A+, the ACT and Poverty: Can Program Help Poor Schools Too?

A first look at the list of 81 Alabama high schools whose students scored best on the 2016 ACT exam shows an encouraging intersection: Fifty-four of those schools are participants in the A+ College Ready Initiative, a program that helps schools implement Advanced Placement programs and aims to raise education aspirations across the state.

But another view of the data, reported by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, reveals that 51 of the 54, about 94 percent, of  top-performing A+ College Ready schools share another advantage.  The schools are working with more affluent student bodies, those with less poverty than the state average.

Only three of the top-performing A+ schools had a higher percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches than the state average.

Statewide, 15 percent of the juniors tested in 2016 met or exceeded all four ACT benchmarks—English, math, reading and science—and 47 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches, the measure of poverty PARCA used in its report. The 81 top performing schools highlighted were those in which 15 percent of students met or exceeded all ACT benchmarks.

A look at the full list of 81 top-performing schools shows only seven had more poverty than the state average, with 74, or about 91 percent, serving student bodies with less poverty than the state average.

The full list of schools where A+ operates shows that in 104 of the 158 sites where data was available, students failed to meet or exceed the state average on the four sections of the ACT.  This list includes more schools with poorer students.

(You can see the full PARCA report on Alabama’s 2016 ACT scores here.

Overcoming the Poverty Disparity

Overcoming the disparity in  test scores between more affluent schools and poorer schools is  something A+ College Ready has been working on for the last few years by increasing the number of high-poverty schools in the program, said Mary Boehm, director of A+ College Ready.

Oneonta High School AP Biology teacher Michelle Patrick, center, and student Tyler Thomas in lab

“We have been intentional about making this change,” Boehm said.

Boehm said the first schools in the program had an average poverty rate of 39.8 percent.

“The schools coming on for the 2017-2018 school year in Cohort X, have an average poverty rate of 53.3 percent,” she said.

Robin Nelson, program coordinator of instruction for the state Department of Education, said she thinks that perhaps, early on, A+ College Ready benefited more affluent schools where students were likeliest to succeed anyway.

“Maybe that was true, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Nelson said.

A+ College Ready initially developed partnerships with larger schools that already offered a few AP courses, she said.

“They were trying to get the biggest bang for their buck in their schools, to be blunt, and those schools are going to be larger schools where they maybe had a few AP courses already,” Nelson said.

Meeting Schools Where They Are

But A+ quickly saw that strategy wasn’t working, Boehm said.

“We soon realized that this goal was unattainable for many schools and was perhaps, keeping some of the neediest schools in the state from applying,” she said. “So, we relaxed the requirements and now meet schools where they are.”

Meeting schools where they are sometimes means building AP programs from the ground up in communities with very few resources, Boehm said.

That has been the case at Tarrant High School, where zero percent of the students who took the 2016 ACT met all four benchmarks and where 62 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“The challenges can seem overwhelming at times but I’m not an excuse person,” said Amy Banaszek, principal of Tarrant High School. “I don’t want to make excuses, I want to find something that works.”

And despite the school’s ACT scores, Banaszek said she thinks A+ College Ready is working at Tarrant High, which has been a member of the program since 2014.

“I don’t think they’re just doing good work in more affluent schools,” she said. “I see the impact here,” she said.

Before joining A+ College Ready, Tarrant High could not offer any AP courses for its students. Now, it offers four.

Students and parents, too, are embracing the challenges of high-level coursework, Banaszek said.

“Sometimes changing the mindsets can be way harder than just delivering content,” she said. “But we’re seeing that happen here. The kids are taking this to heart and we’re building up to where we want to be.”

The positive effects of A+ College Ready extend beyond the AP courses, Banaszek said.

“I’ve seen it increase rigor across the board,” she said. “Teachers have really owned this training and are taking it into their other classes,” she said

Making Better Teachers

The training teachers receive in the A+ College Ready program is some of the best teacher training methods available, Nelson, of the state education department, said.

“It does make them better teachers,” she said. “It’s also raising the rigor for students who are not juniors and seniors taking AP courses.”

That across-the-board increase in rigor is something Principal Lauren Wilson said she has seen at Oneonta High School, which joined A+ College Ready in 2015 and where 36 percent of the students met or exceeded the ACT benchmarks in all four subjects.

“Students and teachers are transferring what they are learning through AP courses and A+ College Ready programs to all of their classes,” Wilson said.

For Oneonta High, ‘meeting them where they are’ meant A+ College Ready has helped expand the AP program the school already had in place prior to joining, Wilson said.

A+ College Ready has established Saturday School at Oneonta High where students can get extra help with their classwork and homework.

“It’s an incredible resource for our kids that we couldn’t provide otherwise,” she said.

The Oneonta High School principal said A+ College Ready has also inspired more students to take challenging courses with its Laying the Foundations programs in earlier grades.

A+ College Ready’s Laying the Foundations programs are designed to get students ready for challenging AP-level coursework—and ACT questions—earlier, Boehm said.

“For the last few years, we’ve really been focusing on strategies for students in the sixth through the 10th grades,” she said.

Boehm said many students in Alabama do not have the chance to take Algebra II or chemistry before taking the ACT in the 11th grade.

Measuring Success, Challenges

To make sure students are getting the help they need early on, Boehm said A+ College Ready uses scores from the ACT Aspire, a suite of tests developed by the ACT that has been given to Alabama students in the third through the eighth grade for the last three years.

The 2016 Aspire scores show that Alabama students improved in all three subjects tested, at almost all grade levels. Although math performance is improving in the early grades, and most encouragingly in seventh and eighth grade, by 10th grade, only 18 percent of students test proficient in math on the ACT Aspire, according to a PARCA report.

A+ College Ready uses multiple metrics, including student growth on the ACT Aspire, Advance Placement participation and success, as well as ACT scores, to define student and school success, Boehm said.

However, those scores are not the only way to gauge success, she said.

“Many students who attend Alabama and Auburn now did not meet all four college readiness benchmarks on the ACT, but many are very successful,” Boehm said. “The state’s own accountability and reporting system allows a student to be deemed ‘college ready’ if they meet the ACT benchmark on just one of the subtests.”

Wilson, the principal at Oneonta High, said she favors a long-view when measuring the success of A+ College Ready schools through ACT scores.

“I think it’s more than just one test score—we have to look at how our students perform over time,” she said.

Banaszek, the principal at Tarrant High, said she thinks success is better gauged over the long-term, especially considering the ACT was, until recently, a test only those students headed to college would take.

“I have kids sitting down taking this test but not taking this test to heart,” she said. “But hopefully, we can change that as we are in the A+ program longer so that more kids do care about doing well on the test.”

Alabama’s Low Bar on Education

The ACT and ACT Aspire scores reveal the challenges faced not only by A+ College Ready, but the education system statewide.

“Educating students—particularly low-income students—is a complicated enterprise, and the work that A+ College Ready does is only one aspect of a comprehensive, multi-faceted plan that must be managed by the state Department of Education and supported by many stakeholders and partners,” said Boehm, the director of A+ College Ready.

Alabama lags behind the nation not just in low-income student performance, but among all students, Boehm said.

“Improving education statewide is absolutely our goal,” she said. “We have held all students in Alabama to a pretty low bar for generations and have never had an education system designed to educate everyone at high levels.”

And that paradigm needs to change, Boehm said, so that Alabama students are prepared to compete in the 21st century’s global economy.

“This means pulling up the bottom, raising the top, and hopefully, closing the gaps as we climb,” she said.

To do that, A+ College Ready can’t be the only program working to raise achievement levels in all schools, including those with few resources and high numbers of students living in poverty, said Nelson, program coordinator of instruction for the state Department of Education.

“I don’t think they can do it alone and that’s why we’re working with them,” she said.

Initially funded by a $13.2 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative, A+ College Ready was allocated $5.17 million to the initiative in fiscal year 2016 and $6.07 million in fiscal year 2017 from the Alabama Education Trust Fund, according to the state Department of Finance.

Nelson said the allocations were a “good chunk of money” but that other programs receive more money from the state Education Trust Fund.

“But success depends on so many factors—whether (schools) are getting support from their central offices, their communities, for example,” Nelson said.

For schools like Oneonta High, A+ helps make up for disparities in local financial support, Wilson said.

For the more affluent schools, she said, the A+ College Ready program frees up money used on AP programs to be used to better students in other ways.

“I really think what A+ does, regardless of what school or what the poverty rate is, it helps level the playing field,” Wilson, Oneonta High’s principal, said.

Keysha Drexel is an award-winning journalist who has reported on community news for more than 20 years.  The University of Montevallo graduate worked as a staff writer at The Selma Times-Journal and as a staff writer and editor at The Western Star and The Birmingham News. 

( This story has been changed from an earlier version to reflect when Alabama students typically take higher level math and science courses.)