful economic development in other regions in the United States,” she said. “We will certainly rely on this report as we position ourselves to move forward in our regional collaboration effort.”    


Alabama Tax Revenues Remarkably Resilient in 2020

Tax revenue flowing into Alabama’s General Fund and Education Trust Fund held up surprisingly well in 2020 fiscal year in spite of the Coronavirus pandemic, thanks to an extremely strong state economy preceding the pandemic and a flood of federal aid that followed the pandemic’s arrival.

Remarkably, both Alabama’s General Fund and its ETF grew substantially in 2020, meeting and exceeding budget expectations. The ETF took in an additional $209 million in 2020 compared to 2019, a 3% increase. The General Fund received 7% or $147 million more in 2020 than it did in 2019.

How is that possible considering the spike in unemployment that began in March and still has not completely abated? What about the mandatory business closures in March and April and the restrictions still in place to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus?

Several factors combined to dampen the blow to tax revenues.   

  1. A very strong economy going into the pandemic. Unemployment was at a historic low between October and March. That makes up the first half of the fiscal year. Prior to the pandemic, income tax receipts were up around 7% over the same period in 2019. Collections dropped drastically but then began to recover. Taking the whole year into consideration, income tax collections were up 2.4%.
  2. Unprecedented levels of federal aid to businesses and individuals. into the economy. According to USASpending.gov, individuals and governments in Alabama have received commitments of $4.1 billion in grants, loans, director payments, or contracts related to Covid-19 relief.
  3. Sustained consumer spending. With the Paycheck Protection Program preserving payrolls, and unemployed workers receiving $600 per week in a supplement to unemployment insurance, spending shifted but didn’t contract to the extent it could have. Sales taxes dropped, then recovered and have been up and down in the months since. At the same time though, tax on internet purchases surged, offsetting the erosion in sales tax. Unlike some other states, Alabama’s sales taxes apply to groceries and medicine and thus it tends to be more stable.
  4. Thus far, a relatively quick recovery. By August, Alabama’s unemployment rate was 5.6%, down from 13.8% in April. That’s better than the national rate of 8.4%. September 2020 results on income and sales taxes trailed September 2019 results but not dramatically.

The overall stability of the budget masks some major shifts in some revenue sources. Some of the changes were pandemic related, some not. Here are some highlights.

General Fund Revenue Sources

The General Fund is supported by a myriad of tax sources. Traditionally, most of those sources saw little in growth from year to year, and the General Fund struggled to keep up with rising expenses in non-education expenses.

However, in recent years, some growth taxes have been added to the General Fund and support for general fund agencies has become more stable.

Big gainers

Simplified Sellers Use Tax: Revenue from this tax on online sales nearly doubled, up $69 million to $139 million. There are two reasons. First, this is a relatively new tax, and some new retailers joined the program for the first time. So, prior to the pandemic, the tax was already up significantly. When the pandemic set in, people shifted more spending to online purchases. While this tax, a portion of which also goes to the ETF, is expected to continue to grow, it is not expected to grow at nearly this rate in the future.

Transfers and Reversions: This boost of $44 million to the General Fund was inflated by a transfer from the Revenue Department. The department transferred $22 million in fees related to drivers who didn’t have Mandatory Auto Liability Insurance.

Insurance Premium Taxes: An additional $27 million flowed in from this tax on insurance premiums. This can be the result of more policies issued or a rise in the cost of insurance. This is the largest source of revenue in the General Fund contributing $412 million in 2020.

ABC Board: With bars closed and people stuck at home, Alabamians apparently flocked to liquor stores contributing an extra $17 million to the General Fund, an increase of 14%. Most of the jump occurred in April and May, which were record months for the ABC board.

Mortgage Record Tax: An additional $12 million flowed into the General Fund from this percentage tax charged on both refinances and home purchases. Revenues from this source accelerated in the June, July, August, and September as interest rates plunged and refinancing surged. For the year, the tax was up 38% over 2019.

Interest on the Alabama Trust Fund: A 10% jump came from the proceeds off the investments in the State’s savings account, the Alabama Trust Fund. The savings account is back at full strength now since Alabama repaid its previous borrowing from the fund that occurred during the Great Recession.  That and a strong stock market helped it generate $11 million more in 2020 than it did in 2019.

Big losers

Oil and Gas Production Tax: Thanks to the collapse in the oil market, this tax dropped by $13 million, down 41% from 2019.

Interest on State Deposits: The state earns interest on the cash it holds but because of dropping interest rates this source of revenue declined $11 million or 18%.

Lodging Tax: This tax on hotels and vacation rentals was down 15% for the year, collecting almost $9 million less for the General Fund. According to Finance officials, the drop would have been even more precipitous, but the Gulf Coast beaches saw a surge of business during the summer. The continued depression of convention and hotel traffic will continue to weigh on this revenue source, which is important for cities and for the state tourism agency. Hurricane Sally will also take a toll.

Court Costs: With the courts closed or severely limited in operation, the costs assessed to participants in the court system dropped by $5.4 million or 9%.

Education Trust Fund

The ETF supports K-12 schools and colleges and Universities. Flowing into it are the state’s two largest revenue sources: the income tax and the sales tax.

Big Gainers

Benefiting from growth taxes, the ETF has traditionally seen the strongest ups and downs: rapid growth in good times and jarring contractions with the economy falters. However, more recently the Legislature has spread some of the growth taxes and has imposed rules on how fast spending can grow. These restraints have thus far prevented mid-year budget cuts and have allowed the accumulation of reserve funds.

Income Tax: Income tax receipts to the Education Trust Fund totaled almost $4.7 billion in 2020, $109 million more than 2019, an increase of 2%. Pre-pandemic this tax was trending toward an astounding 7% increase.

Sales Taxes: The state received over $2 billion in sales tax revenue in 2020, $71 million more than last year was sent to the General Fund. In actuality, sales tax revenue increased 2.25%, solid growth, that didn’t fall off significantly during the pandemic. Smaller retailers did suffer during the closures, but grocery and hardware stores saw strong sales. With the enhancement unemployment compensation ended and continued uncertainty in the labor market, budget forecasters are keeping a close eye on this revenue source. However, so far, spending levels have held up. Revenues from September 2020 were 2.9% higher than in September 2019.

Simplified Sellers Use Tax: As in the General Fund, the contribution of this tax nearly doubled, bringing in an additional $23 million to the ETF. The proceeds of the tax are divided, with the ETF receiving 25% and the General Fund 75%.

Use Tax: A 14% increase in the Use Tax is not all because of growth. More than half the “increase” stems from the fact that the state had to pay a $12 million refund out of this tax source last year.

Biggest losers:

The Utility Tax: Down 3% or $13 million, this tax was lower because of lower energy use thanks to a cooler summer.

Mobile Telecom Tax: A dying tax, this tax applied to phone plans that sold talk time. For the most part, cellular plans now provide unlimited talk time at no charge but charge for data, which is not covered by this tax. Revenue continues to decline, down another $2 million or 18% lower than last year.

From the Year’s End Looking Forward

According to Finance Department officials, Alabama ended 2020 with $330 million balance in the ETF and a $315 million balance in the General Fund. That was result both of revenues that exceeded the budgeted amounts and expenditures that were lower than what was appropriated.

For the current fiscal year, FY 2021, Finance officials are relatively confident that revenues will more than cover the budgets. Lawmaker scaled back spending plans in light of the pandemic. As long as there aren’t additional unforeseen shocks to the economic system, the Alabama economy should generate the revenue needed to make the budgets as adopted this spring.

ETF

  • ETF 2020 budgeted: 7,125,895,252
  • ETF 2020 Receipts: 7,423,906,758.89
  • ETF 2021 budgeted 7,217,422,487

General Fund

  • General Fund 2020 budgeted: 2,192,379,876
  • General Fund 2020 receipts: 2,299,176,800
  • General Fund 2021 budgeted; 2,393,272,863

And if things were to falter, Alabama still has reserves to tap under extreme circumstances. Rainy Day Funds for both budgets have been repaid and additional budget stabilization funds are also available. As of now, none of those emergency measures have been employed.

RESERVE FUND BALANCES

  • ETF Budget Stabilization Fund – $373,269,077
  • ETF Rainy Day Account – $465,421,670
  • GF Budget Stabilization Fund – $27,297,483
  • GF Budget Rainy Day Account – $232,939,781