Momentum for transferable student data is growing.

Educational data must follow students as they cross state lines, and policy makers must be equipped with the tools needed to ensure that teachers, students, and parents have access to this important information, according to two reports released by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC).

One such tool is an open-source system that lets educators pull and use data from a range of existing sources, created with support from the Dell Foundation. Another is an interstate data exchange system being used by four states.

The DQC defines student data as more than test scores—it includes attendance, course-taking, teacher information, and financial information. Data also includes any information that stakeholders need to make decisions, and that often means more than state data. Of equal importance are prekindergarten data and data from post-secondary education and the workforce.

The most useful student data include longitudinal data that follow individual students over time and across systems and sectors; actionable data that are user-friendly; and contextual data that are robust, comparable, and presented as part of a bigger picture.

“The 21st-century reality is that education does not happen in state silos,” said DQC Executive Director Aimee Guidera during a Nov. 28 panel discussion to review the reports. “Our teachers and students are mobile, but too often their data stop at the state border. It’s vital that policy makers find common-sense solutions to ensure accurate, comparable information for all education stakeholders, and states cannot do that without sharing limited and appropriate data across state lines.”

As part of its report series, the DQC focused on three high-stakes questions to highlight the importance of student data mobility:

  • High school graduation rates: In 2012, roughly 80,000 students moved to a new state. If states can’t document these transfers, those students are counted as “non-graduates” and lower the graduation rate.
  • Postsecondary success: Every year, approximately 400,000 high school graduates enroll as first-time freshmen at out-of-state institutions. Many students transfer institutions, adding to data complications.
  • Educator preparation: California, New York, and Texas product about 48 percent of the nation’s teachers, and at least 20,000 teachers said they worked in a public school in another state the previous year.

Many states are working to build IT systems, but education leaders aren’t getting a complete picture because these IT systems are not keeping up with the fact that education crosses state lines when students transfer schools or enroll in online courses, Guidera said. Data must follow individual students and be able to be shared back and forth.

It’s important to raise awareness about multi-state student data sharing and linking to ensure that transferring students receive uninterrupted education and services, Guidera added.

“When we talk about moving data across borders of states, it’s not being done on a big scale today,” said Shawn Bay, founder of eScholar, which provides longitudinal data systems for 13 states, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and the Migrant Student Information Exchange. “That’s quite a challenge.”

Bay said a number of things are driving the interstate exchange effort, including a broad realization that personalizing education is very important; the knowledge that personalized education can only be done when all the data for each individual are integrated and available to the appropriate people; and the knowledge that sharing student data securely and in a timely manner improves the chances of success and personalization of instruction.

Challenges include matching and linking records across states accurately and in a timely manner; ensuring security, scalability, and accessibility; clarifying data exchange techniques; and compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and data-sharing policies.

Bay said eScholar is working with four states on the eScholar Interstate ID eXchange to help states share data.

“There are a lot of frustrating factors in the field of education that relate to the collection, analysis, and use of data,” said Lori Fey of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. “The concept of moving to common education data standards is critically important.”

The foundation broadly supports a widely-adopted education data standard and financed the creation of the Ed-Fi system, an open-source tool that lets educators pull and use data from a range of existing sources.

Constrained state and district resources have been, and continue to be, a challenge as schools strive to ensure that data follow students across state lines, Fey said, adding that the foundation has seen an “incredible wave of enthusiasm and progress” toward that goal, however.

The Georgia Department of Education struggled with identifying out-of-state and migrant students when they showed up in Georgia classrooms, said Bob Swiggum, the district’s chief information officer.

Many bemoaned the lack of a central system, but progress remained slow. “People are just naturally risk-averse; it’s just easier not to do anything that to do something,” he said.

Using a federal State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) grant, the state built a system that would import a new student’s records the same day that the student showed up in a new classroom. Teachers log into the state system through their local district.

This system worked with students who already resided in Georgia, but Swiggum said the state still struggled with students entering the school system from out of state. As part of that LDS grant, Georgia officials conferred with education officials from surrounding states and created the Southeast Data Exchange.

The system, which is still being developed, features a central data exchange platform that any state can use for free, and is based on 15 matching elements that will return search results when educators search for student records.

Additional details can be found in “Meeting Policymakers’ Education Responsibilities Requires Cross-State Data Collaboration, Sharing, and Comparability” and “Limited Out-of-State Data Needed to Produce Robust Indicators.”