Graduation and College and Career Readiness Rates Steady, Gap Persists

With graduation season now upon us, new data allows us to look back at statistics for last May’s public high school graduates, Alabama’s Class of 2021.

In 2021, 92% of seniors graduated on-time four years after starting in 9th grade, maintaining the high rates Alabama public schools have posted in recent years. However, only 76% of seniors were certified as college and career-ready (CCR), a gap that state leaders are calling on schools to close.

Percentage Change in the College and Career Readiness Measures

The results of 2021 should be considered in the context of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This graduating class saw in-person instruction end in March of their junior year. For their senior year, the 2020-2021 school year, the amount of time students spent in-person at school varied by district. While the graduation rate remains close to its historical high point, the college and career readiness rate remains below the level it reached in 2019. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Measures of college and career readiness must be honest and meaningful measures. There are seven ways a student can demonstrate college and career readiness.

1. Earn Credit Through a College: a higher percentage of students earned college credit while in high school in 2021: 17%. That’s the highest percentage ever, up from 15% 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.

2. Earn a Qualifying Score through Advanced Placement: AP courses are taught in a high school but have the rigor and approach of college courses. In 2021, 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.

3. Earn an Industry Recognized Credential through Career Technical Education: 36% of students earned an industry-recognized credential through career technical education in 2021. These credentials result from taking work-oriented courses offered at high schools or K-12 career tech centers. At 36%, the Class of 2021 was only slightly behind the 37% of students recorded for the Class of 2019. After a rapid jump in CCR attainment in recent years, there has been an increased focus on the quality of the industry credentials that count toward career readiness. The credential has to be tied to a student’s course of study. Also, the credential should be valued in a career field that is in demand in the regional job market. This screening for the quality of the credential may hold down growth in numbers in the short term, but it should improve value for the student and the economy.

4. 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 5% in 2021, to 45%. 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.

5. Earn a qualifying score on WorkKeys: Over the past two years, there has been a significant drop in the number and percentage of students earning CCR through ACT’s WorkKeys test, 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)

A lower percentage of students gained admission to the military or earned college credit through an International Baccalaureate course, options six and seven, in 2021 than in previous years.

Numerical Change

While the graduation and CCR rates are stable, fewer students are progressing through Alabama public schools. The rising generation, Generation Z, is smaller than the previous generation, The Millenials. Consequently, the number of college and career-ready high school graduates is declining. Despite little or no change in the graduation or CCR rate, 1,336 fewer students graduated from Alabama public schools and 646 fewer students graduated ready for college and career. In light of 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

One system, Piedmont, and two dozen high schools reported a 100% on-time graduation rate for the Class of 2021. Eight 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.

On the other hand, nine schools had graduation rates below 75%. Thirty high schools had CCR rates below 50%. Twenty-six 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.

Gaps Between Subgroups

Historically, there have been gaps in the high school graduation rate between students of different races. In recent years, those gaps have been largely eliminated. However, the gaps persist in college and career readiness rates. Black and Hispanic CCR rates trail those of whites and Asians. 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, with only 24% of Blacks and 30% of Hispanics benchmarking in a subject on the ACT, compared to 55% of whites. Asians are much further ahead, with 77% of Asian students earning a benchmark score. By contrast, there is almost no racial gap in college and career readiness rates in career technical education: 35% of Black students earned an industry-recognized credential through CTE compared to 36% of whites and 38% of Hispanics.

WorkKeys

While still valued by many school systems, students, and employers, ACT’s WorkKeys test is no longer a universal comparative tool. After 2018, the Alabama Department of Education stopped requiring the test to be given to all students. That has led to significant drops in the number and percentage of students taking WorkKeys. In 2018, over 50,000 students took the test; in 2021, fewer than 35,000.

WorkKeys tests math, reading, and graphical literacy skills as they are employed in the workplace, in contrast to ACT, which tests for knowledge and skills needed in a college classroom. Businesses who build WorkKeys into their hiring practices know what a WorkKeys score means. They have determined what level of proficiency, as measured by WorkKeys, is needed in particular jobs. Students earn either a platinum, gold, silver, or bronze National Career Readiness Certificate, depending on their test performance. A student scoring Silver or above is considered college and career ready. In a normal job market, employers, particularly industrial employers, use WorkKeys in the applicant screening process.

In 2021, 59% of Alabama high school students who took WorkKeys scored Silver or above, indicating they had the foundational math and communication skills needed in most workplaces. That’s down from 66% when all students were required to take the test. Many school systems now make WorkKeys available to students who haven’t qualified as CCR on another measure.

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.

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.


ACT Scores Down Only a Fraction For the Class of 2021, Despite Pandemic

The average ACT score for students graduating from Alabama’s public high schools in 2021 was down only slightly, while the national average score fell more steeply, a fact that could be considered a victory in the light of the challenges faced by students and educators during the pandemic. Still, Alabama’s 2021 ACT results continue a downward drift from their peak in 2017.

Alabama’s average score, 18.6 on a 36-point scale, shouldn’t be directly compared to the national average score. Alabama tests virtually all its public high school students, while only 35% of students take the ACT nationally. In states where the test is not universally given, only students planning to go to college take the test, which tends to push up the score. The national average score fell from 20.6 in 2020 to 20.3 in 2021. Among states that tested 100% of students, Alabama maintained its relative performance rank, behind Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas but ahead of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Downward pressure on scores was expected. The pandemic led to the cancellation of several administrations of the ACT. Schools across the country operated virtually during the spring of 2020 when the students in the class of 2021 were juniors. Altered forms of schooling persisted into the fall of 2020. In normal circumstances, some students take the test more than once, attempting to boost their scores. That happened less with the Class of 2021. According to ACT, only 32% of students took the ACT more than once compared to 41% of the 2020 cohort. That drop was likely because most universities suspended the requirement of taking the ACT due to the disruptions.

In addition to the fractional drop in the average scale score for Alabama students, the percentage of students scoring college-ready in all subjects declined. In 2021, only 15% of students scored at or above the college-ready benchmark in all four tested subjects, compared to 16.3% in 2020 and 18% in 2017. According to ACT, students who meet a benchmark on the ACT have approximately a 50% chance of earning a B or better and approximately a 75% chance of making a C or better in a corresponding college course. ACT is primarily geared toward measuring readiness at four-year colleges and universities.

On each of the four subjects that ACT tests — English, math, reading, and science — student scores ticked down a fraction.

Some points of interest arise when delving more deeply into the numbers. Scores for white students declined in every subject while Black students held steady in reading and science. Hispanic students posted an improvement in English and science. Scores rose for both economically distressed and non-economically distressed students, an unexpected result considering that scores overall were down slightly. That may be explained by more students being classified as economically distressed due to the lingering economic consequences of the pandemic. Some students who had typically been in the non-economically distressed category likely shifted into the economically distressed pool, which can push up the scores of the economically distressed pool.

The stubborn score gaps between economic and demographic subpopulations persisted in 2021. Asians outperformed all other subgroups.

Due to the score gaps between students from different backgrounds, the demographic composition of the student body should be taken into account when evaluating a school or system’s performance. The scatterplot presents score performance in the context of the economic composition of the school system’s students.

Systems with a high percentage of non-poverty students are on the right of the scale, while schools with high poverty percentages are on the left. The higher the average scale score for the system, the higher the system appears on the graph. The line of prediction plots the expected performance level for a system considering the economic composition of the student body. Scores increase as the percentage of non-economically distressed students increase. Systems are grouped along that line of prediction, indicating a correlation between the average scale score in the system and the economic makeup.

Systems above the prediction line have outscored expectations based on economics.

A similar pattern can be seen in the array of individual high schools. However, there is more variation from the average. Taken together, the graphs tell us that the socioeconomic composition of a school influences the average score, but that systems and, to an even greater degree, individual schools do make a difference in student performance.

Bearing that in mind, PARCA’s visualizations of the 2021 ACT results allow the viewer to explore how their local schools and systems performed relative to others. Viewers can choose schools and systems that provide appropriate peer comparisons. In addition to comparisons by average scale score, additional views offer results by the percentage of students achieving the benchmarks in each subject. Lower poverty systems serving suburban communities tend to show the best results at the system level.

At the school level, the highest average performance is found not just among those suburban systems but also in magnet high schools in larger systems, like Montgomery County’s Loveless Academic Magnet Program (LAMP) and Huntsville’s New Century Technology High School.

To put ACT scores in perspective, it is helpful to know the typical ACT scores for students entering college. Average scores range widely between colleges and within colleges. In Alabama, the mid-point ACT score for entering students ranges from 28 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Auburn University to 17 at Alabama A&M in Huntsville and Alabama State in Montgomery. As part of their mission, these historically-Black universities provide opportunity and access to students who may not have received the same level of college preparation. Many colleges have continued to waive the ACT requirement for admission and are instead relying on high school grades and other factors to assess student readiness. However, ACT scores can still play a role in admissions and in the competition for scholarships.


Deaths outnumber births, but population grows through domestic migration

New estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than half of Alabama counties lost population between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, losses driven by an aging population, a declining birthrate, and an elevated death rate during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Statewide, the 65,868 deaths outnumbered 56,320 births, leading to a net loss through natural change of 8,548. In the visualization below, counties are shaded by their rate of natural change. Only eight counties, those in blue, saw more births than deaths. Alabama had the 4th highest death rate in the U.S., behind West Virginia, Mississippi, and Maine.

However, stronger growth through domestic migration (individuals moving from other states to Alabama, but excluding movers who are foreign-born) helped the state offset those losses. Estimates issued earlier this year put Alabama’s population at 5,039,877, up by about 15,000 or 0.3%, from 2020. A net total of 22,136 domestic migrants moved to Alabama, offsetting the loss from natural change.

Two counties accounted for about half that growth, with coastal Baldwin adding 6,780 net new residents through migration and Madison County adding 5,335. Madison County’s neighbor, Limestone, added 3,388. Other north Alabama counties like Cullman, Lauderdale, Jackson, Morgan, Marshall, and Dekalb also saw gains from domestic migration. The counties containing the three other large population centers — Jefferson, Mobile, and Montgomery — saw population declines, according to the estimates. Meanwhile, counties linked to those metro core counties — counties like Shelby and St. Clair, Elmore and Lee, and Baldwin — saw growth. Modest growth also occurred in some Wiregrass counties — Coffee, Houston, and Henry.

Zooming out to look at the Southeast, similar patterns are evident. Core counties in Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, and Memphis lost population while surrounding metro counties grew. Generally, growth was more widespread in Tennessee, Florida, the Carolinas, and the northern half of Georgia. Overall, Alabama counties bordering Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida are growing. Coastal counties on the Southeast’s East and Gulf coasts have seen growth. Counties along the interstates benefit throughout the region. Still, rural counties and whole swaths of the interior South, including counties in central and western Alabama, continue to lose population, not yet connected to the regional engines of growth.

When it comes to counties grouped into metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), The Daphne-Fairhope-Foley, Huntsville, and Auburn-Opelika MSAs continue to show strong population growth. Among the 358 U.S. metros, they rank No. 16, 40, 50, respectively, in terms of percentage population change.

On the other hand, metro Birmingham is still not seeing the pace of growth of other Southeastern metros. Gains in Shelby, St. Clair, Bibb, and Blount counties weren’t enough to overcome Jefferson County’s estimated population loss of 5,521. Over the past decade, Jefferson County’s natural increase plus population gains from international immigration offset a steady stream of domestic outmigration. But in 2021, deaths outnumbered births by 438, and international migration accounted for a gain of only 153 people. Meanwhile, the estimates show a net loss of 5,238 domestic residents moving out of Jefferson. That produced a net population loss for the MSA in 2021. The Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan statistical area ranked 258 out of 358 U.S. metros in percentage change.

Montgomery ranked No. 248, with a slight population gain, and the Mobile MSA ranked No. 305, with a population loss of 1,326. After strong growth over the past decade, Tuscaloosa County and its metro area lost population in 2021, according to the estimate. Its growth rank ranked it No. 284 among U.S. metros.

The Auburn-Opelika MSA added 2,617 residents, according to the estimates, a growth rate of 1.5%. Dothan, Decatur, and the Florence-Muscle Shoals MSAs also showed positive growth. The Anniston and Gadsden MSAs continued to post slight declines.

Using the menus and tabs in the visualizations above, you can explore birth and death rates, numerical and percentage change of counties and MSAs in Alabama and across the U.S. The state population estimates and components of change released earlier this year are below.

And the final visualization looks back to the results of the 2020 Census and compares population counts from April 2020 and April 2010.


PARCA Annual Forum Resources

PARCA’s Annual Forum on March 11, 2022, focused on efforts to improve math and reading education instruction for students in Alabama and Mississippi. The program featured the Superintendents of Education for Alabama and Mississippi, with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey delivering the keynote address.

Reading and Math in Alabama: The Data

PARCA Annual Meeting

Video of Opening Session

Presentation by Ryan Hankins PARCA Executive Director

Literacy: Our Path Forward

PARCA Annual Meeting

Video of literacy presentation and panel

Presentation by Cassandra Wheeler, Voyager Sopris/Lexia Learning and Laura Woolf, Voyager Sopris/Lexia

What About Math?

PARCA Annual Meeting

Video of the Mathematics presentation and panel

Presentation by Steve Leinwand, American Institutes for Research

Why School Mathematics in the 21st Century is Different — an explanation of why mathematics education needs to change.

A Vision of Effective Teaching and Learning of Mathematics — A description of what math education should be and how to bring it about.

Bridging for Math Strength — Online bank of math education resources for teachers and leads developed by the Virginia Department of Education and George Mason University.

Bed Time Math — free resource for parents offering ideas on how to incorporate math into everyday interactions with children.

Superintendents’ Conversation

PARCA Annual Meeting

Video of discussion between Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama State Superintendent of Education, and Dr. Carey Wright, Mississippi State Superintendent of Education

Albert P. Brewer Legacy Lunch

PARCA Annual Meeting

Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama

Video of introductory remarks and governor’s address

Additional Background Material

Literacy

Mississippi Resources

Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act: An Inside Look, a study of Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA) with input from the Mississippi Department of Education and teachers around the state. A study by The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).

Strong Readers, Strong Leaders, a bank of grade-level-appropriate resources developed for parents and community leaders to help teach children to read. Part of a public awareness campaign to promote reading.

Alabama Reading Initiative

Annual Report, Dec. 2021

ARI Website

Alabama Literacy Act Implementation Guide

The Alabama Family Guide for Student Reading Success

Math

Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative

Annual Report, December 2021

AMSTI Research and Reports

Family Guide for ACAP Success: Elementary School Math

Additional Education-related Resources

The Alabama Education Lab by al.com, and its weekly newsletter, Ed Chat.

Forging Alabama’s Future: Improving Educational Attainment and Workforce Development, Business Education Alliance report on strategic investments to improve educational attainment and workforce quality and supply.

The Alabama Literacy Alliance, a network of literacy advocacy organizations and service providers from across the state.

A+ Education Partnership, latest news from the educational improvement advocacy group.


New Business Education Alliance Report Calls for Historic Investments in Education and Workforce

The recovery from the pandemic presents an opportunity for Alabama to regain momentum by investing in proven strategies for improving reading, math, and college & career readiness argues a new report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance, a non-profit formed to unite business and education around shared priorities. The Public Affairs Research Council conducted research for the report, Forging Alabama’s Future: Improving Educational Attainment and Workforce Development.

“Alabama must do more to help students prepare for success after high school graduation,” said former State Superintendent Joe Morton, the chairman and president of the Business Education Alliance of Alabama.”

The pandemic led to a drop in college-going and a slowdown in the number of students graduating with career-ready credentials. Alabama has set a goal of raising levels of educational attainment since higher levels of educational attainment lead to higher earnings and higher rates of workforce participation.

Despite low unemployment and high demand for workers, the percentage of Alabama’s population working lags behind other states. “If the state’s labor participation rates were on par with the national average,” Morton said, “not only would more Alabamians be working, but wages would be increasing, poverty would be going down, and businesses currently struggling to find help would be more likely to have the support needed to thrive. But, to meet this target, Alabama must work harder and smarter than our neighboring states.”

The report describes the mutually reinforcing goals and strategies set by the governor, the state Department of Education, and the Alabama Workforce Council. Those goals include reaching the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both reading and math by 2026. Alabama’s strategies for meeting those goals will be the focus of PARCA’s Annual Forum, March 11, 2022. The program features national and state experts, Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey, Mississippi’s Superintendent Carey Wright, and Gov. Kay Ivey.

“PARCA believes that setting goals, implementing and sustaining research-based strategies, and assessing progress toward those goals is the pathway to improvement,” said Ryan Hankins, the executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. “Our students and teachers succeed when we set high expectations and sustain the resources necessary to achieve them. The interdependent initiatives described in this report will require patience, commitment, and the courage to change. But we’ll all benefit from their success.”       


Fewer Freshmen Assigned to Remedial Education

Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, Alabama high school graduates who entered college in 2020 were less likely to be assigned to remedial education and thus should be in a better position to succeed in college. The new figures released by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) show a continued decline in the number and percentage of students taking remedial classes in their first year, particularly among those entering community college.

Some of the declines might be attributable to fewer students going to college after high school. Only 54% of the Class of 2020 went on to college in the year after graduating high school, down from college-going rates above 60% in recent history. However, because the remediation rate among those who went to college was down and the decline in rate was concentrated at community colleges, the numbers indicate that the new approach to remedial education instituted by the two-year college system is working.

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Remedial classes are non-credit college courses covering material students should have learned in high school. A student taking a remedial class is paying for a course that won’t count toward a degree. Low-income students can use Pell grants to help pay for the courses, but that can also lead to an exhaustion of Pell eligibility before degree completion. That extra cost and delay in progress are known to lower completion rates for students assigned to remedial education. High schools have been urged to improve preparation for college-bound students, which may account for some of the improvement over time. Still, since much of the drop has been in community colleges, the success in recent years points toward innovations in policy at the two-year schools.

Community Colleges Providing Alternatives

Alabama’s Community College System (ACCS) alternative to remediation has not only decreased the number of students being placed in remedial courses, but the colleges have also seen a rise in passage rates in their college-level math and English classes.

In 2018, The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) made system-wide changes designed to reduce the number of students enrolled in remedial courses (also known as developmental 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 created other options. Students who needed extra support could be placed in a 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.

Meanwhile, the number of students assigned to remedial courses at four-year colleges has increased modestly. For years, the bulk of remedial education took place in the community college system. Now the number of students taking remedial classes is about equally divided between two and four-year schools. More students are assigned to remediation in math than in English, though the gap has narrowed as both rates have declined.

The report data from ACHE provides feedback to high schools about how prepared their graduates are. Use the tabs and arrows in the visualization to explore the data. Compare the performance of graduates from your local high school or system to other systems or schools.

This remediation data is the final dataset that looks back on students who graduated in the Spring of 2020. For that school year, PARCA previously published analyses of 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 learned in high school. Remedial classes cost students tuition and fees but do not produce credits that count toward graduation. By avoiding remedial courses, students can complete college work more quickly and at less cost.

Are entering college students better prepared?

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

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.

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.    

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.


Alabama’s College-Going Rate Down Again for Class of 2020

The college-going rate for Alabama public high school graduates declined substantially in 2020, reaching a seven-year low, more than 10% below the rate in 2014. A drop was expected considering the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruption to normal operations.

According to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), only 54% of the Class of 2020 entered higher education in the 2020-2021 school year. That compares to 65% in 2014. The data is drawn from the National Student Clearinghouse and tracks college enrollment both in-state and out of state, at two-year and four-year public and private colleges and universities.

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Since 2014, Alabama’s high school graduation rate has climbed rapidly. That’s led to a larger pool of graduates but also a growing share of individuals earning a high school diploma but not continuing on to college. In 2020, 23,369 out of the 50,514 high school graduates, or 46%, were not found to be enrolled in higher education the year following graduation.

Enrollment at four-year colleges and universities held up surprisingly well in 2020: 15,183 Class of 2020 graduates, or 30%, enrolled at a four-year school. That was despite the online classes and pandemic-related restrictions. That was down slightly in numeric terms, 193 students down from the 2019 total. It was down only slightly in percentage terms because the number of high school graduates was down as well.

The real drop came in the Alabama Community College System (ACCS). Only 24% of Alabama’s 2020 high school graduates, or 11,858 students, enrolled at a two-year college. In the recent past, 30% of graduates enrolled at community colleges. In 2018, a highwater mark, over 16,000 new high school graduates enrolled in community college after graduating high school.

The enrollment declines at the community college level have been taking place across the country. It may stem from the fact that a greater share of community college students are from economically disadvantaged households, and in 2020, the climate of economic uncertainty likely kept some from committing to embark on a college education.

Community colleges had already been experiencing lower enrollment numbers in the year preceding the pandemic but for the opposite reason: When the job market is strong, as it was in 2019, more graduates go straight into the workforce. When unemployment is high, enrollment tends to rise at community colleges, but that didn’t happen in 2020. This fall, community college enrollments hint at some recovery. Preliminary fall enrollment for 2021 points to some recovery at community colleges in Alabama, with total enrollment up 5.6% compared to 2020. But that’s still down 7.8% compared to 2019.

ACCS officials said that because high school students didn’t finish the 2020 school year physically present at school, two-year colleges missed a traditional window for recruiting students. Applications for federal financial aid (FAFSA) were down significantly, as well. With students away from school, k-12 counselors and community college representatives were unable to make a final push for completion. The resources the FAFSA process unlocks often are a deciding factor for students as to whether they can afford to attend.

As schools return to more normal operations, it is hoped that a yearlong push for FAFSA completion and a return to traditional models of student engagement and recruitment will increase college enrollment. ACCS is also partnering with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the Alabama State Department of Education, Alabama Possible, and ACHE on an experiment testing whether text messages can help students enroll and succeed in college. The grant-funded project aims to keep high school seniors from dropping through the cracks in the summer between high school graduation and the fall semester of that year. Participating students will receive text messages reminding them to complete specific tasks related to college admission and course registration. The data will be analyzed to measure the impact of participation.

Importance for Attainment

The post-graduation trajectory of the state’s high school graduates is important. Alabama has set a goal of improving its level of educational attainment. Producing college and career-ready graduates and propelling them into advanced technical training or toward college degrees is a key priority. The labor market is increasingly demanding higher levels of training and education. Higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher incomes, lower unemployment, better health, and longer life.

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

Where High School Graduates Go?

Alabama’s high school graduation rate was 90.6% in 2020, down slightly from the record 92% in 2019. ACHE followed 50,410 high school graduates and found:

  • 27,041, 54%, enrolled in higher education
  • 15,183, 30%, enrolled in four-year colleges
  • 11,858, 24%, enrolled in two-year colleges
  • 23,369, 46%, were not found to have enrolled
  • 90% of enrollees went to a college in Alabama
  • 91% of enrollees went to a public college

College-Going Patterns

  • Magnet schools and suburban school systems send higher percentages of students to four-year colleges.
    • Birmingham’s magnet high school, Ramsay, ranked No. 1 in the state with 93% of its graduates going to college in 2020, most to a four-year university. Three Montgomery County magnet high schools ranked in the top 10 for college-going. Suburban high schools like Mountain Brook, Vestavia-Hills, Hewitt-Trussville, Homewood, and Hoover also rank in the top 10.
  • Some rural and non-metro counties and systems achieve high college-going rates based on high enrollment in the local community college.
    • Muscle Shoals and Arab ranked 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 2020, examples included high schools like Amelia L Johnson High School in Marengo County (94% qualifying for free lunch; 63% of graduates entering higher education), Pickens County High (76% free and 61% in higher education), and Sweetwater High, also in Marengo County, (50% free and 72% entering higher education).

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.


Alabama Tax Revenues Surge in 2021

By the end of FY 2021, Alabama tax collections had grown at their fastest pace in recent history, fueled by economic recovery from pandemic shutdowns and by unprecedented injections of federal stimulus for governments, businesses, and individuals.

For the fiscal year that ended September 30, both the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and the General Fund grew by more than 11%, compared to historical averages of 3.5-3.7% for the ETF and 2-2.25% for the General Fund. Alabama’s percentage gain in tax revenue since the pandemic crash ranks 7th among the states, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The growth rates far exceed any year since at least 1995.

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However, it is important to remember the growth comes in comparison to FY 2020, a year in which COVID shutdowns constrained growth. During FY 2021 (from October 2020 — September 2021), businesses were open throughout the year, though some were still affected by restrictions related to the virus.

The growth is also taking place in the context of rising inflation, meaning the revenue is based on higher prices, and the money collected won’t have the same purchasing power it previously did. Regardless, the growth was substantial.

The ETF took in $900 million more than in FY 2020, topping $8.6 billion. And that understates the gain. FY 2020’s total included over $300 million borrowed from the Budget Stabilization Fund for cash flow purposes. That money was returned to the fund later in 2020.

The General Fund took in almost $2.6 billion, an increase of $262 million over last year.

Where did the growth come from?

Based on estimates from the Federal Funds Information for States, Alabama budget analysts estimate that $30 billion in federal relief flowed to individuals and businesses in Alabama. In addition, $16 billion in federal relief was authorized and is in the process of flowing through the state out to agencies and local governments.

That extra money in the hands of consumers fueled spending. Gross sales tax collections increased almost 15%, driven by multiple rounds of economic stimulus payments to individuals and parents with children. Spending was also boosted by unemployment benefits, which provided roughly twice the minimum wage. For some laid-off workers, the benefits amounted to a raise. Aid from the paycheck protection program kept businesses solvent and employees on payrolls.

While the bulk of the sales tax is deposited in the ETF, the General Fund also benefited from the increased spending and changed consumer patterns. The Simplified Sellers Use Tax (SSUT), the tax on online sales, rose almost 40% over 2020 totals (and 2020 was 99% higher than 2019). The Legislature’s decision to deposit the bulk of the SSUT into the General Fund added a growth element to the General Fund that had been lacking. Instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, the fund has kept pace with the rising costs.

Gross individual income tax collections were also up, increasing 13%, despite the fact employment levels haven’t reached pre-pandemic highs. By the beginning of FY 2021, employment levels had rebounded to about 60,000 short of March 2020 employment. Since then, they have continued at that level. Meanwhile, wages have been on the rise as businesses seek workers in the face of a shortage of workers.

Surpluses and Temptations

Thanks to the additional revenue, the state covered the 2021 ETF budget and ended with a balance of $1.24 billion, which will be available for lawmakers when the lawmakers convene in 2022.

The General Fund ended with a surplus of $368 million, which has already been put to use, appropriated as part of the funding for new prison construction.

The surge in state tax dollars has come along with a surge in federal support for state government operations as well. In a typical year, federal funds provide almost the same amount the state raises in taxes. But with the pandemic, the U.S. government sent an estimated $17 billion in relief funding to Alabama to schools, hospitals, and other agencies. Some of that is flowing through the appropriation process, but much of it is flowing directly to the agencies, making it difficult to know whether it has been spent yet or not.

The danger comes when those federal relief funds dry up. Growth will taper. State agencies receiving federal relief cannot count on that level of funding to continue. Legislators will convene in 2022, in an election year, with a lot to spend. But they will also have to keep an eye toward an unpredictable future and not commit to unsustainable levels of recurring expenses.

Thus, it’s useful to look for clues in the FY 2021 collections.

General Fund Revenue Sources

A myriad of tax sources supports the General Fund. Traditionally, most of those sources saw little growth from year to year. The General Fund struggled to keep up with rising expenses in non-education expenses, like funding for prisons and the Medicaid program.

However, in recent years, some growth taxes have been added to the General Fund, and its rate of growth has been similar to the Education Trust Fund. Since 2017, General Fund receipts have increased 33%, while ETF receipts have increased 37%.

Big gainers

Insurance Co. Taxes: The largest tax in the General Fund, the tax on insurance premiums, contributed close to $500 million to the General Fund, increasing by $77 million or 19% over 2020 collections. As insurance rates go up, and as more people take out insurance, the tax brings in more. Also, $30 million of the tax had been going to the ETF. That ended with a law change in 2019, increasing the yield to the General Fund.

Simplified Sellers Use Tax: The SSUT continued a string of huge gains as the shift to online sales continued in FY 2021. An additional $55 million came in from this source, an increase of 39% over 2020 (In 2020, the increase was 99%). It has quickly grown into the third-largest source of revenue in the General Fund at $192 million. That represents 75% of the tax. The remaining 25% goes into the ETF. Some of the growth may be attributable to new retailers submitting the tax. Still, this year’s growth is likely attributable to both the increased spending power of consumers because of stimulus and rising wages and to the continuing shift to purchasing online for home delivery. Considering the decreased threat of Covid, the tax is expected to grow more slowly in the future.

Financial Institutions Excise Tax: Coming off a down year in 2020, this tax source jumped by $55 million, an increase of 156%. The big jump is attributable to a new law in 2019 that required banks to make payments quarterly rather than in a lump sum. It also changed how the tax amount due was calculated, bringing it more in line with the federal definition of taxable income. The big surge in collections was not expected, as the law changes were expected to be revenue-neutral. State budget officials think the shift in the schedule for payment of the tax may have resulted in a surge of revenue in FY 2021 will not continue.

Sales and Use Tax: a share of the sales tax on autos and boats is distributed to the General Fund, and each of those lines was up by more than $25 million, thanks to the strong demand and rising prices for both.

ABC Board: Liquor sales continued a rising trend posting a 12% gain over 2020, a year when ABC proceeds climbed by 14%. This may result from a continuing shift toward purchase for home consumption, as restaurant and bar operations continued to be somewhat curtailed in FY 2021. The revenue sent to the General Fund from the ABC sales increased to $157 million.

Mortgage and Deed Record Taxes: About $20 million additional came in through taxes related to home sales. Both prices and activity spike in 2021, reflected in a 34% increase in the mortgage tax, adding $15 million to reach a total of $58 million, and a 45% jump in the deed record tax, reaching $17 million. Continued low-interest rates led to more refinancing and home purchases.

Lodging Tax: This tax on hotels and vacation rentals was up 26% in 2021 after being down 15% in 2020, bringing in an additional $13 million compared to 2020. Gulf Coast rentals saw a record demand though some units were offline because of damage caused by Hurricane Sally in Sept. 2020. Convention and hotel traffic remained depressed compared to historic norms.

Interest on the Alabama Trust Fund: More accurately described as investment returns on the Alabama Trust Fund, the contribution from this source increased 8%, or $8 million, thanks to a strong market. Also known as the State’s savings account, the Alabama Trust Fund is at nearly full strength as amounts borrowed during previous downturns have largely been repaid.

Oil and Gas Production Tax: The oil and gas production tax was up 16%, recovering somewhat from a crash in FY 2020.

Court Costs: With the courts open again, court costs recovered some of the previous year’s drop, though FY 2021 collections were still behind 2019s. In FY 2021, proceeds from court costs contributed $60 million to the General Fund.

Big losers

Cigarette Tax: Though it remains a significant source of revenue, the cigarette tax continues to decline as smoking decreases. The taxes brought in $143 million to the General Fund in FY 2021, down by $5 million, a decline of 3%. Meanwhile, a Tax on Vapor products increased 28%, or $614,875, to $2.8 million.

Interest on State Deposits: The state earns interest on the cash it holds, but this source of revenue declined $31 million or 62% because of dropping interest rates. The state collected about $20 million from this source in 2021.

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, bringing in just over $11 million, down another nearly $4 million or 26% lower than last year.

Education Trust Fund

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

Benefiting from growth taxes, the ETF has traditionally seen the most substantial ups and downs: rapid growth in good times and jarring contractions when 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.

Big Gainers

Income Taxes: Net income tax deposited in the ETF was increased by a jaw-dropping 21%. The anemic growth of income taxes in FY 2020 is part of the story. FY 2021 full-year of full-time employment earnings produced a substantial gain in gross personal income tax collections, up $643 million to a total of $5.8 billion. But even more staggering was a 61% increase in corporate income taxes. Corporate income taxes increased $370 million to a total of $974 million. Explanations for such a large jump are not completely clear. Certainly, the recovering economy had businesses operating a full calendar year. Pent-up demand and the stimulus in the economy drove up sales bolstering income over a down 2020. Budget analysts also speculate that corporations may have realized more revenue in 2021 to avoid potentially higher federal taxes in 2022. After refunds and other adjustments, the income tax contributed $5.6 billion to the ETF, increasing $987 million over 2020.

Sales Taxes: The state received over $2.3 billion in sales tax revenue in 2020, and $325 million more than last year was sent to the General Fund, an 11% increase. Sales were robust at grocery and hardware stores as people continued to invest in home improvements. It’s also important to note that inflation has driven up the prices of some goods, which in turn drives up sales taxes, which are based on the total cost. With the dissipation of stimulus money, this pace of growth is unlikely to recur. But, with the pandemic under better control, activity continues to accelerate, Demand is strong. Unemployment is low, and wages are rising. That suggests income and sales taxes will continue to grow.

Simplified Sellers Use Tax: As in the General Fund, the contribution of this tax was up 40%, adding $18 million to the ETF, for a total contribution to the ETF of $64 million. The proceeds of the tax are divided, with the ETF receiving 25% and the General Fund 75%.

Big losers:

Insurance Premium Tax: Before FY 2021, $30 million from the Insurance Premium Tax was deposited into the Education Trust Fund. That ended because of a 2019 change in the law governing the distribution. The total amount is now in the General Fund.

The Utility Tax: Down 2% or $8 million, this is a tax on electric, water, telephone, and gas utilities. FY 2021 saw both a mild summer and winter and a wet one. That leads to decreased energy consumption and lower levels of water use. However, the extra rain provided more opportunities for hydropower generation, driving up receipts from the hydroelectric tax.

From the Year’s End Looking Forward

Both funds ended FY 2021 with substantial surpluses. FY 2022 budgets were built on the assumption of 3% growth over the 2021 budgets. Current conditions suggest the state should easily exceed those predictions.

Alabama is in an unfamiliar position of having to manage its way through unexpected excess revenue.

General Fund

  • FY 21 Budgeted $2,393,272,863
  • FY 21 Receipts $2,562,158,281
  • FY 22 Budgeted $2,637,874,471

Education Trust Fund

  • FY 21 Budgeted $7,217,422,487
  • FY 21 Receipts $8,643,813,063
  • FY 22 Budgeted $7,672,576,575

And that’s only part of the picture

The ETF and General Fund totals don’t even represent half the revenue that powers public agencies, state schools, universities, and hospitals. Nor does it represent the federal benefits that flow through state agencies like Medicaid, the Departments of Human Resources, Health, Mental Health, Labor, and Rehabilitation Services. The chart below gets closer to a picture of the scale of public spending in Alabama.

Reserve Fund Balances

Current conditions suggest continued recovery, But if things were to falter, Alabama has built up major reserves that are available to tap in case of an economic downturn. A recent analysis on state reserves and rainy day funds by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that Alabama $1.1 billion in rainy day funds or 11.2% of spending. The state could run on its rainy day funds for 41 days, Pew estimated. That puts Alabama well ahead of the 50-state median for the strength of its reserves.

  • ETF Budget Stabilization: $448,410,575
  • ETF Rainy Day: $484,979,764
  • ETF Advancement & Technology: $282,314,668
  • GF Budget Reserve: $75,303,255
  • GF Rainy Day: $263,994,883

Results of New Statewide Tests Tell Both Familiar and Alarming Story

After a year and a half of Covid-clouded schooling, only about half of Alabama students, grades 3-8, scored proficient in reading, and less than a quarter reached the proficient level in math on the state’s new statewide standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP). If the Alabama Literacy Act were in full effect this year and the reading cut score was set at the level recommended by experts, 23% of third-graders taking the test, or almost 12,000 students statewide, would be in jeopardy of being held back, based on the results.

The results are both shocking and familiar. At the same time, though, it’s hard to know what to make of them.

  • It’s the first year of a new test, the 4th variety of statewide assessment given over the past decade (5th if you include the NAEP).
  • ACAP was taken in the spring of 2021, after Covid’s unprecedented disruption of the education system. A significant number of students did not have a full-year of in-person instruction.
  • Because of the disruption, the results are not being considered by the state accountability system. Schools will not be graded based on the scores.
  • Statewide, 93% of students took the ACAP, an impressive percentage considering the conditions, but participation was significantly lower in some districts.
  • The acheivement levels for the test have just been set and need additional evidence to establish their validity.

Accepting all those caveats, a deeper look shows familiar patterns. Figure 2. compares Alabama student scores on the ACAP and the two standardized tests the state has used to judge performance: the Aspire, given most recently in 2017, and Scantron, most recently administered in 2019. Also in the comparison is the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national test given to a representative sample of each state’s students. NAEP, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is the only test that allows for comparison with students in other states.

ACAP results in English Language Arts (ELA) are higher but in roughly the same range as prior state assessments, with half of students proficient. However, only 28% of Alabama students scored proficient or above in reading on NAEP in 2019.

ACAP’s math percentages (24% of 4th graders and only 14% of 8th graders) are close to and even worse than Alabama’s performance on the NAEP in 2019. Alabama has consistently scored at or near the bottom on math for a decade on the NAEP. ACAP’s low math results contrast with the higher proficiency percentages generated by Scantron and the Aspire in math.

An optimistic view of the test results is that during a period of disrupted learning, students maintained progress in English and reading. The loss of in-person instruction and practice time may have done more damage in math. Regardless, the results indicate that Alabama needs to develop the same level of urgency about math as it is currently directing at reading.

Literacy Act Implications

ACAP’s results are also being closely studied because of the impending impact of the Alabama Literacy Act, which requires that students be reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. If students fail to meet that benchmark, they are to repeat third grade.

ACAP scores serve as the first identifier for those students vulnerable to being held back. Starting this spring, third-grade students who don’t make a specified cut score on the reading portion of the English Language Arts ACAP will receive intensive intervention, further evaluation, and perhaps retention. The State Board has not finalized that cut score yet but is scheduled to at its next meeting. At its October 14, 2021, meeting the board received recommendations from a technical advisory committee on what the cut score should be.

If the committee’s recommended cut score were in place this year, 23% of students would be judged to be below grade-level expectations in reading and, potentially, could have been held back. However, the technical advisory committee also unanimously recommended that the retention provision of the law not go into effect this coming spring. Committee members said that an additional year of test results are needed, results generated in more normal conditions, in order to affirm the validity of the cut score.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill delaying the retention provision, but Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed the bill. In issuing her veto, Ivey said the Legislature could revisit the issue after seeing the 2021 test results.

When the retention provision does take effect, students who don’t make the ACAP reading benchmark would be offered intensive intervention at a summer literacy camp and would be retested later in the summer. Other conditions and evidence would also be considered before the child is recommended for retention. For instance, students who have been previously provided with two years of reading intervention or students who already have an Individualized Education Plan in place would be eligible to progress with their classmates, though they would still be provided with continued support to get them up to grade level on reading.

The reading results are not available at the school level because the cut score has not been set, nor have the results been calculated or published. However, the scores on the ELA section of ACAP provide some insight into how students performed across the state.

About 10 % of students, or 5,008 of the 55,000 third graders, scored at the lowest level, Level 1, on the ACAP’s ELA section. The number and percentage falling below the cut score on the reading subsection would be higher considering the figures presented by the technical advisory committee, a little more than double.

In the 30 best-performing school systems, less than 5% of third-graders scored in Level 1 range. However, in the 15 lowest-performing systems, 20% or more of the students scored at Level 1. That includes 32% of Birmingham City School students or close to 500 students in that system.

New Tests, Similar Relative Results

Regardless of where the proficiency bar is set, the relative performance of the state’s various school systems on these standardized tests tends to remain constant. There is a socioeconomic component: the higher the percentage of economic disadvantage in a school, the lower the percentage of students scoring proficient. Figure 3 shows that as poverty decreases, proficiency rates increase. At the same time, Figure 3 shows that systems with the same level of poverty can produce vastly different proficiency rates. In Tarrant, 53% are economically disadvantaged, and only 10% of students tested were proficient. By contrast, Piedmont’s rate of economic disadvantage is the same. Still, half its students scored proficient, exceeding the state’s average despite having a higher poverty percentage than the state as a whole. So while income matters, a system’s approach, its setting, resources, and community support, can make a difference.

And despite the complaints about previous tests, the new ACAP tests, which are specifically designed for Alabama and its academic standards, showed very similar patterns in relative performance. Schools systems that performed well on previous tests did well on ACAP. Those that struggled previously struggled again. The graphs in Figure 4 compare ACAP results with prior results on Aspire and Scantron for Alabama school systems. The tight grouping along the line of prediction indicates a strong correlation between ACAP performance and performance on previous standardized tests.

Performance by Level

As noted above, student scores are divided into four levels. Students scoring in Levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient for their grade level. The percentage scoring proficient in the graphic below is represented by shades of green (dark green for Level 4 and light green for Level 3). The percentage of students at Level 2 is illustrated in yellow, while the percentage at Level 1 is represented in red. The menu allows a choice between subjects.

That display by level is also available for schools.

System, School, and Subgroup Performance

The charts below allow for a deeper exploration of the data, including the ability to report on performance by gender, race, ethnicity, and by other subpopulations of students. In systems and schools where there are small numbers of students within a subgroup, results are not displayed in order to protect student privacy.

The menus on the right allow a user to drill down into the results by subject, grade, gender, race, ethnicity, and subpopulation.

Results are also available at the school level.

And finally, the ACAP proficiency levels can be explored through this interactive map. Toggle between subjects and grade levels using the controls to the right of the map.


Experience with Digital Learning Helped Piedmont Exceed Expectations Despite Covid

Print full analysis here.

When the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, Piedmont City Schools didn’t have to scramble to purchase laptops. The system didn’t have to figure out how to get their students internet access. It didn’t have to digitize its course materials.

Piedmont did those things a decade ago, gaining national recognition and accolades.

But Piedmont also knew, thanks to their digital experience, that teaching through technology takes preparation and practice and can lead to a declining performance if relied on too heavily. 

And ultimately, Piedmont has learned the connection that matters most is not the internet connection; it’s the connection between student and teacher and student and the school. As soon as they could safely reopen, they did.

“There is no substitute for face-to-face learning no matter how versed you are in delivering digital instruction,” said Piedmont Superintendent Mike Hayes.

Results of Alabama’s new standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), provide evidence that Piedmont’s experience and approach helped its students excel. Piedmont students outscored state averages in math and reading at every grade level.

Figure 1. Percentage of students proficient as measured by ACAP math and English language arts assessments, 2021, Grades 3-8, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama average

Piedmont’s performance is even more impressive when the student body’s level of economic disadvantage is considered. On average, students from economically disadvantaged households score lower on standardized tests than students from more affluent backgrounds. The percentage of Piedmont students qualifying for a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program is almost 10 percentage points higher than the state average. Figure 2. compares two factors: the percentage of students proficient on the ACAP test and the percentage of students directly qualify for the school lunch program. School systems above the line of prediction in the graph are exceeding the level of performance expected based on their level of poverty. Piedmont’s proficiency level far exceeds the performance of schools with similar demographics.

Figure 2. Percentage of Students Proficient on 2021 ACAP vs. Percentage of Students Economically Disadvantaged, by System

Across the country, there is a great deal of interest in the impact of educational changes made in emergency response to the pandemic, including the sudden switch to online instruction.

Preliminary data from across the country indicates that student academic progress lagged significantly behind pre-pandemic norms. The sudden shift to digital instruction and remote learning will be examined as one of the factors contributing to that missed learning. At the same time, though, it’s clear that aspects of virtual learning will endure, making it all the more important to understand digital instruction’s strengths and weaknesses.

So, what does Piedmont’s experience teach about the promise and pitfalls of digital education?

First, that educational innovation and excellence can happen anywhere. When then-Superintendent Matt Akin started pursuing the idea of handing each student a laptop, it seemed an unlikely dream. But in 2010, Piedmont, a small, underfunded district (106 in funding out of 138 school systems in 2019) in a town of about 4,400 in rural Northeast Alabama, became the first system in the state to provide all students in grades 4-12 with an Apple laptop computer. Eventually, all teachers were trained and Apple Certified, many traveling to Palo Alto and connecting cutting-edge educators around the country.

Figure 3. Percentage of students directly qualifying for the National Free Lunch Program, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama

The district was an original and continuing member of the nationwide League of Innovative Schools, a network that aims to “design, validate, champion, and scale effective, innovative learning opportunities to advance equity and excellence for every student.”

Piedmont City Schools even became a broadband provider, cooperating with community leaders and business partners to identify the best ways to get students connected to the Internet.

Akin’s successor, Hayes, said the system’s digital revolution was transformative and continues to pay dividends. However, the distribution of laptops was only the beginning of a much longer journey, a journey that is ongoing.

The technology didn’t produce overnight results. Along the way, there were disappointments and drift and continual course corrections.  “We didn’t have a blueprint to follow.  It was like we were building the plane while it was in the air,” he said.

Among the lesson learned:

  • Digital resources are tools that can supplement and accelerate learning, allowing struggling students to keep up and advanced students to excel. Data gleaned from digital assessment tools provide teachers powerful insight if the data is systematically and consistently reviewed and instruction targeted to meet all student’s needs.
  • However, if digital delivery is leaned on too heavily, if the local teacher doesn’t remain the central guide and shepherd of the instruction, students can fall by the wayside. Quality and engagement can suffer.
  • Most fundamentally, in Piedmont’s experience, the road to the future circled back to the tried and true: Good teachers and relationships make the difference.

Over time, Piedmont has produced results to be proud of. In a system where the poverty percentage is ten points higher than the state average, proficiency levels are consistently higher than the state’s as a whole.

Figure 4. Piedmont vs. State, Aspire & Scantron, Grades 3-8

Piedmont’s ACT scores for all students trail the state average, though that’s not unexpected considering the disproportionate number of economically-disadvantaged students at Piedmont. When comparing those economically-disadvantaged students to other economically disadvantaged students across the state, Piedmont students outperform.

Figure 5. Average Composite ACT for economically-disadvantaged students, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama

And Piedmont graduates nearly all of its seniors on time and having met the state’s definition of college and career-ready.

Figure 6. Graduation and College/Career Readiness Rates, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama, 2018-2020

What Piedmont learned about digital learning

Passing out laptops to school kids may have garnered attention back in 2010, but that was just the beginning of an ongoing journey in discovering how technology can enhance the educational experience and when it has the potential to interfere.

Don’t let the technology distract from the mission

When Piedmont first launched its technology initiative, it tried to create its own broadband network in cooperation with the city and an Alabama-based technology company. The City of Piedmont happened to have installed fiber optic cable throughout town, but it wasn’t being used. Taking advantage of that infrastructure, the school system and its partners launched a citywide wireless network.

But soon, it became apparent that it was unworkable to run a school system while also managing a small Internet provider utility, providing the necessary service and support.

Meanwhile, Piedmont had developed an alternative. Though it’s a small city system, Piedmont allows students from nearby rural systems, in Calhoun, Cherokee, Cleburne, and Etowah counties, to attend tuition free, due to its open enrollment policy. To provide Internet service to those students, they worked out a deal with Verizon for cellular data hot spots. Eventually, the system worked out a way to provide that same solution for the students who needed it in town. 

Hayes said that solution might not work for other rural areas, but the rural areas around Piedmont’s happen to be well-served by Verizon cellular since more sizable towns (Jacksonville, Anniston, Gadsden, and Rome, Ga.) are not too far away.

The long and the short of it: Don’t let technology maintenance become a distraction; always seek simpler solutions.

Don’t lean too heavily on online resources; teachers are still key

With the wealth of online resources out there, you could point students to good resources and allow them to set their own learning courses. That’s part of the promise of digital education.

But in Piedmont’s experience, the local classroom teacher still needs to set the course for learning and guide the group through the material.

When material is presented in a passive digital form, it is not always well absorbed.

 “Kids tend to watch, but they don’t necessarily process and synthesize,” Hayes said. “They need to be taking notes.”

“In the beginning, it was a challenge to find the sweet spot between digital and traditional curriculum,” said Hayes.  “We quickly realized the teacher has to be the driving force in the classroom, with whole group instruction remaining a prominent part of the curriculum.”

Teachers divide class time between whole group instruction, small group instruction, and independent work. There is still time for advanced students to work ahead independently, while others who need more individualized instruction receive it. But Piedmont found that with too much unstructured time, students drifted.

“You lose students when you give them too much independent work on the computer,” Hayes said. “Or when they can plug in or choose answers without showing their work.”

Multiple choice computer programs don’t record a student’s path toward an answer.

So, Piedmont brought some tangible and tactile work back. That includes math and vocabulary notebooks. When students write material down and show their steps, a teacher can better understand the student’s thought process, and, if they ended up with the wrong answer, the teacher can identify where the student went wrong. Building a physical catalog of vocabulary seems to increase retention and create a sense of pride and ownership.

Clearly, digital tools are powerful—both for students and for teachers. Computer-based formative assessments, for example, can be of great value. They can create a much more detailed picture of what a student knows and where they are struggling.

But once you have that data, you need a structured plan for putting that data to use.

In Piedmont, teachers monitor data throughout and come together every four weeks to evaluate it on a full day devoted to data.

Elementary teachers meet by grade level. Middle School and High school meet by department. The teams analyze the data and devise instructional plans for the next four weeks, taking into consideration what students have successfully mastered and which standards need additional reinforcement.

“Our instruction is changing every four weeks,” Hayes said.

Cultivate your teachers and help them to continue to learn and grow

Because it highly values the classroom teacher, Piedmont has built a teacher cultivation process that starts in high school and continues throughout a teacher’s career.

Rural systems have a hard time attracting and retaining teachers.

To address this, Piedmont attempts to grow its own teachers by identifying kids in high school who show signs of interest and ability. With support and guidance from the school system, those students can find scholarships and other aid to get them into and through nearby Jacksonville State University’s School of Education. The locally-connected teachers are more likely to be invested in the Piedmont community and are more willing to stay for the long term, reducing turnover.

Once they’re on the faculty, they have ongoing opportunities to grow. The connections to the national educational technology world provide avenues for travel and training. And the system also incentivizes teachers to pursue National Board Certification, increasing their salaries and improving their classroom practice. 

According to Hayes, Piedmont has the state’s highest percentage of board-certified teachers in its system and ranks No. 3 nationally, with 35% of the faculty having earned the certification.

In addition to the pay differential, National Board-Certified teachers are given two additional personal days and one additional professional development day to devote to maintaining their certification.

The system also provides continuous professional feedback to teachers between the school and central office staff; each teacher is observed teaching monthly.

Education is a relationship

For all its promise, technology can’t replace relationships. Being a small rural system may present challenges, but it also helps in keeping an eye on students as individuals. Piedmont doesn’t just rely on its small-town nature to make this happen. The intimacy is systematically cultivated.

Every Thursday, students in grades 4-12 are divided into groups of about a dozen students who meet with an individual faculty member assigned to that particular team of kids. There is a technological aspect to this. The teacher mentor maintains a Google spreadsheet for each kid, and through it, gets feedback and grades on each of the kids from their teachers and coaches. They monitor their students’ grades, attendance, and performance across subjects. The technology puts the mentor in the position to ask questions before problems get too serious:  Why are your grades slipping? What are these absences? What is going on?

Most importantly, the mentor teachers build long-term relationships and 360 degree understanding of the students. That creates a unified point of accountability, based on a personal relationship between student and teacher, and also, when possible, with parents.

That may help explain why Piedmont has graduated close to 100% of its seniors on time for several years running.

When faced with a potential dropout, Hayes said, “We pull all resources at our disposal together and develop a plan to ensure the student continues on a path to graduation.”

Having learned the importance of relationships and face-to-face accountability, Piedmont went back to in-person schooling as soon as they safely could during the 2020-2021 school year, while observing all the safety protocols.

Despite that, 30 to 35% of high school students and 10% of the younger kids chose remote learning. The system allowed and supported that. However, they required virtual students to come to school twice a month for in-person check-ins. And if a student’s average falls below a 70 in a class, they were required to come back to school unless they had a special circumstance like being immune-compromised or having an immune-compromised family member.

Aiming for the Future

In launching its technology initiative a decade ago, Piedmont hoped to keep students more interested and engaged. That may help explain why the system’s graduation and career readiness rates are among the highest in the state. While the engagement with technology may have something to do with, the more obvious source of that success is the system’s longer-term methodical preparation of students.

Recognizing the importance of the ACT when it comes to college entrance and scholarships, Piedmont starts early. The Piedmont team has realized that a critical hurdle to success on the ACT involves vocabulary. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the exam is college level, but it is being given to 11th graders, many of whom are first-generation college students.

So, the system focuses on vocabulary building throughout elementary and secondary education, with students consistently challenged to learn new words.

Throughout high school, teachers are encouraged to create ACT-type questions for their regular tests. An ACT prep class is required for all juniors. And students are encouraged to take the ACT as many times as possible, which often results in improved scores.

According to Hayes, those scores mean something. A 26 on the ACT puts a student in the running for a substantial scholarship at Jacksonville State University, with even more generous scholarship benefits available to those who score higher.

College-bound or not, the high school offers students instruction in etiquette and soft skills. Every student is required to set up a Linked-In Account, develop a resume, and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Piedmont’s Career Tech educational offerings aren’t broad, but they start early, and are aligned with the needs of local employers, and, thus, offer opportunities for work placement. Also, an additional requirement –  that each student do at least some community service –serves to engage students in the real needs of the community.

Conclusion

Piedmont’s bold work with technology has undoubtedly benefited students in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology for educational delivery. At the same time though, Piedmont recognizes that technology can become a distraction if not utilized thoughtfully. To provide a complete education, you need teachers, well trained and open to growth and adaptation. You need students motivated to learn and engaged by the school and community. You need a destination and a methodical approach to getting there.