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Published in Print: February 9, 2005, as Albeit Late, State Data to Go Online in March

Albeit Late, State Data to Go Online in March

Concerns Over Accuracy, Use of School Data Lead to Project’s Delay

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A much-anticipated $45 million project to post school data on a public Web site has been delayed by at least a month while state officials comb through the first version of the database to assure its accuracy.

The project’s directors added a four-week review period after state officials voiced fears that the data could be wrong and might unfairly portray the quality of their schools, according to officials involved in the project.

“We want to make sure that the data that’s included and the [analysis provided] are things that states feel comfortable with,” said Scott S. Montgomery, the chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The project is setting out to produce a Web site that will include a host of education data, including student achievement, school finance, and demographics. The search tools on the new site will allow users to research just about all of the inputs and outcomes of a school and compare that data to other schools in their states.

The Washington-based CCSSO and its partners decided to delay the Web site’s launch until next month after hearing state officials’ complaints about the potential for problems, Mr. Montgomery said.

After hearing those concerns, the CCSSO added the review period to the original schedule of work done by the school evaluation division of Standard & Poor’s.

State officials started reviewing versions of the Web site last week. Each state will have two weeks to scour the proposed site.

“We decided to do some more outreach to make sure they are well aware of what’s going to be on the site this spring,” said Susan N. Shafer, the director of marketing and communications for the school evaluation division of the New York City-based financial-analysis firm.

But one of the most vocal critics of the project said he was unlikely to be mollified during the review period. Although the Web site will provide a wealth of information, it won’t necessarily be helpful in providing information to help schools improve, said Douglas D. Christensen, Nebraska’s education commissioner.

“We don’t see any value in this information,” Mr. Christensen said. “It’s another top-down approach. It’s another cookie-cutter approach.”

Wait and See

Others are supporting the database, but are waiting to see what it looks like.

“We’re all cautious because people do make comparisons that aren’t necessarily the way data should be used,” said Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia’s superintendent of education.

The Education Data Partnership started when two prominent foundations agreed to underwrite plans by the CCSSO and Standard & Poor’s to post school data online and make it available to all for free.

Data Efforts

School-level achievement data are becoming increasingly available through federal and non profit partnerships.

September 2003:
President Bush announces the School Information Partnership, which is to publish student-achievement data from every public school in the nation at www.schoolresults.org.

November 2003:
The Council of Chief State School Officers enters into an agreement with Standard & Poor's to produce a separate Web site that will publish state, district, and school data.

January 2004:
The School Information Partnership posts data from six states at www.schoolresults.org.

September 2004:
The School Information Partnership posts data from seven states, bringing the total to 49 states.

January 2005:
The Education Data Partnership delays the launch of its Web site so state officials have a chance to thoroughly review the data on it.

Spring 2005:
The Education Data Partnership plans to launch its Web site.

The development of the Web site is financed with $45 million from the Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The funding is scheduled to last until early 2007. After that, the funders expect the Web site would continue with maintenance paid for by the states or other sources.

“We think it’s offering the most comprehensive analysis of education performance data ever in one place,” said Pia Saengswang, the project’s director for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

When it is completed, the Web site will include a wide range of school data, including test scores, spending information, and student demographics. The data will be available at the school, district, and state levels.

It will also publish the calculations of S&P’s Return on Investment Index, which considers a school’s student performance, demographics, and spending to measure the school’s success.

Standard & Poor’s created similar Web sites for Michigan and Pennsylvania and has refined some of its work for the national site, said Ms. Shafer of S&P.

Standard & Poor’s, the CCSSO, and the funders agreed to pursue project in the fall of 2003, and S&P began work on it late last year after the final details had been negotiated.

The original plan was to launch the site in January. The Web site’s address is not yet publicly available.

Last fall, CCSSO members started expressing worries about the project. They were concerned that the Web site would allow users to compare student achievement across states—something they say would be unfair because each state has a different standards and testing system. They also questioned S&P’s method for calculating its Return on Spending Index.

The CCSSO’s Mr. Montgomery said some of the concerns were unfounded. For example, the Web site will not compare schools across state boundaries because each school has unique circumstances, he said.

The only data that users can compare across states, he said, are those that are common across the states, such as results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and U.S. Census figures on non-academic data.

To address concerns about the spending index, the partnership decided to offer CCSSO members a preview of the site and the chance to request changes. State officials started reviewing versions of the Web site last week.

Delaware officials have found several inaccuracies in the state’s data, which would have caused major problems if they hadn’t been caught during the review, said Valerie A. Woodruff, the state’s education secretary.

Living With Data

While the reservations of some state officials about the project center around specific details, another concern is the increased scrutiny that comes when new information becomes publicly available.

“We all underestimate the culture shock that’s involved with data,” said Dale Mann, a professor emeritus of education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. Mr. Mann served as a paid consultant on a portion of the project that helped states improve the quality of their databases.

Despite the concerns, he said, “it is preferable to the way we’ve always done business before without data.”

The Education Data Partnership is the second such national project for Standard & Poor’s. The company’s first national project produced a Web site with student-achievement data for public schools in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, but not the full range of other data that the project under development will include. Nebraska didn’t provide data to Standard & Poor’s for the first project, but the Web site refers users to data on the state’s site.

The Broad Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education paid for that $60 million project, the School Information Partnership.

Vol. 24, Issue 22, Pages 16,19

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