Absent immigration from other states or from abroad, Alabama’s working-age population is on track to shrink in coming years, according to a PARCA analysis of new population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
(Not represented in the graphic are the more than 85,000 Alabamians the Census estimates included in the 85 and older category).
The 2021 Census population estimates by age provide a preview of the number of individuals that will join the workforce and the number that will likely be leaving it. Two factors are conspiring to create downward pressure on the working-age population:
Large numbers of aging Baby Boomers are likely leaving the workforce
The smaller rising generations, Gen Z and Gen A, will provide fewer replacements for those retiring workers.
In 2021, the Census estimates there were 65,730 64-year-olds in Alabama vs. 63,125 18-year-olds, a difference of about 2,600.
In every successive year thereafter, the number of Boomers exceeds the corresponding Generation Z cohort.
The gap widens significantly when today’s 11 and 12 years reach the age of 18. In 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession, birth rates fell. And they haven’t recovered.
Even when the Baby Boom has moved out of the prime working years, the number of potential leavers will outnumber new entrants, based on the current age structure of the Alabama population.
Considering only the current population, over the next 18 years, Alabama’s population between the ages of 18 and 64 will drop by a cumulative total of more than 50,000.
However, current residents only make up part of the story. Population growth is also influenced by migration and birth and death rates. Labor force supply is also affected by migration, by labor force participation, and indirectly by educational and skills attainment.
In terms of the natural population increase, Alabama has already seen two successive years in which deaths exceeded births. In 2021, about 8,500 more people died than were born, according to the estimates. This is due to the larger number of people moving into old age and the elevated death rates associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In terms of migration, changing patterns are affecting population and labor supply. From 2010-2016, most of Alabama’s population growth came through international immigration, with the state annually adding about 10,000 new residents who had been born abroad.
Since 2018, international migration has dropped, but domestic migration has increased.
In recent years, Alabama has enjoyed a net positive inflow of residents from other states, about 20,000 new residents a year from that source.
With unemployment low and demand for workers high, Alabama may continue to attract new residents through migration. But at the same time, the state is trying to increase the quality and the quantity of Alabama’s homegrown labor force:
By improving the education and training of the rising generation so that they are equipped for 21st-century jobs
By bringing Alabamians who’ve fallen out of the workforce back in
An array of state initiatives are underway to improve student preparation:
the expansion of First Class Pre-K
the Alabama Literacy Act
the expansion of Advanced Placement classes, high school/college dual enrollment, and the expansion of career technical education.
On the labor force participation front, through the Success Plus Initiative, the Alabama Workforce Council, the Governor’s Office, and an array of state agencies and participating nonprofits are collaborating on strategies to bring more people into the workforce training and education systems. The initiative seeks to address barriers individuals face to participating in the workforce and training. Through cooperation and outreach, the partners hope to reach discouraged workers and provide them pathways to high-demand fields.
Progress Made But Over 20% of Alabama 3rd Graders Not Reading on Grade Level
Fewer third graders scored below grade level in reading in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to results released by the Alabama Department of Education. Still, 22% or 11,725 students statewide failed to meet that critical educational milestone.
The Alabama Literacy Act, passed in 2019, has sharpened the focus on early grades reading and directed coaching support and additional resources to support reading instruction based on the science of reading. The law now requires all schools to assess all students in reading from kindergarten through third grade. If a K-3 student is identified with a reading deficiency, the law requires the child’s parent or guardian to be notified of the deficiency within 15 days. The school is required to develop and implement an intervention plan for the student within 30 days. Identified students are to receive intensive support from specialists trained in the science of reading during school, before or after school, and over the summer until that student’s deficits are addressed.
“Each K-3 student who exhibits a reading deficiency or the characteristics of dyslexia,” the law reads, “shall be provided an appropriate reading intervention program to address his or her specific deficiencies. Additionally, students shall be evaluated after every grading period and, if a student is determined to have a reading deficiency, the school shall provide the student with additional tutorial support.”
“Each identified student,” the Act continues, “shall receive intensive reading intervention until the student no longer has a deficiency in reading.”
The 2022 results represent a slight improvement over 2021, when 23% of students scored below grade level on the reading portion of the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), the statewide standardized test administered to students each spring.
The Literacy Act will eventually require that, to be promoted to fourth grade, students must demonstrate that they can read at grade level (some exceptions apply). That provision of the Act was delayed by the Alabama Legislature in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The children entering third grade this fall will not face the retention requirement. However, the rest of the law is in force. Schools and systems must identify and provide intervention services to children in grades K-3, including summer learning camps. All parents of second and third graders who scored below grade level on the reading portion of the ACAP should have been notified and should enter school this fall with a plan for remediation in place.
The percentage of students scoring below grade level in reading varied widely across the state. In general, systems with the highest levels of economically disadvantaged children also had the highest percentage of students not reading at grade level. The interactive chart below presents Alabama school systems arrayed on a scatter plot.
The vertical axis represents reading performance, with the best performers high on the chart (a high percentage of students reading at or above grade level and a low percentage of students below grade level).
The systems are arrayed on the horizontal axis moving from left to right, from the highest level of economic disadvantage to the lowest, from left to right. The size of a school system’s circle reflects the number of third graders scoring below grade in reading. The circle’s color corresponds with the level of economic disadvantage in the student body, from dark red representing high levels of poverty to dark green indicating low levels of poverty. In general, systems with rates of higher economic disadvantage had lower performance: a higher percentage of students failing to read at grade level. Systems with a lower rate of economic disadvantage had fewer students failing to meet the threshold.
However, particularly at the school level, it is clear that economic disadvantage is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. The correlation between poverty and performance is not as strong as in other educational data, like the ACT. In these third-grade reading results, schools with the same level of economic disadvantage show very different levels of success. Many high-poverty schools far outscored expectations.
In 2022, in more than 50 schools across the state, 50% or more of students ended third grade without the reading skills needed to succeed. Even at schools with a low percentage of students reading below grade level, the needs of the children with reading struggles must be met with “an appropriate reading intervention program to address his or her specific deficiencies,” as the law requires.
The Alabama act is patterned after similar laws in Florida and Mississippi, both of which saw significant performance gains after instituting their literacy laws. Alabama, which had enjoyed previous success in reading instruction in the 2000s through the Alabama Reading Initiative, has reinvested in reading coaches and professional development based on the science of reading for teachers and principals.
The following charts allow you to make comparisons of systems or schools, using the menus at the top of the chart to select the systems you want to focus on. First, a listing of systems:
Then, the percentage of third graders reading below grade level by school. The bars are shaded to reflect the percentage of students from economically disadvantaged households.
Even though the retention requirement of the Literacy Act has been delayed, the law is in force. But even if there were no law regarding third-grade reading levels, early grades reading should be a top priority.
Parents, teachers, and school and community leaders must respond to the identified need.
Alabama Public Opinion Survey 2022
With elections for governor and legislature pending in the fall, Alabamians are united in support for public investment in education and healthcare, divided on how to raise money for new investments, and express a preference for local leadership and decision-making. That is according to PARCA’s annual public opinion survey.
The poll of over 400 Alabama residents was conducted by Dr. Randolph Horn, Samford University, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Research and Professor of Political Science.
Results from this year’s survey are consistent with previous years’ results in some important ways.
Alabamians continue to rank education as the most important state government activity.
Large majorities of Alabamians say the state spends too little on education and healthcare.
Alabamians have an aversion to taxes but say upper-income residents pay too little.
A slim majority say budget surpluses should be reinvested in state services, specifically education, rather than used to cut taxes.
If budget surpluses are used to cut taxes, the most popular tax cut is the sales tax on groceries.
Alabamians are willing to pay more taxes to support education but do not agree on which taxes should be increased.
Alabamians are essentially split on tax-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. However, a majority believe vouchers, if allowed, should be available to all students.
Alabamians continue to believe that they have no say in state government and that government officials in Montgomery do not care about their opinions.
Results of the survey indicate many opportunities for officials to demonstrate responsiveness to public concerns and leadership in crafting public policy solutions.
Since 1994, the Alabama Kids Count Data Book has documented and tracked the health, education, safety, and economic security of children at the state and county levels.
This annual statistical portrait is meant to provide a roadmap for policymakers who seek to improve the lives of Alabama’s children. The Data Book can be used to raise the visibility of children’s issues, identify areas of need, identify trends and measure how previous efforts are working, set priorities in child well-being, and inform decision-making at the state and local levels.
Among the findings from this year’s data, VOICES points to the following challenges we must continue to address for Alabama’s children and families:
– Child Care: There are only 1,855 licensed child care providers in Alabama to support the workforce of today and tomorrow. Lack of quality child care is a leading reason for decreased workforce participation. Further, babies need quality care and education as their parents work and their brains develop in pivotal years.
– Health: During a youth mental health crisis and increased family stress, there is 1 mental health provider available for every 923 Alabamians. The latest research shows that unaddressed childhood trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lead to lifelong chronic health issues, along with significant barriers to educational achievement and financial security.
– Economic Security: While 16% of Alabamians live in poverty, 23.9% of Alabama children live in poverty (ex. a household of 4 making $24,750 or less). Further, 1 in 5 children in Alabama are food insecure.
– Education: Poverty leads to significant disparities in education. For Alabama 4th graders in poverty, only 37.9% are proficient in reading and 12.1% are proficient in math.
– Safety and Permanency: In 2021, 3,453 children entered foster care. While cases can have multiple causes of entry, 48% of cases involved parental substance abuse.
See how children in all 67 counties of our state are faring in education, health, economic security, and more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.