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Leading the nation in education category

By Staff
Johnny Mack Morrow
Franklin County Times
Alabama has a history of trailing most states when it comes to education.
We're a hardscrabble state, and we have to do much more with much less. That is just a fact of life.
It is a good day when we can say Alabama is a national leader, and a new report shows that we are in a very important category.
Alabama is one of just six states to meet all 10 goals in a national project to collect and monitor data on student achievement. The National Center for Educational Accountability's Data Quality Campaign, financed by the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation, honored Alabama's student data tracking system.
The information system is something the state has been working to build over the past few years.
The state collects data by assigning students a unique ID number that follows them through their academic career. Information on test scores, class performance, and student demographics are maintained.
For the first time, a child's entire academic history and progress can be followed and monitored, from kindergarten right through to college and beyond.
Data is critical if we want to improve our schools, especially in times like these when budget problems will force what may be devastating cuts. In order to see if a program or reform is working we must be able to follow students and monitor their progress.
Student information itself can also help schools adjust how they are teaching to meet the needs of students.
For example, it will be easier now to identify children that are having problems with reading or math and monitor their progress from year to year to see how schools are addressing those needs. Middle schools will have a better picture of the skills and needs of their incoming classes to adjust their teaching. High schools will have better information to identify at-risk students and ones who are struggling in subjects to try and prevent drop-outs.
The new state data system also features electronic transcripts, a critical advancement for our schools. One of the most persistent problems for educators is the transfer of students, not having an in-depth picture of the history and achievement of incoming students.
A universal electronic transcript system will be a huge help to administrators and teachers alike.
Problems with paper transcripts can also negatively affect the evaluation of high schools. If a student transfers and there is a problem in the paperwork, or a question arises of where that student has gone, they are recorded as dropping out when in fact they may just be in another school.
Drop out numbers are the principal reason why some high schools do not meet state standards, and hopefully electronic transcripts and tracking will now provide more accurate information on where students go.
For the first time, public and private colleges are participating in the student tracking system, so that the state can monitor how well our high school graduates perform in postsecondary education. The college data also includes what majors students are enrolled in, which can be a powerful tool for economic development.
When the state is working to recruit a manufacturing plant or a biomedical company, we will now be able to tell potential employers how many engineering students or certified lab technicians our colleges and universities will be able to produce in the near future.
Also, student data allows high schools and universities to communicate and coordinate curriculum so that incoming freshmen have the skills and academic background necessary to succeed in these types of programs.
The student data system is just one of many examples of how Alabama's education system has improved over the past few years. We have seen elementary reading scores rise faster than any other state. We have seen programs like the Reading Initiative become national models. We are bringing distance learning technology to every school.
Yet all this good work and hard fought gains are at risk. The governor just declared proration of 12.5 percent, and even borrowing what we can from the rainy day fund, we will still be anywhere from 5 to 6 percent short. Next year is not looking any better, and the rainy day fund will be depleted.
Our schools have proven that when we invest in them, they deliver. Things like the student data system show we can work smarter and stretch precious resources farther.
However, if the economy continues to stumble and revenue falters, Alabama may find itself falling back to the bottom once again. We should all make it our goal to keep that from happening.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.