Alabama’s drop to dead last in the nation in math and near last in reading is being greeted as a call to arms for state educators, as Alabama officials talk of refocusing efforts on early student learning.
“I am heartbroken for Alabama,” former state Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton said. “We must unite and become reinvigorated on teaching reading and math to every student beginning as early as possible.”
Morton served as the state’s top education official during the time when Alabama’s fourth-grade reading scores reached the national average for the first time. All of those gains were erased with this year’s results.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, is given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading at a statistically valid sample of schools and students in each state. The NAEP was first given in 1969 and state participated on a voluntary basis. All states were required to participate beginning in 2003.
Alabama’s math scores were rock-bottom for 2019, 52nd in the country behind all states, Washington D.C. and the Department of Defense schools. Alabama's reading scores slid to 49th in both grades.
Alabama’s rank among other states on most education measures historically has been low, but the latest NAEP rankings came as a blow.
“I would hope that this report gives us in Alabama a sense of urgency,” said Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, Collins chairs the House Education Policy committee and championed the passage of the Alabama Literacy Act, a law that will require all third-graders to read on grade level before graduating to fourth grade.
The passage of the Literacy Act is a source of hope for others, too.
“It really saddens me,” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said, calling Alabama’s low ranking among states “unacceptable.”
“I don’t like to be 50th in anything,” Drummond said. “As policymakers, we have got to focus on a nonpartisan basis on how we can improve not only our math scores, but education, period. We’ve got to do things differently.”
Drummond, a House Education Policy Committee member, voted for the Literacy Act, which received bipartisan support in the House. Drummond said the law is a good step toward strengthening core education. “I am willing to try new things that we can do in Alabama to see if we can do better,” she said.
Drummond said she wants to see more resources flowing into schools, particularly in the early grades.
“(Lawmakers) are going to be dedicating the needed funding for reading coaches and whatever it takes to improve the reading capabilities of early learners,” Orr said, “which will pay dividends for the rest of their educational process.”
As to Alabama’s low NAEP rankings, Orr said, “It’s disappointing to say the least.” Orr said the Literacy Act raises the bar for minimum reading competency, which should drive improvements in NAEP scores in reading.
“We as a state have got to get serious about our performance and support our educators in raising the bar for all children to be the best that they can be,” Orr said.
Orr said he has talked with state Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey about implementing a similar minimum competency requirement in math. “The focus will be on fifth-graders,” Orr said, “to require students to have a basic understanding of math before they are allowed to proceed.”
Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said some of the fault for low scores might lie with the test. “I believe our teachers and students are just as capable and talented as you will find in any other state,” he said.
He said he’s not sure the NAEP fairly measures what Alabama’s students are being taught. “If we believe our performance on this national assessment is important, and we want to seriously change how we perform on this national assessment,” Hollingsworth said, “then what we teach must be aligned to the assessment.”
The director of the state’s school board association, Sally Smith, said Alabama’s change of state tests every few years has had a negative impact on teachers’ ability to track student progress. The state school board dropped the ACT Aspire after 2017, gave the Scantron in 2018 and 2019, and will implement a state-created test, the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program next spring.
“There needs to be a call to action at the state level,” Smith said, “to look at how we are approaching reading and math instruction systemically. We already have plans in the works to make a difference.”
Smith said local school systems should work with communities to find ways to improve student outcomes and shouldn’t wait for a plan from state education leaders. “We always tell local boards,” she said, “not to wait on Montgomery.”
“We know we have a variety of issues we need to face in this state, including issues of equity and poverty, not as excuses but as issues we need to confront,” Smith said. “We have shown that we can improve these scores. It’s possible to turn this ship around.”
The charts below reflect scores on the NAEP since 2003. The first two charts reflect fourth-grade reading scores for (1) all students, and (2) for students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (poverty) or not eligible (non-poverty).
These two charts reflect fourth-grade math scores for (1) all students, and (2) for students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (poverty) or not eligible (non-poverty).