Shifts in Public School Enrollment Seen in the 2023-2024 Fall Attendance Data

Alabama’s public school enrollment is down slightly for the 2023-2024 school year, with a decline in the number of white students enrolled, partially offset by a growing enrollment of Hispanic students. Just over half of public school students, 51% are white, 32% Black, and 11% Hispanic. This year’s enrollment continues a long-term trend. In 2000, 62% of students were white, and the percentage of Hispanic students barely registered.

The percentage of students identified as economically disadvantaged is at an all-time high, with 60% of enrolled students directly qualifying for a free lunch under the National School Lunch program. Qualification is based on having a household income that qualifies for federal benefits like housing, food, or health care support. The percentage of children identified rose substantially after Alabama’s Medicaid program began working with the Department of Education to identify students who qualified for Medicaid and related benefits. Coming out of the Covid pandemic, the number of families and children is elevated. Federal law prohibits states from removing patients from Medicaid rolls during a public health emergency. With the public health emergency now over, Medicaid is reassessing which households remain eligible.

The school systems seeing enrollment gains are generally found in places where the population is growing: north Alabama systems in and around Huntsville and to the south in Baldwin County. Growth in enrollment is also occurring at public charter schools that are starting up or adding grades. School systems offering online or virtual school programs have also shown gains. Read Al.com’s reporting on trends in school populations.

Rural systems saw the largest declines in percentage terms. Large county and city systems in Mobile, Montgomery, Shelby County, and Birmingham accounted for the larger numeric declines in enrollment.

Use the tabs to explore data, for your local schools and systems.


How Alabama Taxes Compare, 2023

Despite the wild gyrations in the economy since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the latest comparative data from the U.S. Census Bureau finds Alabama in a familiar position: at or near the bottom in state and local government tax collections.

Key Findings

• Alabama is a low-tax state: In FY 2021, adjusted for population, Alabama collected less in state and local taxes than all but one other state. Alaska, thanks to disruptions in the oil market over the period, had the lowest per capita revenues.

• Alabama’s per capita property tax collections are the lowest in the nation. That helps owners of homes, farms, and timberland but creates a revenue deficit, leaving state and local governments with less to spend to provide government services such as education, health, and public safety.

• Alabama’s state and local sales tax rates are among the highest in the U.S., which compensate for low property taxes.

• Alabama’s income tax does not provide the balancing effect that income taxes in other states do. Low-income workers begin paying taxes at a lower threshold than any other state. At the other end of the spectrum, Alabama is the only state that allows a full deduction for federal income taxes paid, a tax break that benefits high-income earners.

Despite unusual circumstances, Alabama’s rankings in per capita state and local tax collections were generally consistent with rankings in prior years.

Motor fuel collections per capita jumped in rank because half of Alabama’s fiscal year was pre-pandemic at a time when the economy was booming and gas prices high. In contrast, most states’ fiscal years began in the months after the pandemic began. Gas prices plummeted, and the total miles traveled on American roads didn’t recover until the calendar year 2022.

Alabama’s sales and gross receipts were also elevated thanks to the state’s high sales tax rate, the elevated volume of pandemic-related buying, and the economic stimulus payments that accelerated spending beginning in April 2020.

Despite all that, Alabama continues to lag behind almost all other states in total per capita collections.

Table 1. Alabama Rank in Per Capita Tax Collections, 2019, 2020, 2021.

In the years since FY 2021, tax revenues have surged based on the infusion of federal stimulus, low unemployment, and high inflation. Legislators have responded by making needed investments, particularly in education, in the form of teacher pay raises and a surge of additional support for literacy and math instruction.

At the same time, the Legislature has also passed tax cuts. In 2022, it increased the standard deduction for low-income Alabamians, allowing more households to shield more of their earned income from the income tax. In 2023, the state sales tax on food items was reduced from 4% to 3%, with a further 1% reduction scheduled for 2024 if revenue targets are met. These targeted tax cuts are a fitting response at a time when inflation is elevated, 3 with state tax collections surging to historic highs and federal COVID-19 relief funds swelling government accounts.

Flush times could allow Alabama to address years of chronic underinvestment compared to other states. Unacceptable conditions, such as understaffed and crumbling prisons, persist. Investments in education that show positive results must be sustained. However, as growth slows and federal aid is exhausted, Alabama governments will likely return to a familiar position of having less money to spend and yet a greater need for government services.

PARCA’s interactive charts allow you to explore a variety of statistics regarding Alabama’s taxes and tax revenue in comparison to other states. For the entire analysis, see our complete report in a printable version. Or read an embedded copy of the report below.


Alabama State Tax Collections, 2023

Increases, Decreases, and Trends in the Revenue Supporting State Government

The 2023 fiscal year, which ended on September 30, was a mixed year for Alabama revenue collections.

After several years of strong growth, Alabama tax collections turned in a mixed performance in 2023, with the General Fund (GF), which supports non-education spending, up substantially. Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues, meanwhile, were basically flat after increasing by record levels in 2022.

GF collections increased 16.6%, led by a steep rise in revenue from interest on state deposits. The ETF barely budged, up 0.11%, with sales tax revenue increasing but income tax revenue down. That’s according to reports released last month by the state.

PARCA’s interactive charts allow you to explore trends in the various revenue sources that support the operations of state government in Alabama. For a detailed review of FY 2023 collections, see our complete report in a printable version. Or read an embedded copy of the report below.


Changes to the State Standardized Test and its Scoring

The Alabama State Board of Education voted on Thursday to change the test score students must earn to be considered reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The change was recommended by testing experts due to changes made in the content of the 2023 test and shifts in results.

Using the score the state had in place, 24% percent of third graders who took the state standardized test in the spring of 2023 would have scored below the grade level reading mark. Using the target adopted by the board on Thursday, 17% of those students would have scored below grade level.

The grade-level reading target will take on increased importance this spring when the retention provision of the Alabama Literacy Act takes effect. At that point, students testing below grade level by the end of third grade could be held back. (Students will have a chance to get up to grade level during an intensive summer literacy camp. Other exemptions and methods of evaluation are also available).

The second and third-grade reading cut score changes received the most attention because of the implications. However, the changes to the state standardized tests of English Language Arts (ELA) were made across all grades in 2023. Along with changes in test content, the test scale was shifted, and proficiency cut scores adjusted. The changes make performance comparisons and trends across years difficult to interpret.

The Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP) is a series of standardized tests specifically built for Alabama, designed to test students at each grade level as they progress through the Alabama’s courses of study in English Language Arts, Math, and Science.

The original ACAP reflected the course of study in place in 2020. However, in 2021, the state adopted a revised ELA course of study. That revised course of study included a heightened focus on reading skills as called for by the Alabama Literacy Act. Changes to the course of study included:

  • phonemic awareness and fluency added in grades 2-3;
  • phonics added in grades 2-5
  • listening skills added in grades 2-8
  • text-dependent writing added to grades 2-3
  • Recognizing and producing writing in different modes: narrative, informational, and opinion writing added in grades 2-8

Thus, with new concepts and points of emphasis added to the test, the test results were re-examined in light of the changes. Cut scores for the four achievement levels were adjusted. As a result, the test score a student needed to be considered proficient, i.e. scoring at either level 3 or level 4, was changed.

Comparing 2023 and 2022 results, average numeric scores in 2023 were lower in every grade but 6th. However, since the tests were changed and the scales were changed, the state department recommends against comparing scores from year to year.

While mean scores were down, proficiency rates were generally up. The percentage of students earning a score in the proficient range increased in all grades except third and eighth, where proficiency declined by 1% and 3%, respectively. The biggest jump in proficiency was in fifth grade, where the percentage of students scoring proficient jumped 9 percentage points. That is despite a large decline in the numeric mean score in 5th grade.

Because the tested material changed and the test scale was shifted, it is difficult to say if the score changes and proficiency changes were due to changes in student performance, changes in the scoring, or a combination of those and other factors.

Three of eight State Board of Education members voted against lowering the cut score that determines which students are reading below grade level. Those members expressed concern that students who weren’t prepared for the next academic level would be promoted and find themselves far behind and without the literacy support available in the early grades.

However, the majority of board members expressed support for following the advice of testing experts, recognizing that students this year were essentially taking a new test that required a new evaluation of results. Even with the lower cut scores, education officials are expecting a sharp increase in the number of students being required to repeat third grade in order to catch up in reading.

About half the states have some sort of retention provision. Alabama’s approach is modeled after Florida and Mississippi efforts. Both those states have seen large gains in reading on national assessment after implementing a systematic approach to literacy instruction.

Like those states, Alabama has dramatically increased funding and professional development for reading instruction and has especially targeted schools and systems with high concentrations of struggling readers.


Alabama Standardized Test Scores Rise in 2023

Alabama public school students improved their performance on statewide standardized tests in 2023, with the percentage of students testing proficient rising across most of the tested grades (3-8) and subjects (English Language Arts (ELA), math, and science).

Printable PDF version available here.

Figure 1. Trends in Proficiency by Subject

Just over half of Alabama students, 52%, were proficient in English Language Arts across all grades, and only 31% demonstrated grade-level proficiency in math. Fourth and eighth graders were tested in science, with 41% scoring proficient.

Figure 2. Trends by Subject and Grade Level

English Language Arts

The broad-based improvement comes as a relief since earlier this summer, a subset of the test, 3rd-grade reading results, showed a decline in the percentage of students reading on grade level. Those third graders also showed a slight decline on the broader test of English Language Arts, with the percentage of students proficient declining from 54% to 53%. Eighth graders’ ELA proficiency rates declined by almost 3%, to 50%. However, for students in grades 4-7, the percentage of students scoring proficient in ELA improved. The 2023 ELA test was adjusted to reflect updates to the ELA course of study. It is unclear how those changes might have impacted scores.

But across all grades in English Language Arts, a curious pattern is present. The percentage of students scoring at the highest level of proficiency is growing but the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level of proficiency is also growing.

The test groups students into four levels:

  • Level 1: Minimal understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 2: Partial understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 3 Strong understanding of grade-level standards
  • Level 4: Advanced understanding of grade-level standards

Figure 3. ELA Results, by Percentage of Students at Each Level of Proficiency

Across all grades on the ELA test, more students are testing at Level 4, while at the same time, more students are scoring at Level 1, the lowest level.

Math

The math results are different. Math proficiency has long been Alabama’s Achilles heel, with our students scoring consistently at or near the bottom on national tests. While proficiency is still low overall, math results on the ACAP are improving. As in ELA, more students are testing at Level 4 in math. But unlike ELA, the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level is also shrinking.

Figure 4. Math Results, by Percentage of Students at Each Level of Proficiency

In math, students in every grade improved their proficiency rates. However, another long-running problem for Alabama’s math proficiency is that it declines steeply as children move into middle school. In 3rd grade, 44% of students are proficient, but by 8th grade, only 21% are.

The Challenge of Poverty

One constant about standardized test scores is that the socioeconomic composition of a school correlates with performance on standardized tests like the ACAP. In schools and systems where rates of economic disadvantage are low, a higher percentage of students achieve proficiency. Schools and systems where economic disadvantage is concentrated, standardized test performance is lower.

Figure 5 allows the presentation of both factors at the school system level. Systems in dark red and on the left of the chart have higher concentrations of economic disadvantage. Systems that are dark green are on the right side of the chart. Systems high on the chart have high rates of student proficiency. Systems lower on the chart have lower rates of proficiency. The line slopes up and to the right to reveal the pattern in the data: a lower percentage of students in poverty, the higher the percentage of students achieving proficiency.

Figure 5. Percent of Economically Disadvantaged Students vs. Proficiency Percentage

A similar array, but looking at performance at the school level, is also available. While this pattern recurs across datasets, these charts highlight the fact that some schools with high levels of economic disadvantage outperform peer schools with similar levels of poverty.

Another encouraging note is that the widespread improvement observed in the results, across grades and subjects, was not restricted to one race or ethnicity, or to a socioeconomic subgroup. Performance gaps between groups remain. But almost all economic and demographic subgroups improved their overall rates of proficiency in the three subjects. In both 4th and 8th grade, the declines in English Language Arts proficiency declines were also distributed across all subgroups.  

Figure 6. Trends among Student Subgroups

Alabama students and faculty continue to recover from time and learning lost during the Covid 19 pandemic. Results indicate that teachers are becoming more successful at teaching learning standards, and students are mastering those standards at higher rates. On all fronts, Alabama has a long way to go if it is going to provide a nationally competitive education. Proficiency in math is a long-running concern; in nearly 20 districts, 10% or less of students are scoring proficient. In English Language Arts, the rising percentage of students scoring at the highest level is a cause for celebration. However, the growing number of students scoring at the lowest level is a particular concern as Alabama emphasizes literacy.

Record education budgets, supplemented by pandemic-related federal aid, have allowed for higher levels of education spending than ever. The Legislature has invested in more systematic approaches to literacy and math instruction. It is imperative that schools, systems, the state, the Legislature, the Governor, and the general public identify money being spent that is producing positive results. Successful approaches should be maintained when the inevitable constriction of revenue arrives. Ineffective spending should also be identified and reprogrammed.


New Reading Scores Released As Schools Head Toward Full Literacy Act Implementation

About one-quarter of Alabama third graders were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, leaving them vulnerable to academic struggles as they progress in school, according to data from the reading subsection of the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program released Thursday.

Printable PDF version available here.

Among second graders, 11,622 or 22% of students statewide were below grade level at the end of second grade. Parents and educators have a year to get those struggling readers caught up to grade level. Next year, the final piece of the Literacy Act is set to go into effect. Third graders who haven’t caught up to grade level by next spring could be vulnerable to being held back.

Since the Literacy Act was passed in 2019, the State Legislature has provided major increases in funding for reading instruction and services, re-energizing the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) and school-based reading coaches. Teachers from Kindergarten to third grade across the state have received intensive professional development designed to improve the teaching of reading, an instructional approach based in the science of reading.

ARI has deployed extra support to high-needs schools. Alabama’s Literacy Act was based on similar legislation in Mississippi and Florida. Both those states have seen significant gains in early grades literacy after implementing reforms.

This year, 24% of Alabama third graders tested below grade level. That’s up from 22% in 2022. State Education officials pointed out that the 2023 test was updated to reflect the state’s new course of study and differed from the 2022 test. (See information from the Department). Also, this year’s third graders were in kindergarten when schools closed in Spring of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their first-grade year was, in many cases, disrupted by continuing complications of the pandemic, including remote learning during a critical period for their reading instruction.

Not all students reading below grade level would be retained under the act. The Literacy Act contains good cause exceptions for students who are receiving services for diagnosed learning disabilities. The Act also provides alternative methods of measuring a child’s literacy level. However, the goal of the Act is to encourage parents and schools to identify struggling readers early and provide needed interventions, so they are ready for the educational pivot that occurs in fourth grade.

Alabama Reading Initiative Director Bonnie Short told State Board of Education members Thursday that initial analysis indicates systems where more teachers were trained in and fully implemented the research-based approaches to instruction gains in reading performance were higher.

By fourth grade, students are expected to know how to read and to use reading to learn. According to research:

  • A child not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade is four times more likely to fail to graduate from high school. Among students who failed to complete high school, 2/3 were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
  • A struggling reader who is also poor is three times more likely to fail to graduate than a struggling reader who isn’t living in poverty.
    • Source: Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

All students from kindergarten through third grade who aren’t reading at grade level are provided literacy boot camps in the summer. In high-need schools, all students are offered the opportunity. According to Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey, about half the students who take advantage of the summer program test at grade level by the end of the summer. However, not all of the identified children attend the summer literacy programs, as they are not required to. The state department and school systems are trying to encourage attendance and remove barriers. This summer, the state has authorized the use of transportation support for the literacy camps.

The highest concentration of students testing below grade level tend to be found in school systems where the poverty level is highest. The graphic below shows that correlation.

But demographics are not destiny. At the school level, there is a wide variation in the percentage of students reading below grade level. Thus, school-based leadership, teaching, training, culture, and resources make a difference.

You can explore your local system and compare results to peer systems, systems with similar economics and demographics.

Results are also available at the school level.


Grad Rate Dipped, but Career Readiness Climbed for Class 2022

As graduation approaches for the Class of 2023, there’s new data available allowing us to look back on last spring’s graduates.

The Class of 2022 faced particular challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which struck when they were sophomores and persisted through their junior year. In both those years, the number of kids who dropped out was elevated: over 1,000 juniors from the Class of 2022 cohort dropped out, more than double the number of juniors that dropped out in the Class of 2021.

In the end, 89% of seniors graduated, compared to 92% in 2011, but those that persisted were more likely to finish college- and career-ready (CCR).

The Class of 2022 posted a significant jump in the percentage of CCR seniors, thanks to a jump in the percentage of students earning workforce-related credentials and an increase in dual enrollment.

In 2022, 79% of seniors were certified as CCR, up from 76% in 2021. That gain was despite a large drop in the percentage of seniors testing college ready on the ACT. (See PARCA’s previous analysis on the ACT results).

Fig1. Trends in High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness

The Class of 2022 broke a trend of smaller graduating classes, and despite the elevated dropout rate, more students graduated.

State leaders had been calling on schools to close the gap between graduation and career-ready rates.

A lower graduation rate combined with college-and-career readiness means that the gap between graduation and readiness narrowed to 10 percentage points, compared with 15 percentage points the previous year.

Shifts in Readiness

High school students can demonstrate college and career readiness in several different ways. Figure 1. allows you to explore trends on each measure. Diving below the surface on these measures presents a mixed picture of the Class of 2022.

Fig. 2 College and Career Readiness Measures, by Percentage of Seniors Earning

College and career readiness can be demonstrated by one or more of the following: 

  1. Earn an Industry Recognized Credential through Career Technical Education: 39% of students earned an industry-recognized credential through career technical education in 2022, the highest rate for any class. These credentials result from taking work-oriented courses offered at high schools or K-12 career tech centers. Credentials must be tied to a student’s course of study and should be valued in a career field that is in demand in the regional job market. According to State Department of Education data, in 2022, the biggest jump in credentials earned was in certifications in the use of Microsoft software. Big gains were also posted in the number of students earning Certified Guest Professional credentials, a credential associated with the hospitality industry, and in Adult Beef Quality Assurance, an ag-related credential. Also posting gains were credentials associated with healthcare, construction, forestry, and the military’s ROTC programs. Across all grades, the 2021-2022 academic year saw more students earning CTE credentials than ever before: 33,535 compared to the pre-pandemic peak of 31,062 in 2019. While the growth is laudable, attention should continue to be focused on the quality and value of the credentials available.
  2. Earn Credit Through a College: a higher percentage of students earned college credit while in high school in 2022 than ever before: 18%. That’s up from 17% 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.
  3. Earn a Qualifying Score through College-level Courses Taught in High Schools: Advanced Placement (AP) courses are taught in a high school but have the rigor and approach of college courses. In 2022, 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. The number of students qualifying through success in International Baccalaureate (IB) classes also increased. IB is similar in rigor to AP, though less widely used.
  4. Earn a qualifying score on WorkKeys: 39% of seniors demonstrated college readiness by performing well on ACT’s WorkKeys test. This marked a recovery in the number and percentage of students qualifying by this measure. After dropping from 2019 to 2021, 2022 saw a recovery of 5 percentage points in 2022. WorkKeys is 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)
  5. 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 8 percentage points in 2022, to 37%. This rate has been dipping consistently every year and is now down 14% from 2018.  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. Alabama’s drop in performance coincides with a national drop that began before Covid but appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
  6. Successfully enlist in the U.S. Military: The same percentage of students gained admission to the military, but that represents an increase of from 519 in 2021 to 590 in 2022. However, that total is less than half of what it was in 2018 when 1,129 seniors entered the military after high school.
Fig. 3 College and Career Ready, by Number of Seniors Earning

The Class of 2022 deviates from recent trends. Over the past few years, fewer students have been progressing through Alabama public schools. From 2018-2021, class sizes were down 7%. During that time, we saw a 6% decrease in graduates and a 5% decrease in career or college-ready students. In 2022 however, we saw a class size increase of 5%, a 2% rise in graduates, and an 8% rise in career or college-ready students. This symbolizes a return to pre-pandemic numbers. However, the new generation of students is known to be smaller. In light of this and 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

Last year, one system and twenty-four schools reported a 100% on-time graduation rate. This year, one system, Magic City Acceptance Academy, and only fourteen high schools reported a 100% on-time graduation rate. Fourteen 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.

Fig. 4 CCR and Graduation Rates by System, 2022

On the other hand, fifteen schools had graduation rates below 75%. Nineteen high schools had CCR rates below 50%. Only nine 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.

Fig. 5 CCR and Graduation Rates by School, 2022

Gaps Between Subgroups

Historically, there have been gaps in the high school graduation rate between students of different races. In 2022, the gaps in graduation got slightly bigger, and the gap in overall CCR was slightly reduced. Some trends seen in past years are continued or even exaggerated. 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 despite everyone achieving lower numbers from years past.

Only 18% of Blacks and 22% of Hispanics benchmarked in a subject on the ACT, compared to 47% of whites. Asians are much further ahead, with 68%. By contrast, there is almost no racial gap in college and career readiness rates in career technical education: 38% of Black students earned an industry-recognized credential through CTE compared to 40% of whites and 40% of Hispanics.

Fig. 6 CCR and Graduation Rates by Subgroup, 2022

WorkKeys

The number of high school seniors taking ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment increased by almost 4,000 in 2022, a major reversal in a downward trend in the use of the test.

Along with higher participation, a higher percentage (60%) and a greater number of students (2,833) qualified as college and career ready as a result of their scores.

Fig. 7 WorkKeys Results, Statewide Trends

WorkKeys is given to seniors and is designed to measure practical math, reading, and graphical literacy skills as they are employed in the workplace. That’s different than the ACT, which tests for knowledge and skills needed in a college classroom.

WorkKeys was given to all seniors through 2019, but the State Department of Education stopped mandating the test in 2019. While some systems still test all seniors, some systems make the test an option for students who haven’t demonstrated college and career readiness by another measure.  

Some businesses, particularly industrial employers, build WorkKeys into their hiring practices. They have determined what level of proficiency, as measured by WorkKeys, is needed in particular jobs. Depending on their test performance, students earn a platinum, gold, silver, or bronze National Career Readiness Certificate. A student scoring Silver or above is considered college and career ready.

Jefferson, Mobile, Montgomery, Limestone, and Lauderdale County systems, as well as city systems in Huntsville, Birmingham, Florence, and Madison recorded large increases in the number of students taking WorkKeys and successfully earning credentials.

Fig. 8. Number of Students Workforce Ready 2022 and Change from 2021

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.

Fig. 9. Percentage Workforce Ready by System, 2022

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.

Fig. 10. WorkKeys Results, by Level of Certification, 2022

Alabama’s College-Going Rate Begins Recovery; Still Below Pre-Pandemic Rates

Alabama’s 2021 public high school graduates entered higher education at a slightly higher rate than the Class of 2020, according to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. However, with only 55% of graduates entering higher education the year after graduation, the 2021 rate was still much lower than in the years before the pandemic.

Remarkably, though, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling at 4-year colleges is tied with its highest rate on record, with 32% of Alabama high school graduates enrolling at 4-year schools. Even more notable is that the 4-year college-going rate for Black and White high school graduates was equal among the Class of 2021: 33% of Black high school graduates and 33% of White high school graduates in Alabama enrolled in a 4-year college the year after graduation. Historically, there has been a gap between the rate of enrollment of Black and White students in college.

Printable PDF version available here.

The new data comes from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the state’s higher education coordinating body. ACHE annually queries the National Student Clearinghouse of Data to check which of Alabama’s high school graduates enrolled in college, either two-year or four-year, anywhere in the country in the year following their high school graduation. Maps, college-going destinations, and rates are available for high schools and public school systems by exploring the tabs in the visualization.

The figures for the Class of 2021 show a continuing decline in the number of recent high school graduates enrolling in two-year colleges. Only 11,389 or 23% of graduates enrolled at a community college compared to the more than 15,000 typically normally enrolled in community colleges in the years prior to 2018.

The number and percentage of students enrolling at 4-year colleges increased to 15,856 or 32% of recent high school graduates. Prior to 2019, the number and percentage of students who enrolled in four-year colleges and two-year schools were about equal.

Trends

College-going rates have been affected by multiple factors over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2020, as Alabama’s high school graduation rate climbed from 72% to over 90%, the percentage of those high school graduates going immediately into college declined. Some of those additional graduates likely lacked the academic preparation to go straight into college.

Two-Year Colleges

Also, in the current economy, demand for workers is at historic highs. Low unemployment and a strong economy typically drive down two-year college enrollment. And statistics support the idea that more high school graduates are entering the workforce rather than pursuing education. According to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, 32.6% of individuals between the age of 16-19 were in the labor force in Alabama in 2014. By 2021, 39% of 16 to 19-year-olds were in the labor force, according to Census.

The Covid-19 pandemic also disrupted college enrollment, particularly at two-year colleges. For graduates of the Class of 2020, two-year enrollment fell under 12,000, marking the lowest total since 2014, the earliest year in the dataset. And for the Class of 2021, the numbers were lower still, 11,389.

While those recent high graduates may be delaying entry to community college, other enrollees have begun to return to two-year colleges. At the height of the pandemic, overall Alabama community college enrollment dropped by 10,000, from approximately 80,000 to 70,000. Recovery began in 2021, and preliminary overall fall enrollment was above 75,000. Some students who didn’t immediately enter may now be returning to pursue a degree.

A final factor appears to have some bearing on the equation. An increasing number of high school students are also enrolled at community colleges, which is known as dual enrollment. In 2018, only 15,372 students took dual enrollment courses. By the 2021-2022 school year, 23,483 students were dually enrolled. Students taking dual enrollment classes can graduate high school with college credit, with an industry-recognized credential, or even with an associate’s degree. That will increase the chances the student will enroll at a four-year college after graduation or flow into the workforce. Those dual enrollment students aren’t captured in the college-going rate data which tracks high school graduates in the year after their high school graduation.

4-Year Colleges

Meanwhile, recovery was more rapid at four-year schools, with 15,856 graduates of the Alabama public high school Class of 2021 enrolling at 4-year colleges. That’s more 4-year enrollees than any year in the dataset, and it comes in a year when there were fewer high school graduates.

In terms of destination, the Class of 2021 sent more students to Alabama 4-year colleges but also increased the number of students going to out-of-state public and private schools. Enrollment at Alabama private colleges was slightly lower for the Class of 2021.

Interesting patterns emerge when college-going statistics are broken down by race. White public high school graduates are more likely to enroll in higher education than Black and Hispanic/Latino graduates: 58% of whites compared to 51% of blacks and 39% of Hispanics.

As mentioned above, White and Black high school graduates are enrolling in equal proportions at 4-year schools. But there has been a significant shift at 2-year colleges. In 2019, 25% of Black high school graduates enrolled at a 2-year school in the year after graduation. In 2021 only 18 percent did.

And among all groups, there has been an uptick in the percentage of recent high school graduates who did not enroll in college the year after graduating. According to the statistics cited above, these individuals are likely finding employment. It’s also possible that some of these high school graduates earned certificates that will allow them entry into a career with plenty of upward mobility. However, state policy should ensure these individuals have ready access to return to the education and training system if and when they need more advanced skills to pursue a more promising career path.


Despite Headwinds, Alabama Gains in 4th Grade Reading and Math

Alabama 4th-grade students performed better in both reading and math between 2019 and 2022, leading to improved national rankings for Alabama on The Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That progress came despite the pandemic, which took a heavy toll on academic performance nationwide. Nationally, NAEP scale scores recorded their worst drops ever.

Alabama was the only state where 4th graders improved in math performance. It was one of only five states to see improvement in Grade 4 reading. Only Louisiana had a higher gain in 4th-grade reading.

To be clear, Alabama’s average scale score gain in both reading and math was not large enough to be considered statistically significant, but, when compared to sizeable scale score declines in many other states, the shift was notable. Alabama’s 8th-grade scale scores were down in reading and math, though, in the case of math, because Alabama lost less ground than other states its national rank improved.

Figure 1. NAEP Performance over time, Alabama vs. U.S.

NAEP results are derived from standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in each state. The most recent test was administered in the spring of 2022. The NAEP is the only assessment that is given in every state and thus provides comparative information across the nation.

Figure 2. Average NAEP scale scores for U.S. States, 2022. Menus change views by grades and subject

Similar findings from state-level assessments

In a separate analysis of state-level assessment data, Alabama’s results have gotten national attention. An analysis produced by educational researchers and shared with al.com showed that Alabama school districts showed greater stability and improvement from 2019 to 2022 than schools in much of the rest of the country.

Researchers at The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University collaborated to publish and analyze the Education Recovery Scorecard Project, the first district-level view of changes in academic performance from 2019-2022. Several Alabama systems are among the top performers for improvement over the period, including Boaz, Piedmont, Andalusia, Arab, Cullman, Muscle Shoals, Hoover, Hartselle, Pike Road, Vestavia Hills, and Mountain Brook.

Alabama rising?

Since 2003, Alabama students have ranked at or near the bottom in math on the NAEP in both grades tested, 4th and 8th. In reading, Alabama 4th graders had improved enough to meet the national average by 2011 but drifted downward in subsequent years. Alabama 8th-grade reading scores have been in the bottom five consistently.

In 2019, Alabama 4th graders ranked No. 51 in math compared with students in other states and the District of Columbia. In 2022, Alabama 4th graders ranked 39th. In reading, Alabama 4th grade student performance rose from 48 to 38.

Average scale scores for Alabama 8th graders declined in both reading and math. However, other states experienced steeper drops in math, so Alabama’s rank climbed from 51 to 46. In 8th-grade reading, Alabama maintained its rank of 48 out of 51.

Figure 3. Scale score rank of states, by grade and subject

The improvements in 2022 indicate some progress, but Alabama has a long way to go before it is providing a nationally competitive education to all students. In the 2022 results, students in Mississippi once again scored ahead of Alabama in both reading and math at both grade levels. Alabama did close that gap with Mississippi in math and in 4th-grade reading, but the gap widened in 8th-grade reading.

Figure 4. Alabama, Mississippi, and U.S. NAEP scores compared

Results coincide with investments

The positive results coincide with the recent infusion of money and effort in early grades reading. The Alabama Literacy Act in 2019 was accompanied by increased funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). ARI provides professional development and support for teachers. The state also requires a dedicated reading coach to work with K-3 teachers. The coach and teachers monitor reading data, identify struggling readers, and provide enhanced support. That includes providing services from specialists trained to diagnose and work with children with learning challenges like dyslexia.

In math, Alabama realigned its math standards in 2019, with one of the aims being to align better with national expectations represented by the NAEP. The Alabama Math and Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) also altered its tactics, allowing it to reach more schools and teachers. Extra federal relief money also allowed some districts to hire math coaches to work with teachers. In 2022, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Numeracy Act, which provides increased funding and calls for a strategic approach to improving math performance, borrowing some of the approaches deployed to support literacy.

PARCA showcased investments in AMSTI, ARI, and Mississippi’s approach to educational improvement at the PARCA Annual Forum in March of 2022. The Forum webpage provides recordings of the presentations, more information, and resources.

While the gains on the NAEP in 4th-grade reading and math might not be statistically significant, those results mirror improvements Alabama students posted on the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), the state’s standardized test. Compared to 2021, the state saw gains, particularly in early grades mathematics.

Comparing NAEP to Alabama’s test of proficiency

Alabama has administered several different achievement tests over the past decade, which leads to confusion about how Alabama students are performing. Complicating the picture is that the different tests, including the NAEP, have different measures of proficiency. Figure 5 compares the results of the 2022 NAEP with the results of the ACAP, also given in the spring of 2022.

The results of both tests are expressed in terms of the percentage of students who scored proficient or above on the tests.

The bars in red represent the percentage of Alabama students scoring proficient on the NAEP and on the ACAP at both grade levels and in both subjects.

The green bars present the percentage of students in the U.S. that scored proficient on the NAEP.

Figure 5. Scores from Alabama’s ACAP vs. NAEP, 2022, by subject and grade

Comparing NAEP and ACAP results, it is apparent that Alabama’s ACAP English Language Arts assessment is much more generous when it comes to grading student proficiency in English.

In contrast, ACAP produces results similar to NAEP’s in math.

Except for the ELA scores on the ACAP, both tests indicate that only somewhere around 20-30% are reaching proficiency. The National Assessment Governing Board sets proficiency levels and describes them as follows: “Students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” They specify that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent “grade level proficiency” as determined by other state assessment standards.

Figure 6 presents three levels of achievement on the NAEP: the percentage of Alabama students scoring “at or above Basic,” the percentage scoring “at or above Proficient,” and the percentage of students scoring “Advanced.”

Figure 6. Percentage of Alabama Students at each NAEP Achievement Level, 2003-2022

In 4th grade reading and math, students today are ahead of where they were a decade ago: a greater percentage of students are scoring above basic, above proficient, and at the advanced levels.

In 8th-grade math, there has been some progress, while 8th-grade reading gains seen in 2015 and 2017 have fallen away substantially.

Conclusion

The NAEP and the ACAP have provided evidence that Alabama educators and students can improve even in challenging circumstances. The investment and attention to early grades reading and mathematics need to be sustained and accelerated. Alabama has a long way to go to catch the national average or even our neighboring state, Mississippi.

But even as further gains are pursued for younger learners, Alabama needs to find ways to sustain learning gains into middle and high school. The erosion in proficiency in the middle grades could have lasting negative effects in preparing students for high school, college, and careers.


State Test Results Showed Across the Broad Improvement; Gaps Widened Though

Alabama public school students showed increased proficiency in math, science, and English at all grade levels and across virtually all demographic groups in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the recently released results of the statewide standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP).

Printable PDF available here.

Figure 1. Proficiency By Subject (Grades 3-8), 2021 and 2022 compared

While the improvement is welcome, there is a long way to go.

Only half of students across the tested grades (3-8) scored proficient in English Language Arts (ELA). In math, only 28% of students were proficient. Students were tested in science in grades 4 and 8, and 40% of students were found to be proficient. A sub-set of the ELA questions is used to measure whether second and third-graders are “reading on grade level,” a different measure than proficiency. Those results, released by the state department this summer, showed that 22% of third-grade students were below grade level in reading.

This is the second year students have taken the ACAP as the statewide standardized test. Developed specifically for Alabama, ACAP is not taken by students in other states. Comparing ACAP scores to scores on previous assessments (ACT Aspire, Scantron), ACAP finds similar though slightly higher proficiency rates in ELA/Reading as previous statewide standardized tests found. The one national benchmark test, the NAEP, has historically graded tougher, with reading proficiency rates about half what other assessments show. In Math, ACAP seems to be the toughest measure of all, with scores in the range of but slightly lower than NAEP. Past statewide assessments have tended to grade student math proficiency more generously.

A Rebuilding Year

The 2021-2022 school year marked a return to closer-to-normal conditions compared to the 2020-2021 school year, which was marked by the disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic. Improvements were seen not only across all subjects and all grades but across almost all school systems.

Looking at the results by subject and grade, improvements were strongest among the youngest students. The gains were highest in early grades mathematics, a welcome development considering Alabama students’ long-term poor performance in math. The math proficiency rate among third greater increased by 9 percentage points and by seven percentage points in grades 4-6. With urging and support from the Legislature, the Alabama Department of Education is putting additional emphasis on early grades mathematics. The early grade gains show promise. However, the percentage of students scoring proficient in math declines sharply in the upper-grade levels, as it has for years.

ELA scores are also highest in those early grades, with a drop after fourth grade, then a recovery in 8th. In response to the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act, schools and systems statewide have been providing an unprecedented level of professional development for reading instruction for teachers in Grades K-3. As one might expect, growth in ELA scores from 2021 to 2022 was highest in Grade 3.

Figure 2. Proficiency by Grade, 2021 & 2022 compared

Results by Subgroup

Most subgroups of students showed improvement, with the strongest gains being among White, More than One Race, and Asian students. While Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students all posted gains, the higher level of increase among White, More than One Race, and Asian students led to a widening of the score gap between the groups. Nationally and within the state, evidence indicates that systems serving economically-disadvantaged and minority students tended to be harder hit by the pandemic and were slower to return to normal functioning as conditions improved. That may play some part in explaining the disparity.

Figure 3. Proficiency by Subgroup, 2021 & 2022 compared

Proficiency in Context

In general, systems with low rates of economic disadvantage tend to have a higher percentage of students scoring proficient. Schools and systems with higher concentrations of economic disadvantage tend to have lower rates of proficiency. This pattern is consistent nationally across most standardized tests. The economic disadvantage for a system or school is measured by the percentage of students who automatically qualify for a free lunch under the national school lunch program.

The chart below presents school systems according to both their rate of proficiency (the vertical axis) and their rate of economic disadvantage (the horizontal axis). Systems with higher rates of proficiency are higher above the baseline, while the systems to the left of the chart have high rates of economic disadvantage, with economic disadvantage decreasing as you move right. The line sloping up to the right represents the relationship between the two variables and predicts where the proficiency rate of a system at a given level of economic disadvantage. Thus, systems above the line of prediction are performing better than predicted given the level of poverty among students.

Piedmont City Schools, for instance, generated an overall proficiency rate of 60% despite having 54% of students qualifying for a free lunch. That compares to a 2022 state average proficiency across all grades and all subjects of 38% and an average economic disadvantage rate of 41%.

Figure 3. System Proficiency in the Context of Poverty, 2022

So, when comparing results, the economic and demographic composition of the school and system should be taken into account. However, examples like Piedmont’s show that demographics don’t predict destiny. Piedmont was particularly well positioned to cope with disruptions of the pandemic and continue academic progress, thanks to its pioneering experience in digital education delivery, as described by PARCA in a 2021 report.

Using the same approach to present proficiency results for schools, the relationship between proficiency and economic disadvantage levels is still there, but it is not as determinative, with greater divergence from the line of prediction. That provides further evidence the efforts of educators and communities can make a difference.

Use the menus provided to explore the data or to highlight schools and systems of interest.

Figure 4. School Proficiency in the Context of Poverty, 2022

Beyond proficiency

Student scores on the ACAP fall into one of four levels. According to the scoring system, Level 4 students have an advanced understanding of grade-level standards. Students scoring on Level Three have a strong understanding of standards. Students on Level 2 have a partial but incomplete understanding of grade-level standards, while students scoring on Level 1 demonstrate minimal understanding of the material for the grade level.

Figure 5 presents the percentage of each system’s students that earned scores at each level. Two lines are presented for each system, allowing a comparison of the 2021 and 2022 results. Overall state results are at the top for comparison.

Figure 5. Percentage of students scoring at each level by system

Figure 6. presents the same information on student levels for individual schools. Menus allow the selection of systems. When comparing schools keep in mind the socio-economic mix of the students being served, as well as the school’s status as a magnet or charter school. Results for schools where students are selected or self-selected should be understood in that context. It is also important to remember that schools can change from year to year. Some schools may close or merge with other schools. New schools may open. Grade levels may be added or removed. Any such changes need to be considered before drawing conclusions about performance.

Figure 6. Percentage of Students scoring at each level by school

Large Performance Gains

In 2022, the system that showed the highest overall percentage point gain was Cullman City School, with an 11.6 percentage point gain in proficiency in all subjects combined.

Cullman’s gains were particularly strong in math. Jumps were seen in all grades ranging from a 14 percentage point gain in 8th grade to a nearly 27 percentage point gain in fourth grade.

Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff attributed the success to teachers, students, and parents. Cullman invested federal relief and recovery money in four math coaches across its five schools. Those coaches received intensive summer training from the state department of education’s Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). They continued to receive AMSTI support throughout the year.

With support from the coaches, teachers and students began engaging in number talks, a way of discussing math problems that encourage students to develop mathematical reasoning skills. Cullman teachers also recognized that the rigor of Alabama math standards required them to supplement their math instruction to ensure the standards were covered. to make sure that the math standards were covered.

Teachers paced lessons so that the match standards were covered by April, which allowed time for review and targeting of areas where students needed additional support.

Figure 7. Cullman City Math Proficiency Gains

Explore the data

PARCA provides its analysis and visualization of the ACAP data for the benefit of school leaders and teachers, for parents, and citizens at large. The tabs in the visualizations provide a variety of ways to evaluate relevant data. Use the “full screen” option at the bottom right of the visualizations to access a larger view of the data.

Comparative data is useful for understanding performance in the context of your community and the state. Comparisons over time and with similar schools can be useful in gauging your school’s progress and identifying areas where improvement is needed.