Group Outlines Agenda for Boosting Education Data Base
Arlington, Va--Citing the growing national clamor for reliable information on schooling, a group of federal and state officials last week outlined an agenda for upgrading the nation's education data base.
In a report presented here, the National Forum on Education Statistics--the policymaking arm of the new federal-state National Cooperative Education-Statistics System--proposed 35 recommendations for reform.
The group urged the National Center for Education Statistics, in cooperation with the states, to develop and report more and better data on student backgrounds, education resources, school processes, and student outcomes.
Among its proposals were calls for the nces to regularly collect state-level data on student achievement in core subjects, to report information on course enrollments and students' "opportunity to learn" specific instructional topics, and to move toward gathering district-level data on resources.
Pascal D. Forgione Jr., director of the division of research, evaluation, and assessment for the Connecticut Department of Education and chairman of the panel that drew up the recommendations, said they represent advice from practitioners on ways to fill gaps in the data system.
"We have been propelled by what is easier to collect or what has be4come 'hot,"' Mr. Forgione said. "The purpose here is to pull back and describe the landscape. This is the total array of information people would want to have available."
"The goal," he said, "is to make a data base better for improving student performance."
Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the nces, applauded the report and said it would inform the agency's long-range planning process. But he noted that it recommends expansion of existing surveys and the development of new measures, all of which would be costly.
"We endorse its spirit and direction," Mr. Elliott said. "As we see it, it's not an implementation plan. Priority-ordering and a budget plan are still to come."
Created by the Congress in 1988, the cooperative education-statistics system is aimed at improving the nces's ability to produce and maintain comparable data across states on elementary and secondary education.
The national forum, which sets policy for the system, consists of representatives from each of the 50 states and territories, the Education Department, the Bureau of the Census, the Labor Department, and the Defense Department.
The report adopted last week was aimed at giving "substantive direction" to the forum, according to Mr. Forgione.
"It's a blueprint, with destinations, of important areas that schools need to make better education policy," he said.
He noted that the group's membership sets it apart from the special study group on education indicators, which was also created by the Congress to recommend changes in the federal government's data-collection efforts.
"The study panel is asking, 'What are the key benchmarks one wants to put out there?"' he said. "They are looking several levels above us."
"This organization is here for the long haul," he added.
In its 146-page report, the forum recommended that the nces substantially increase the amount of data it collects on student and community background characteristics.
Such data, the report notes, would enable policymakers to examine the effectiveness of programs targeted to demographic groups, as well as to address issues of equity.
Specifically, the report suggests that the statistics center should work with other federal agencies and the states to gather information on poor and handicapped students, and should, where possible, report measures of education resources and student outcomes by sex, race, income, handicapping condition, and other factors.
Noting the current interestel10lamong policymakers in school readiness and drug and alcohol abuse, the report also recommends that the agency work toward collecting data on prekindergarten enrollments and students' health status.
Some forum members objected to the panel's recommendation that the nces use school-lunch-program eligibility as a measure of family income. Districts use different standards in awarding free- and reduced-price meals, noted W. Ross Brewer, director of research for the Vermont Department of Education.
Mr. Forgione acknowledged that school-lunch eligibility is a "poor measure," but said that, "in the absence of a good measure, it would do us in the short term."
The forum also proposed that the nces enhance its data on education resources. Although the agency currently collects such data from states, the report notes, the information is not always comparable, and does not include information on spending on particular programs.
In addition, the forum recommended that, to enable policymakers to compare expenditures and revenues among school districts, the nces consider collecting district-level fiscal data.
Noting the growing interest in student performance, the group also proposed improving measures of student outcomes.
Specifically, it proposed that the federal government provide state-by-state comparisons of student achievement in core subject areas at least every four years. If the pilot state-level National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is currently under way, proves "valid and reliable," the report states, naep should be used to report such data regularly.
The group also urged that the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement give priority to research and development of new assessment methods that provide "broader and more sophisticated measures of student performance," and that the state-level achievement measures include performance-based components.
The forum also asked federal and state officials to consider developing state-by-state data on the destinations of students after leaving high school, and on student attitudes toward schooling.
In addition, it proposed the development of new measures of course enrollments, teacher quality, and students' "opportunity to learn" instructional material.
Some members warned that such information could lead to a national curriculum. But Susan Tyson, director of the statistical-services section of the Georgia Department of Education, said the data would enable policymakers to analyze the curricula that exist.
"The purpose is not to develop curriculum, but to see what is actually happening across the country," she said.