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Closing the Gap – Alabama Sets High Proficiency Standards

• Patricia Levesque

How does Alabama Measure Up?


Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not always the easiest. This is why Alabama’s recent actions are so noteworthy.

Each state sets its own academic requirements for reading and math, and its own passing scores on state tests to determine if students truly are proficient in the subjects. In some states, test scores accurately reflect proficiency. In others they do not because passing scores are set too low.

Until last school year, Alabama was in the latter camp.

In 2013, Alabama’s state assessments indicated most students were on track academically in math and reading. For example, 88 percent of fourth-grade students passed their reading test. But a more accurate measure of proficiency are the results from tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which revealed a different result.

According to NAEP, only 31 percent of Alabama fourth graders were proficient readers in 2013.

This “proficiency gap” of 58 percentage points indicated Alabama was setting the bar far too low, giving parents and teachers an inflated view of student academic achievement.

Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice recognized the need to address this deception. Working with the Alabama State Board of Education, he pushed for a complete overhaul of the state’s academic assessments.

In the 2013-14 school year, Alabama switched from the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) to the ACT Aspire assessments. And the state set passing scores that reflect in-depth knowledge of the subjects tested. This will better ensure students are ready to enter college or begin a career following high school graduation.

Thomas Rains, Policy Director at Alabama’s A+ Education Partnership, explains, “For the first time, Alabama parents and students have honest feedback about where they stand academically thanks to the ACT Aspire. For those parents and students, this can help them create a better path forward to make sure they are prepared for the next step after high school, whether that’s on to college or straight into a career.”

Alabama has become a recognized leader in the shift toward rigorous, meaningful assessments. This spring the state was hailed as a “Top Truth Teller” by Achieve, an organization that advocates for college-career readiness in K-12 education.

While it will always be easier to claim success than to explain failure, students and their parents deserve more than sugar-coated half-truths about whether they have mastered the knowledge and skills they will need for life after high school.

“For the state as a whole, the truth may be hard to hear at first,” Rains added. “But there’s no doubt Alabama students will rise to the occasion and meet the challenge set with this higher bar for proficiency.”

Alabama’s radical course correction demonstrates what can and must be done.  Now, educators, policymakers and the public in Alabama have accurate information to make important instructional and resource decisions for students.

These bold actions are propelling Alabama to a future where all children master the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in the next grade – and most importantly – after high school.

Visit for more facts, graphics and sharable content. Join the conversation online with the hashtag #ProficiencyMatters.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at