Wanted: Better statewide data systems for education

A new organization is seeking to improve the collection and use of high-quality data to drive school reform by encouraging all 50 states to implement statewide longitudinal data systems for education by 2009.

The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) seeks to provide tools and resources that will help states develop high-quality data systems, while providing a national forum for “reducing duplication of effort and promoting greater coordination and consensus among the organizations focusing on improving data quality, access, and use.”

The group also seeks to increase policy makers’ and educators’ understanding of how to use longitudinal and financial data to improve student achievement, as well as to promote standards for the efficient exchange and transfer of educational data.

The campaign is managed by the National Center for Educational Accountability (NC4EA) and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The founding organizations include Achieve Inc., Alliance for Excellent Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, The Education Trust, National Center for Educational Accountability, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, Schools Interoperability Framework Association, Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, and State Higher Education Executive Officers.

“We are recognizing a great sea change in how we see and interpret data,” said Aimee Guidera, business outreach representative for NC4EA. “NCLB [the No Child Left Behind Act] has been part of that change–it’s provided a great galvanizing force in terms of disaggregating data and making [data] more transparent.”

Guidera said the initiative is not just about using data to increase school accountability.

“We’re also very much concerned about how to use data [to improve student achievement],” she said. “We want to make sure we have rich conversations about what it means for parents, educators, school board members, and other stakeholders to have longitudinal data, and what they can do with [this information]. Hopefully, we’ll be able to provide answers to state policy makers about its value as they start building their systems.”

Gathering longitudinal data, which the group defines as “data gathered on the same student from year to year,” makes it possible to follow student progress through each grade, determine the value of specific schools and programs, and identify consistently high-performing schools so that educators and the public can learn from their best practices. DQC says longitudinal data also can help school leaders evaluate the effect of teacher preparation and training programs on student achievement and help school systems prepare more students to succeed in rigorous high school courses, college, and challenging jobs.

As a way of jump-starting its mission, the group has devised a list of 10 essential elements that every statewide longitudinal data system needs. They are:

  • A unique statewide student identifier;
  • Student-level enrollment, demographic, and program participation information;
  • The ability to match individual students’ test records from year to year to measure academic growth;
  • Information on untested students;
  • A teacher identifier system, with the ability to match teachers to individual students;
  • Student-level transcript information;
  • Student-level college readiness test scores;
  • Student-level graduation and dropout data;
  • The ability to match student records between the preK-12 and higher-education systems; and
  • A statewide data audit system.

The organization maintains that these 10 elements are not enough. States also must plan a series of next-generation improvements that include the ability to collect financial information at the school and program levels and link it to individual student achievement data over time, DQC says.

The organization says educators and policy makers need to know if students are being prepared not only for college, but also for long-term success in the workplace by matching the academic and employment records of individual students. Education institutions also must be able to transfer student data across states electronically using common data standards and definitions.

The campaign says its motivation lies in creating a competitive workforce for the 21st century, and it has taken as its focus the critical role of American state educational systems in “ensuring a prosperous future for our society.”

Sally Askman, senior consultant for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which awarded a $750,000 grant to the initiative, said her organization–along with the other DQC participants–recognized that many state education departments were receiving redundant requests for data, “taxing the states’ capacity to inform student improvement through reliable data.”

“We funded this effort by the DQC for two reasons,” Askman said. “First, to coordinate and consolidate all the organizations involved in the collection of data and improving [their] quality and use by policy makers and education leaders. Second, we want to help states improve their capacity to collect and deliver data and to build longitudinal data systems. Data definitions and common data templates are really critical; otherwise, states are just trying to build new systems each day” with each new data request.

Larry Fruth, director of the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, a DQC member organization that seeks to enable interoperability among the diverse data platforms used by different schools, districts, and states, agreed that states need to be “a little more efficient” in collecting, maintaining, and utilizing accurate educational data.

“Everybody thinks they own their own data,” Fruth said. “Leadership across K-12, higher education, and vendors tends to create [data] fiefdoms. But government office leadership is demanding that these disparate entities sit down and create a cohesive strategy [for data management].”

Fruth emphasized that the primary barrier to making this happen is rooted in policy, not technology: “From the tech side, it’s easy to make leaps. Technology is always ahead of policy. But those are the barriers–not the technology itself.”

He added: “The greatest and most meaningful data exist where [they are] most needed–at the local level. We need to build interoperable systems that can, under local control, use [these] data for state and federal reporting without adding a burden on local education authorities. That is what Schools Interoperability Framework vertical reporting is based on.”

Tim Magner of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) agreed with the idea that longitudinal data are necessary to enable change at the local school level.

“States are all over the map in terms of achieving these 10 essential elements,” Magner said. “What you are seeing, basically, is the translation of business-quality tools into the educational environment. Just as it took time for the private sector to understand how to use data warehousing tools to drive business, that evolution will take time in the educational system. What’s most important is to look back in three or four years and see the visibility that’s brought about by this dialogue.”


Data Quality Campaign

National Center for Educational Accountability

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Schools Interoperability Framework Association

Council of Chief State School Officers

eSchool News Staff

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.