3-Year Study of E.D.'s Statistics Branch Planned

By Ellen Flax — April 29, 1987 3 min read

WASHINGTON--Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, a Stanford University statistician will begin a three-year, $450,000 study this summer to determine how the U.S. Education Department--and school districts across the country--can better collect and disseminate education statistics.

The statistician, Ingram Olkin, is charged with redesigning the way the department’s Center for Education Statistics gathers and shares data. He and two associates will also examine ways to standardize such information-gathering nationwide.

The statistics center has long been criticized for the lack of timeliness of much its data. In addition, educators say, because policymakers need precise information to make decisions on school-reform spending, the collection of statistics on the state and district levels has become more crucial.

Mr. Olkin, who is joining the department as part of the N.S.F.'s on site-research and visiting-fellows program, stressed the need to develop a more precise method of collecting education statistics.

“If we have unreliable data,’' Mr. Olkin said last week, “we can have unreliable policy statements and wrong policy decisions, which can have serious consequences.’'

Emerson J. Elliot, director of the statistics center, said Mr. Olkin’s study could bring about “a whole generation change’’ in the way education information is collected.

In particular, Mr. Elliot said, the statistician will examine ways in which state and local data bases can interact with the C.E.S. and the potential of greater computerization in speeding up the process.

Ideally, he said, data would be collected at the local level and be in the center “virtually instantaneously.’'

“Qualitatively, the data will be much better,’' Mr. Elliot added. “You want to get it from the correct source.’'

The current practice of mailing out surveys to gather information is time-consuming, he noted. “These processes take months, and months, and months,’' he said.

Conferences Planned

Mr. Olkin, a professor of statistics at Stanford, said he did not know what technologies the system might use. The goal, he said, is to develop a system that is fast and flexible.

“I don’t want to think of only microcomputers,’' he said. “That’s too limiting.’'

“If it’s a well-designed system, then that will become the standard way of transmission,’' he said, adding that any system he and his associates might propose could take as long as 10 years to be implemented.

Mr. Olkin said he was planning to organize four conferences with groups of experts through the end of next year to discuss how the collection and dissemination of education data could be changed. He said his first priority, and the goal of the first conference, would be to determine what sort of information should be collected.

The second conference, Mr. Olkin said, will bring together computer scientists who work with very large data bases, such as statisticians who work with development figures at the United Nations. Another conference, he said, will be open to private groups that collect and analyze education data, such as the Educational Testing Service.

A final conference could involve “custom-designing technologists’’ from computer and technology firms, Mr. Olkin said. After examining the work and suggestions of these experts and the other panelists, he said, he and his associates will draft their suggestions.

Murray Aborn, a senior scientist at the N.S.F. who directs the fellows program, said Mr. Olkin’s study could help bridge the gap between government and academia. He said many people at the Center for Education Statistics tend to be applications-oriented and may not be aware of all the changes in the statistics field.

“This project holds out the hope of developing nationwide a system of comparable education statistics,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1987 edition of Education Week as 3-Year Study of E.D.'s Statistics Branch Planned