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Closing the Student Information Gap

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When I taught 4th grade in the Bronx, I had a student—let’s call him James—who had scored a 1 out of 4 on every standardized test he had ever taken. At the start of the year he was a “low 1.” His penmanship and writing mechanics were pitiful. Clearly writing was difficult for him, and since it was an activity that always frustrated him, he didn’t want to do it. His mother had passed away when he was in 2nd grade, resulting in what was essentially a lost year for him. He wasn’t ready for 4th grade academics, but he was still my responsibility.

With time and attention, I discovered that James had an interest in telling stories in which he got to meet famous historical figures. During the year, he became interested in writing historical fiction narratives, which, even though they were riddled with grammar and usage errors, showed profound growth from his September scribbling. Even so, his experience sitting for the 3-hour, 3-day high-stakes test was not a good one, and he failed again.

Were he—and I—really a failure? I don’t believe so. Viewing that test result within the context of a detailed record of James’s school experiences would have revealed his complete history as a learner, even to someone who hadn’t met James or me. With another year of support, James might be able to catch up with his classmates. But there was no detailed record. Instead, James’s isolated test score painted a false picture of chronic failure that many would assume was authentic.

21st-Century Student Records

The health care reform struggle is as contentious as it gets in Washington. But one proposal enjoying overwhelming consensus is the need for electronic health records. Our nation’s antiquated system of medical paperwork is responsible for vast amounts of lost or unshared information, a profound waste of resources, and much ill-informed decision-making by practitioners and patients.

The same logic that drives the campaign for electronic health records dictates a need for electronic student records.

Electronic student records (ESRs) for all K-12 children would improve accountability, achievement, and the continuity of each child’s schooling experience. Right now, we have no cohesive national system for keeping track of what students have done over their educational careers. As a result, we lose incalculable opportunities to provide individual student support, all the while creating a vacuum of institutional knowledge.

With access to comprehensive ESRs—containing an e-portfolio of grades, test scores, teacher commentary on academics and behavior, curricular information, scanned work samples, and relevant health information—our schools could serve children far more effectively. Teachers and counselors could design more nuanced learning opportunities, and researchers could glean better understandings of what generates long-term positive outcomes.

ESRs could provide more context for students’ year-to-year achievement, and thus provide better data for teacher and student accountability. At bottom, ESRs could be accessible portraits of students as multi-faceted human beings, in contrast with the reductive test-score data that rules so much decision-making in the education community, to the detriment of students and schools alike.

The financial investment in such a system would be substantial, but the dividends would be paid in what every public officeholder in America claims to support: better-functioning schools and better-equipped students—and therefore a more competitive, productive workforce.

Missed Opportunities

There are a myriad of dangers in our current system of judging students and teachers based solely on test scores, a practice more suited to the short-order needs of election cycles than to students’ long term growth. The comprehensive nature of ESRs would provide a built-in check against myopic test-score crunching. Instead of taking an automatically punitive stance toward low test scores, districts will be better equipped to analyze why scores in certain instances are lower.

ESRs, in the aggregate, could also provide key data about what works for successful students. Within a few years of instituting ESRs for all students in grades K-12, we will be able to sort through trends and examine which complete schooling experiences led students to college and meaningful careers—and which led to dropping out.

More importantly, we would see an immediate impact for young people, as ESRs support the continuity of their educational experiences. In lower-income neighborhoods, where families are more likely to be transient, teachers often receive new students with literally no background information, academic or otherwise. The child appears in the middle of the year out of nowhere, and it’s the teacher’s task to piece together on the fly the best ways to support her or him.

During my year with James’s class, seven of my 26 students in June were kids who had arrived at my door at some point during the year, bearing nothing but an orange slip of paper that said that I was now responsible—and accountable—for their educational experience.

I later discovered that one of these children, Edgar, had been in an all-day, one-on-one special education class in Florida before he was abruptly shipped to New York to live with his grandmother. Our school had no paper records on him, so he was placed in my general education class. He was a generous and charming boy, but his months in my room were overwhelming and counterproductive for him, as well as highly disruptive in an already volatile class. With an electronic student record to accompany him, Edgar would have had a more encouraging, less traumatic, 4th grade year. Who knows the ripple effects of that communication lapse on Edgar and countless other students?

Doctors need comprehensive medical histories of their patients. They need to see what problems—and successes—their patients have encountered and what methods of treatment worked. Everyone has different needs, and it’s critical that doctors have the clearest possible picture of who they are treating to provide the best care. Starting each visit to a new doctor from scratch is wasteful, and can even have tragic results.

For these same reasons, teachers and administrators need comprehensive educational histories of the children they serve. And the solution has to be federal, cutting across local and state jurisdictions and bureaucracies. The investment in creating a transparent national system of comprehensive electronic student records will help many students in the short term and improve our entire educational apparatus in the long run.

President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have expressed interest in such a data system, and teachers need to raise their voices in support. So let me ask you: What stories do you have about the price we pay for poor background information on our students?

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