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District Profile

Mobile County (Ala.) Public School System

Grading Tests

Harold Dodge has bragging rights when it comes to his Mobile County (Ala.) Public School System students' achievements. But these days, the superintendent is crowing simply because he can access those stats in the first place.

It all began three years ago, when MCPSS rolled out a strategic plan that included reaching 100-percent graduation throughout the district. Such a lofty goal made one thing clear to Margaret Smith, director of information technology: "Make absolutely certain that what we say needs to be taught in the standard is actually being taught."

In short, they needed to test quarterly and track the results instantly.

"We call it dip-sticking," says Dodge. "It's what businesses do. You put the dipstick in every quarter to get a read on your performance rather than waiting until the end of high-stakes testing to find out we completely blew our objectives."

"If you're going to have high-stakes testing, and you wait for that final assessment, you're setting yourself up for failure. It's just too late." -Harold Dodge

You may begin: Blake tapped the hometown team at Software Technology Inc. to handle test validation across the entire district; originally the curriculum department wrote the tests but now STI handles that task as well. Students record their answers on papers the vendor has pre-slugged with demographic information. "We did not want to rely on humans to bubble that in because it creates lots of mistakes," says Blake. Within four days, teachers and the central office administrators stampede to the Web site to pour over the results.

Healthy competition: In addition to raw scores, teachers receive classroom-, school- and district-wide analysis to measure where they stand. In a saccharine world, that means they can immediately tackle any necessary re-teaching. Principals hone in on planning priorities. The central office sees where to strengthen the curriculum and parents are assured when they move to another school their child won't suddenly be behind or bored because everyone tests to the same objectives.

Dodge's attitude: Bring it on: In reality, the results spark competition that's not so pristine. "Teachers fear change, and there is a certain tension level that my class didn't do as well as yours, and the lady down the hall killed both of us," he says. "It was serious here at first."

Strain and paperwork: Union representatives screamed that the program put too much strain on the teachers and only added paperwork. Principals buttonholed Dodge to say, "Listen, you don't understand. We're 85-percent minority-or-We're 92-percent free or reduced lunch."

"I saw that as a smokescreen for accountability," he says bluntly. The number-crunching meant he could calmly show upset faculty that, when pitted against a school with the same demographics, they still came in last.

When the fire died down: His insistence on holding the line has had handsome payoffs. MCPSS considers scores of 70 percent or higher as the standard for proficiency; the number of students who clear that bar increases every quarter. While rural, more affluent districts in Alabama see 30- to 40-point gaps between socio-economic groups, MCPSS anticipates the latest batch of reports will show its spread has shrunk to within 6 to 7 points since assessment testing began in 2003.

The next goal: Finding answers for NCLB-driven questions such as "Do sixth-grade girls perform better when the teachers are tenured?"

"High-stake testing will not go away," he insists. "We must do business differently."

Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.