By Trisha Powell Crain | firstname.lastname@example.org
Alabama students lost ground in math against the rest of the country according to the latest results on the nation’s report card. Those scores, released this morning, dropped Alabama to dead last, 52nd in the nation, behind school systems run by 49 other states, Washington DC and the Department of Defense.
That’s down from 2017, when Alabama’s fourth-grade scores ranked 47th and eighth-graders ranked 50th. This year Alabama students in both grades finished last in math.
The nationwide test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also measures reading abilities in those same two grades, a subject where Alabama students have performed better in previous years. But big drops in reading scores this year landed Alabama at 49th for both grades, a drop from 2017’s 40th place for fourth-graders and 47th for eighth-graders.
The results came barely a week after many Alabama educators celebrated improved letter grades on report cards handed out by the state. But the poor performance in the national assessment came as no surprise to the state’s top education official.
State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey, in an emailed statement, wrote, “Unfortunately, there is nothing surprising in our results. As I have been saying, Alabama needs long-term, systemic, and strategic investment to make sure that our teachers have access to the best research, resources, assessments, and teaching strategies.”
“I think there is growing understanding that we must move early math to the front-burner and make it a state priority like it has never been before.” The state school board is expected to vote on a new set of math standards early next year.
Gov. Kay Ivey said the scores highlight the need “for a unified strategic plan to address student achievement and engagement.” Ivey supports a vote, scheduled for March, to move from an elected to an appointed state school board, calling the current board, of which she is president, broken.
“These results make it clear that we have no more time to waste to close these achievement gaps,” Ivey continued. “Through the Alabama Literacy Act and my Strong Start, Strong Finish initiative, we are aligning our education and workforce efforts through a Pre-K to workforce strategy.”
Alabama’s standing among states on the NAEP became a hot-button topic when in late 2016, then-Gov. Robert Bentley famously declared Alabama’s education system “sucks” because of the then-52nd ranking in eighth-grade math.
In reading, Alabama’s students declined significantly, dropping five points in fourth grade and four points in eighth grade, erasing all progress made over the past decade.
Nationwide, the average reading score for fourth- and eighth-grade students decreased as well, while the math results were mixed, increasing for fourth grade and decreasing in eighth grade.
Alabama’s math scores declined by three points in the fourth grade but were unchanged in eighth grade. Those results are essentially equal to 2009 levels.
Dr. Peggy Carr, Associate Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, called Alabama’s declines “substantial” during a press call.
“These are substantial declines,” Carr said, “that you need to ponder about as you consider that your cohorts of students this time are doing worse than they did last time.”
Carr said Alabama should look to surrounding states that are performing better to see what they’re doing differently to get those better results.
One of those states is Mississippi, where rising fourth-grade reading and math scores reached the national average for the first time this year. Mississippi and Washington, D.C., were the only jurisdictions that improved in at least three of the four measured areas.
Carr told reporters that a widening gap between the high-performers and the low-performers at the national level is particularly worrisome. “The top is going up and the bottom is going down,” she said, “with the bottom going down a little faster.”
In Alabama, since 2009, the gap is widening between the low-performers and high-performers in reading, but not in math, where that gap has remained constant.
Alabama’s scores have improved at about the same pace national scores did since the NAEP was first administered in the early 1990s. Taking the NAEP was voluntary until 2003, when federal education law required states to participate as a condition to receive federal funds.
Alabama started out far behind other states, though, and improving the state’s ranking will require improving scores faster than other states. Alabama’s fourth-graders showed faster progress was possible with phenomenal growth in reading in 2007 and 2009 and reached the national average of 220 in 2011.
Since then, fourth-grade scores have dropped eight points, while the national average has dropped only one point, to 219.
Students are randomly chosen to take the NAEP, and a statistically valid sampling technique is used to ensure students represent the state as a whole. Around 5,700 students per grade take the NAEP, according to Alabama State Department of Education Communications Director Dr. Michael Sibley.
Mackey, in Korea this week working in a partnership to bring math teachers to Alabama, wrote, “We acknowledge the fact that, despite very hard-working teachers and students, we still have a long road ahead of us to improve our NAEP scores. Along with existing programs and new laws and policies that address the needs of students, Alabama needs consistency in our approach to education.
“Fluctuations in assessments, standards, and overall leadership take the state off a path of steadfast, incremental improvement. We must have the resolve to consistently review instructional strategies, implement new policies with fidelity, and keep the needs of our students at the forefront of our priorities.”