Students in Alabama’s public schools are in the midst of taking the state’s annual proficiency tests. This is the second year of testing under the “Aspire” system developed by the ACT organization, best known for its college readiness exam. High school juniors are taking the ACT while students in grades 3–8 are taking reading and math proficiency tests.
The tests are tougher than those used in the past as last year’s inaugural results showed. Statewide, 52 percent of third graders scored in the proficient range in math (those scoring “ready” and “exceeding”). However, results declined in succeeding grades; in the eighth grade, only 29 percent were rated proficient in math. In reading, less than half of the students in each of the six grades tested were rated proficient. Students from poverty backgrounds trailed those from nonpoverty backgrounds by about 30 percentage points.
An important feature of the Aspire test is that results are related to the likelihood of passing college coursework, which is measured by the ACT. This enables students and parents to know whether they are “on track” as they progress through the grades to graduation day. It also helps educators, state officials and taxpayers to measure the success of Alabama’s ambitious “Plan 2020,” which aims at raising the high school graduation rate.
Alabama’s 2014 performance on the ACT exam also showed the need for improvement. While 65 percent of Alabama students scored high enough on the ACT to make it reasonably certain they would pass a college freshman English course, only 31 percent scored high enough to be confident of passing a college Algebra course. About a third of Alabama students who enroll in the state’s public colleges and universities must take remedial courses because of lack of preparation.
An encouraging sign is that some local school systems began with strong performances. We ranked systems by reading and math proficiency among both nonpoverty and poverty student groups in grades 3–8. The following were in the top 10 in half or more of the rankings:4Mountain Brook, Madison, Vestavia Hills, Homewood and Cullman (for all rankings)4Saraland and Muscle Shoals (for poverty group rankings)4Athens, Auburn and Marengo County (for non-poverty group rankings).