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Alabama Recognized for Pacesetting Educational Progresscomment (0)

July 18, 2013

By Jim Williams


It’s not every day that southern states are recognized for leadership in education, but a recent report by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) tells the story of how Alabama and some of its neighbors have led the nation in gains on national tests and the high school graduation rate.

These gains have come in spite of the higher student poverty rates that in the past have hindered educational progress in our region. 

Alabama was recognized for leading the nation in gains on fourth-grade reading exams taken by students in all 50 states. From 2003 to 2011, the percentage of Alabama fourth graders scoring at or above the basic level of reading competency rose by 15 points, compared to a national gain of only four points. The percentage of Alabama students meeting this reading competency standard rose from 52 to 67, eclipsing the national success rate of 66 percent.

The report attributes this success to the Alabama Reading Initiative, which involved: 

  • investing in a sound state plan, 
  • requiring local commitment, 
  • providing teachers with professional development, and 
  • monitoring results to overcome problems along the way. 

Texas was recognized for leading the nation in gains on math scores. Its story is important because, while Alabama has made extraordinary progress in reading, we remain very low in state math rankings. The Texas Math Initiative was based on the same fundamentals as the Alabama Reading Initiative, which suggests that we ought to be able to succeed in math too. 

Tennessee led the nation in gains on the high school graduation rate from 1999 to 2009. Before the state focused on the dropout problem, its graduation rate ranked 49th. State leaders developed an approach based on the same fundamentals as the Alabama Reading Initiative: They set a 90 percent graduation-rate goal. They required local schools to adopt implementing plans and gave them technical support. They tightened graduation requirements, as well as attendance and driver’s license laws. And they monitored progress. Today Tennessee is on track to meet the 90 percent goal by 2020.

Alabama too has adopted a 90 percent graduation-rate goal and related state policies. Tennessee’s story indicates that we can reach our graduation-rate goal by following the fundamentals that gave us success in raising reading scores.     

All in all, the SREB report is more important for the possibilities it suggests than for the well-deserved credit it gives Alabama and our sister states. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Jim may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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