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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The meeting will feature:

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

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

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

       Gov. Robert Bentley delivering the luncheon address.


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

ACT Aspire Statewide Results

The Alabama Department of Education this week released statewide results of its Grades 3-8 assessment tests, broadly known as the ACT Aspire.

The Aspire tests, which were taken statewide for the first time last spring, replace the Alabama Reading and Math Test which had been used to measure student and school performance.

The Aspire offers several advantages. Devised by the well-known national testing company, ACT, the Aspire is more closely aligned with national performance measurements. It includes a benchmark scoring system designed to show whether a student is on track academically to graduate from high school ready for college.  You can read more about the Aspire and Alabama’s new assessments from the A Plus Education Partnership. And here you can find the State Department of Education’s discussion of statewide Aspire results.

PARCA uses test data from the Aspire and other sources as well as available financial data to help school systems identify their strengths and the areas in need of improvement.

As this is the first year the state is using Aspire as a performance measure, the results set a baseline from which future improvement and growth can be measured.  As expected though, the results establish a tougher, and likely more accurate, benchmark for academic proficiency. On the ARMT, the percentage of students scoring above proficient ranged between 68 and 93 percent, depending on the grade and subject tested. On the Aspire results, the highest percentage of proficiency could be found in 3rd grade math where just over half the students (52 percent) were deemed to have met or exceeded the proficiency level for that grade. On the other hand, only 29 percent of 8th graders scored at or above the readiness benchmark in math.

The Potential Economic Impact of Raising the High School Graduation Rate

Raising Alabama’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent would produce an economic impact to the state’s economy similar to landing an industrial mega-project, and that impact would be repeated each year the 90 percent rate is maintained, according to a new report released Saturday by the Business Education Alliance.


The report, authored by the Public Affairs Research Council with economic modeling performed by Auburn University at Montgomery Economics Professor Keivan Deravi, was commissioned by the BEA to quantify the potential benefits of the state’s education improvement plan, Plan 2020.

Presented Aug. 2 to the governor, legislators and business leaders assembled at the Business Council of Alabama’s annual governmental affairs conference at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, the report models the impact of raising the graduation rate from the current 80 percent rate to Plan 2020’s goal of reaching 90 percent by 2020. (Presentation Slideshow, available here).

“Economic models prepared for this report predict that if we reach the goal by 2020, the state’s economic output will be $430 million greater that year than if our graduation rate were to remain at its current level,” the report finds. “Each year we sustain the 90 percent graduation rate, each class of graduates would be 5,643 larger, with 3,564 of them going into the workforce, resulting in a net addition of 1,167 more people employed. Each class graduating at 90 percent would collectively earn $68 million more than a class graduating at the 80 percent rate.”

On top of the direct impact from the new graduates, the increased employment and earnings would produce a multiplier effect, further stimulating the state’s economy.

Deravi describes the potential impact as a “permanent upward structural shock to the State’s economic resources.”

“As such, it will, continuously and exponentially, add to economic prosperity of the State’s economy,” Deravi said.

imageIf Plan 2020 succeeds in its aim of producing graduates who are better prepared for college and careers, the impact will be even greater. Those more highly-qualified graduates would be more likely to finish college, further raising the educational credentials of Alabama’s 21st Century workforce.

PARCA Executive Director Jim Williams describes Plan 2020 as a strategic opportunity akin to the one Alabama seized when it landed Mercedes.

“It’s a far more ambitious improvement plan than anything I have seen in my 26 years at PARCA,” Williams said.

While the marquee goal of Plan 2020 has been widely discussed, what is less well understood is that the Plan is much more than an announcement an ambitious goal.

Plan 2020 contains a host of specific strategies for improving Alabama’s educational offerings from the earliest years of a child’s life, straight through to focused planning for college and career.

It’s important for the state’s political, business, civic, and educational leadership to understand the comprehensive and interdependent mechanics of the plan. For Plan 2020’s goals to be realized, it will need a unified commitment to see it through to full implementation.

The report attempts to describe the breadth of the activity encompassed by Plan 2020. The Plan calls on the schools:

1. Start Early: by expanding Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program so that students enter school with a strong foundation.

2. Set High Expectations: by adopting new nationally-competitive educational standards which call on Alabama students to learn at the level expected of students in other states. Plan 2020 includes a more rigorous system of assessments that should provide a clearer picture of whether students are truly reaching the level of preparation needed for college and career readiness. The higher standards and more rigorous assessments are backed up by a new accountability system which will provide a better picture of which schools are getting the job done and which need to improve.

3. Break down barriers to learning: schools across the state are adopting a concerted approach for identifying and addressing factors that often lead to school failure. These include economic and educational disparities, attendance, academic and discipline problems.

4. Seek continuous improvement in teaching and leading: educators are being called on to teach students to a higher level and thus need support and resources to continuously improve their abilities to deliver in the classroom. The Plan calls for higher standards for teacher preparation programs, new productively-structured evaluations for educators, and mechanisms for recruiting the best and the brightest into the teaching field.

5. Equip Every Student with a Plan for Success and a Pathway to Prosperity: Plan 2020 seeks to better connect classroom learning to its applicability in the wider world. It includes initiatives to get students thinking earlier and more clearly about their future plans and mechanisms for engaging business with the education so that what’s taught in school prepares students for the demands of the modern workplace.

SAIL-ing to academic gains

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

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

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

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

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



Tuscaloosa Community Comes Together to Talk About Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Final look at the Alabama Reading and Math Test

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

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

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

To view the interactive chart, click here.


2013 School System Performance on the Alabama Math and Reading Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remediation: The High School to College Handoff

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

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

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

Higher Education Enrollment Down Slightly in 2013

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

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

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


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