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.
Experience with Digital Learning Helped Piedmont Exceed Expectations Despite Covid
When the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, Piedmont City Schools didn’t have to scramble to purchase laptops. The system didn’t have to figure out how to get their students internet access. It didn’t have to digitize its course materials.
Piedmont did those things a decade ago, gaining national recognition and accolades.
But Piedmont also knew, thanks to their digital experience, that teaching through technology takes preparation and practice and can lead to a declining performance if relied on too heavily.
And ultimately, Piedmont has learned the connection that matters most is not the internet connection; it’s the connection between student and teacher and student and the school. As soon as they could safely reopen, they did.
“There is no substitute for face-to-face learning no matter how versed you are in delivering digital instruction,” said Piedmont Superintendent Mike Hayes.
Results of Alabama’s new standardized test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP), provide evidence that Piedmont’s experience and approach helped its students excel. Piedmont students outscored state averages in math and reading at every grade level.
Figure 1. Percentage of students proficient as measured by ACAP math and English language arts assessments, 2021, Grades 3-8, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama average
Piedmont’s performance is even more impressive when the student body’s level of economic disadvantage is considered. On average, students from economically disadvantaged households score lower on standardized tests than students from more affluent backgrounds. The percentage of Piedmont students qualifying for a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program is almost 10 percentage points higher than the state average. Figure 2. compares two factors: the percentage of students proficient on the ACAP test and the percentage of students directly qualify for the school lunch program. School systems above the line of prediction in the graph are exceeding the level of performance expected based on their level of poverty. Piedmont’s proficiency level far exceeds the performance of schools with similar demographics.
Figure 2. Percentage of Students Proficient on 2021 ACAP vs. Percentage of Students Economically Disadvantaged, by System
Across the country, there is a great deal of interest in the impact of educational changes made in emergency response to the pandemic, including the sudden switch to online instruction.
Preliminary data from across the country indicates that student academic progress lagged significantly behind pre-pandemic norms. The sudden shift to digital instruction and remote learning will be examined as one of the factors contributing to that missed learning. At the same time, though, it’s clear that aspects of virtual learning will endure, making it all the more important to understand digital instruction’s strengths and weaknesses.
So, what does Piedmont’s experience teach about the promise and pitfalls of digital education?
First, that educational innovation and excellence can happen anywhere. When then-Superintendent Matt Akin started pursuing the idea of handing each student a laptop, it seemed an unlikely dream. But in 2010, Piedmont, a small, underfunded district (106 in funding out of 138 school systems in 2019) in a town of about 4,400 in rural Northeast Alabama, became the first system in the state to provide all students in grades 4-12 with an Apple laptop computer. Eventually, all teachers were trained and Apple Certified, many traveling to Palo Alto and connecting cutting-edge educators around the country.
Figure 3. Percentage of students directly qualifying for the National Free Lunch Program, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama
The district was an original and continuing member of the nationwide League of Innovative Schools, a network that aims to “design, validate, champion, and scale effective, innovative learning opportunities to advance equity and excellence for every student.”
Piedmont City Schools even became a broadband provider, cooperating with community leaders and business partners to identify the best ways to get students connected to the Internet.
Akin’s successor, Hayes, said the system’s digital revolution was transformative and continues to pay dividends. However, the distribution of laptops was only the beginning of a much longer journey, a journey that is ongoing.
The technology didn’t produce overnight results. Along the way, there were disappointments and drift and continual course corrections. “We didn’t have a blueprint to follow. It was like we were building the plane while it was in the air,” he said.
Among the lesson learned:
Digital resources are tools that can supplement and accelerate learning, allowing struggling students to keep up and advanced students to excel. Data gleaned from digital assessment tools provide teachers powerful insight if the data is systematically and consistently reviewed and instruction targeted to meet all student’s needs.
However, if digital delivery is leaned on too heavily, if the local teacher doesn’t remain the central guide and shepherd of the instruction, students can fall by the wayside. Quality and engagement can suffer.
Most fundamentally, in Piedmont’s experience, the road to the future circled back to the tried and true: Good teachers and relationships make the difference.
Over time, Piedmont has produced results to be proud of. In a system where the poverty percentage is ten points higher than the state average, proficiency levels are consistently higher than the state’s as a whole.
Figure 4. Piedmont vs. State, Aspire & Scantron, Grades 3-8
Piedmont’s ACT scores for all students trail the state average, though that’s not unexpected considering the disproportionate number of economically-disadvantaged students at Piedmont. When comparing those economically-disadvantaged students to other economically disadvantaged students across the state, Piedmont students outperform.
Figure 5. Average Composite ACT for economically-disadvantaged students, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama
And Piedmont graduates nearly all of its seniors on time and having met the state’s definition of college and career-ready.
Figure 6. Graduation and College/Career Readiness Rates, Piedmont vs. State of Alabama, 2018-2020
What Piedmont learned about digital learning
Passing out laptops to school kids may have garnered attention back in 2010, but that was just the beginning of an ongoing journey in discovering how technology can enhance the educational experience and when it has the potential to interfere.
Don’t let the technology distract from the mission
When Piedmont first launched its technology initiative, it tried to create its own broadband network in cooperation with the city and an Alabama-based technology company. The City of Piedmont happened to have installed fiber optic cable throughout town, but it wasn’t being used. Taking advantage of that infrastructure, the school system and its partners launched a citywide wireless network.
But soon, it became apparent that it was unworkable to run a school system while also managing a small Internet provider utility, providing the necessary service and support.
Meanwhile, Piedmont had developed an alternative. Though it’s a small city system, Piedmont allows students from nearby rural systems, in Calhoun, Cherokee, Cleburne, and Etowah counties, to attend tuition free, due to its open enrollment policy. To provide Internet service to those students, they worked out a deal with Verizon for cellular data hot spots. Eventually, the system worked out a way to provide that same solution for the students who needed it in town.
Hayes said that solution might not work for other rural areas, but the rural areas around Piedmont’s happen to be well-served by Verizon cellular since more sizable towns (Jacksonville, Anniston, Gadsden, and Rome, Ga.) are not too far away.
The long and the short of it: Don’t let technology maintenance become a distraction; always seek simpler solutions.
Don’t lean too heavily on online resources; teachers are still key
With the wealth of online resources out there, you could point students to good resources and allow them to set their own learning courses. That’s part of the promise of digital education.
But in Piedmont’s experience, the local classroom teacher still needs to set the course for learning and guide the group through the material.
When material is presented in a passive digital form, it is not always well absorbed.
“Kids tend to watch, but they don’t necessarily process and synthesize,” Hayes said. “They need to be taking notes.”
“In the beginning, it was a challenge to find the sweet spot between digital and traditional curriculum,” said Hayes. “We quickly realized the teacher has to be the driving force in the classroom, with whole group instruction remaining a prominent part of the curriculum.”
Teachers divide class time between whole group instruction, small group instruction, and independent work. There is still time for advanced students to work ahead independently, while others who need more individualized instruction receive it. But Piedmont found that with too much unstructured time, students drifted.
“You lose students when you give them too much independent work on the computer,” Hayes said. “Or when they can plug in or choose answers without showing their work.”
Multiple choice computer programs don’t record a student’s path toward an answer.
So, Piedmont brought some tangible and tactile work back. That includes math and vocabulary notebooks. When students write material down and show their steps, a teacher can better understand the student’s thought process, and, if they ended up with the wrong answer, the teacher can identify where the student went wrong. Building a physical catalog of vocabulary seems to increase retention and create a sense of pride and ownership.
Clearly, digital tools are powerful—both for students and for teachers. Computer-based formative assessments, for example, can be of great value. They can create a much more detailed picture of what a student knows and where they are struggling.
But once you have that data, you need a structured plan for putting that data to use.
In Piedmont, teachers monitor data throughout and come together every four weeks to evaluate it on a full day devoted to data.
Elementary teachers meet by grade level. Middle School and High school meet by department. The teams analyze the data and devise instructional plans for the next four weeks, taking into consideration what students have successfully mastered and which standards need additional reinforcement.
“Our instruction is changing every four weeks,” Hayes said.
Cultivate your teachers and help them to continue to learn and grow
Because it highly values the classroom teacher, Piedmont has built a teacher cultivation process that starts in high school and continues throughout a teacher’s career.
Rural systems have a hard time attracting and retaining teachers.
To address this, Piedmont attempts to grow its own teachers by identifying kids in high school who show signs of interest and ability. With support and guidance from the school system, those students can find scholarships and other aid to get them into and through nearby Jacksonville State University’s School of Education. The locally-connected teachers are more likely to be invested in the Piedmont community and are more willing to stay for the long term, reducing turnover.
Once they’re on the faculty, they have ongoing opportunities to grow. The connections to the national educational technology world provide avenues for travel and training. And the system also incentivizes teachers to pursue National Board Certification, increasing their salaries and improving their classroom practice.
According to Hayes, Piedmont has the state’s highest percentage of board-certified teachers in its system and ranks No. 3 nationally, with 35% of the faculty having earned the certification.
In addition to the pay differential, National Board-Certified teachers are given two additional personal days and one additional professional development day to devote to maintaining their certification.
The system also provides continuous professional feedback to teachers between the school and central office staff; each teacher is observed teaching monthly.
Education is a relationship
For all its promise, technology can’t replace relationships. Being a small rural system may present challenges, but it also helps in keeping an eye on students as individuals. Piedmont doesn’t just rely on its small-town nature to make this happen. The intimacy is systematically cultivated.
Every Thursday, students in grades 4-12 are divided into groups of about a dozen students who meet with an individual faculty member assigned to that particular team of kids. There is a technological aspect to this. The teacher mentor maintains a Google spreadsheet for each kid, and through it, gets feedback and grades on each of the kids from their teachers and coaches. They monitor their students’ grades, attendance, and performance across subjects. The technology puts the mentor in the position to ask questions before problems get too serious: Why are your grades slipping? What are these absences? What is going on?
Most importantly, the mentor teachers build long-term relationships and 360 degree understanding of the students. That creates a unified point of accountability, based on a personal relationship between student and teacher, and also, when possible, with parents.
That may help explain why Piedmont has graduated close to 100% of its seniors on time for several years running.
When faced with a potential dropout, Hayes said, “We pull all resources at our disposal together and develop a plan to ensure the student continues on a path to graduation.”
Having learned the importance of relationships and face-to-face accountability, Piedmont went back to in-person schooling as soon as they safely could during the 2020-2021 school year, while observing all the safety protocols.
Despite that, 30 to 35% of high school students and 10% of the younger kids chose remote learning. The system allowed and supported that. However, they required virtual students to come to school twice a month for in-person check-ins. And if a student’s average falls below a 70 in a class, they were required to come back to school unless they had a special circumstance like being immune-compromised or having an immune-compromised family member.
Aiming for the Future
In launching its technology initiative a decade ago, Piedmont hoped to keep students more interested and engaged. That may help explain why the system’s graduation and career readiness rates are among the highest in the state. While the engagement with technology may have something to do with, the more obvious source of that success is the system’s longer-term methodical preparation of students.
Recognizing the importance of the ACT when it comes to college entrance and scholarships, Piedmont starts early. The Piedmont team has realized that a critical hurdle to success on the ACT involves vocabulary. The vocabulary and sentence structure of the exam is college level, but it is being given to 11th graders, many of whom are first-generation college students.
So, the system focuses on vocabulary building throughout elementary and secondary education, with students consistently challenged to learn new words.
Throughout high school, teachers are encouraged to create ACT-type questions for their regular tests. An ACT prep class is required for all juniors. And students are encouraged to take the ACT as many times as possible, which often results in improved scores.
According to Hayes, those scores mean something. A 26 on the ACT puts a student in the running for a substantial scholarship at Jacksonville State University, with even more generous scholarship benefits available to those who score higher.
College-bound or not, the high school offers students instruction in etiquette and soft skills. Every student is required to set up a Linked-In Account, develop a resume, and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Piedmont’s Career Tech educational offerings aren’t broad, but they start early, and are aligned with the needs of local employers, and, thus, offer opportunities for work placement. Also, an additional requirement – that each student do at least some community service –serves to engage students in the real needs of the community.
Piedmont’s bold work with technology has undoubtedly benefited students in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology for educational delivery. At the same time though, Piedmont recognizes that technology can become a distraction if not utilized thoughtfully. To provide a complete education, you need teachers, well trained and open to growth and adaptation. You need students motivated to learn and engaged by the school and community. You need a destination and a methodical approach to getting there.
Due to Covid, Fewer High School Grads Rate as College and Career Ready
Despite the pandemic, Alabama public schools maintained a high on-time graduation rate in 2020. However, the number and percentage of students meeting the state’s definition of college and career-ready fell by 4 percentage points, likely held back by missed opportunities due to the closure of schools in March 2020.
Because of the challenges posed by the pandemic, state policy allowed seniors to graduate as long as they were in good standing at the end of the third nine weeks of the 2020 school year (local systems made the final decision over who qualified for graduation). For this cohort of seniors, students who were 9th graders in 2017, 92% received a diploma in 2020.
However, when it came to college and career readiness measures, some of those seniors were unable to complete the requirements, as the final months of the 2020 school year were conducted online. Of that same cohort, 76% met the definition of college and career-ready established by the Alabama State Board of Education.
Other data suggest that fewer of those 2020 graduates enrolled in higher education after graduation. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education has reported a 10% decline in the number of Alabama high school graduates enrolling in higher education in the fall of 2020 compared to the previous year, with community college enrollment most affected. The enrollment decline had more to do with the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic than the decline in the college and career readiness rate (CCR rate).
Still, the CCR rate and the decline in higher education enrollment should be noted as the state seeks to make up for lost time and opportunity in the aftermath of the pandemic. Alabama’s 2020 high school graduation rate will likely be among the nation’s highest again. In 2019, Alabama’s reported federal graduation rate, 91.7%, was the highest in the nation. It was the culmination of a steep rise — Alabama’s graduation rate was 72% in 2011. Historically, the state’s graduation rate has been in the lower tier of states.
Despite the meteoric rise in the graduation rate, the CCR rate and other measures indicate that Alabama schools still have work to do when it comes to turning out prepared graduates. The State Department of Education has called on public schools and systems to close the gap between the graduation rate and the CCR rate. Ideally, every student should graduate ready to succeed in college or in advanced training that leads to higher-paying jobs. The CCR rate can also indicate the range of education and training opportunities available to students at a school or in a system and in normal conditions, serves as a gauge of the effectiveness of the educational program offered.
Gaps between school systems
When looking at local school systems, wide gaps remain even in the graduation rate. While 100% of students graduated from Piedmont and Oneota City Schools in 2020, only 69% of Bessemer seniors graduated on time.
The gaps are wide in college and career readiness as well. In 2020, 97% of Dale County seniors were rated as college or career ready, compared to only 25% of Bessemer seniors.
Gaps between student subgroups
Alabama’s graduation rate gap between the races and socio-economic groups has also narrowed at the state level. But when it comes to college and career readiness, gaps between the races and between socio-economic groups persist. For example, 84% of white seniors are rated college and career ready, while only 64% of Black seniors earn the distinction.
Does the CCR rate really matter?
To be counted as college and career ready, an Alabama high school student must meet at least one of six different indicators. In an official sense, a student’s status as college and career-ready doesn’t matter. It is not required for graduation. Neither colleges nor employers look for the rating on an individual’s resume.
On the other hand, some of the indicators have real-world implications for individuals. They can help an individual get into college, secure college credit, or successfully apply for a job. The chart below shows the percentage of seniors earning the college and career readiness distinction through each of the established measures. A detailed description of each of the measures follows the chart.
The changes in the percentage of students earning college and career readiness in each of the categories reflect changes in emphasis, investment, and effort. The changes can also reflect strategic choices by students or schools to pursue the easiest path for meeting college and career readiness requirements.
Below are the indicators of college and career readiness as established by the State Board of Education.
1. Score at or above the benchmark on one section of the ACT, the college-readiness test
In recent years, about 50% of students benchmarked on the ACT in at least one subject, most commonly English. According to ACT, a student who scores at or above the benchmark in a subject has a 50% chance of making a B in a college course in that same subject.
For the Class of 2020, only 46% of students made at least one benchmark score. With the coming of the pandemic, ACT had to cancel several test dates, which may have prevented some students from retaking the test and reaching the benchmark score. In light of that, many colleges and universities waived the ACT requirement for admission.
Still, the ACT results might also indicate that the disruption left some seniors less prepared for college.
2. Score Workforce Ready on the ACT WorkKeys test
In addition to its academically oriented college-readiness test, ACT offers WorkKeys, a standardized test that measures practical skills in math, language, and comprehension, skills as they might be applied in the workplace.
In 2019, 61% of seniors scored Silver or above on the WorkKeys, an indicator that they had the practical skills needed to function in most workplaces.
For the class of 2020, only 45% of seniors earned scored Silver or above. One potential reason for the drop is that schools are no longer required to give WorkKeys to every senior. Many systems, particularly those with an orientation toward college preparation, let students who scored college-ready on the ACT skip the WorkKeys test.
Also, for the Class of 2020, the WorkKeys was given in the Fall of 2019 as usual. But normally, spring re-tests offer opportunities for students to improve their scores. These re-tests were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic.
For some, that lack of opportunity to better their WorkKeys scores has implications. Employers in some regions of the state, particularly West Alabama, have come to value the WorkKeys results as a meaningful credential. But there is a remedy. For those graduates who want the credential, Alabama’s two-year colleges offer preparation and WorkKeys testing.
3. Score 3 or above on an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) end-of-course test
AP and IB are college-level courses offered in high schools led by a trained teacher, following a nationally standard curriculum. Scoring 3 or above (out of 5) on an end-of-course test can earn a student college credit in the corresponding college course. IB exams were canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. However, AP tests proceeded in an online format. Impressively, the percentage of seniors earning AP credit (11%) was only down 1 percentage point from the previous year.
4. Earn an industry-recognized credential through a Career Technical Education course
In 2020, 35% of seniors graduated having earned at least one industry-recognized credential. Considering that many of the credential certification tests don’t take place until the end of the year, it is impressive that the percentage of seniors earning a credential was only down two percentage points, from 37% in 2019.
Overall, the number of credentials earned in 2020 was down significantly compared to 2019 (final tallies are still being compiled). However, seniors appeared to have already earned credentials in prior years or earlier in the school year. The change to online instruction after March of 2020 disrupted the normal process of awarding credentials and closed some avenues for earning them. However, schools were encouraged to make a special effort to help seniors complete their industry-recognized credentials, an effort that appears to have been largely successful.
5. Earn college credit through dual enrollment
This is the one area that actually saw an increase, with 15% of graduating seniors earning college credit through dual enrollment in 2020 compared to 14% the year prior.
Dual enrollment, having high school students take classes for credit through universities or community colleges, has been gradually increasing in participation. Apparently, the courses were able to continue and be completed virtually.
6. Successfully enlist in the military
In 2020, 2% of graduating seniors enlisted in the military, a percentage that has been consistent for several years.
One notes trends in looking across the years at the variety of methods for achieving college and career readiness. The percentage of students CCR Ready on the ACT has been relatively flat. The percentage CCR Ready through WorkKeys has grown as schools and students have become more familiar with the test, though it fell back in 2020 thanks to changes in policy and disruptions. An increasing number and percentage of students have demonstrated college and career readiness through success in AP courses, dual enrollment, and in particular, participation in career technical education.
Different approaches to achieving college and career readiness
While a statewide analysis of college and career readiness measures provides some insight, a closer examination of local system results reveals that there is a tremendous variety in how different school systems approach college and career readiness for their students. For example, magnet schools and affluent suburban systems record high percentages of students earning benchmark scores on the ACT or AP. Systems with a close relationship with a local community college might offer more dual enrollment opportunities. At the same time, schools with strong career technical education programs might produce more college and career-ready students through that route.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for schools and students. Schools and students posted relatively minor and understandable declines on major performance measures like the high school graduation rate and the college and career ready rate.
However, at a time when the state has set lofty goals for raising the educational attainment level of the workforce, both the pandemic and underlying trends point to needed areas of focus.
Alabama’s high school graduation rate is high. Still, students need to graduate better prepared with meaningful credentials and solid evidence that they are ready for education and training beyond high school. In 2020, 24% of high school seniors failed to demonstrate college and career readiness, even by the relatively generous standards established by the Alabama State Board of Education.
Among Alabama high school graduates, an increasing number are not seeking higher education. Some of that may stem from a robust job market that is drawing graduates straight into the workforce. Some of the most recent drop is pandemic related. However, for individuals’ long-term prosperity and for the state’s economic future, our workforce needs increasing levels of education and training. There needs to be continued attention to building solid bridges between high school and the next level of opportunity. There is also an opportunity to reach out to recent graduates, particularly 2020 graduates affected by the pandemic, to make sure they have access to advanced education and training.