Special Report

NCLB Focuses on Data Tools

By David J. Hoff — May 03, 2005 12 min read
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In every Catawba County, N.C., public school, teachers can sit down at a computer and find out just about anything they need to know about their students.

They can check grades from the current and previous years, scores on state tests, and other student-achievement data. They can track attendance, family history, and other social factors that could affect their students’ test scores. They can read health records, and check up on learning or physical disabilities that may need to be addressed in the classroom.

Technology Counts 2005
Electronic Transfer
NCLB Focuses on Data Tools
• Bush vs. Clinton
State Support Varies Widely
Federal Role Seen Shifting
Schools Eye Future Costs
State Data
State Snapshots
Table of Contents

“It gives us all the information that we have on a student,” says Ann Y. Hart, the superintendent of the 17,000-student district, located about 60 miles northwest of Charlotte. “The more information you have and the easier it is to access the information, the easier it is to serve the student.”

Catawba County is one of 36 North Carolina school districts using an extensive student database called North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education—or NC WISE. Within two years, the state plans to have the technology operating in all of its 2,264 public schools, reaching all 115 districts and 96 charter schools. The project has cost $53 million since its conception in 1998 and is budgeted to cost $200 million more by 2010.

States throughout the country are investing millions of dollars to build similar data systems that will offer teachers what policymakers hope will be clear-cut strategies to improve student achievement. Such projects are fueled by several factors. Many state data systems are antiquated and need to be replaced, and technological advances have made such systems easier to use and understand by people with just basic computer literacy.

But the biggest impetus to put money into these student-data systems is probably the expansive reporting requirements and ambitious student-achievement goals set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

See Also

See the accompanying items:

Charts: NCLB Influence, Funding Crunch

“This is a new phenomenon based on NCLB,” says Irene K. Spero, the vice president of the Consortium for School Networking, the Washington-based group known as CoSN. She says

the new data systems will help schools report on student achievement, teacher quality, and other issues, as required under the federal law—a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—signed by President Bush in January 2002.

“If states don’t get up to speed on this, providing the NCLB data will be nightmarish,” says Kathy Christie, the director of the state education policy clearinghouse for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “That data will drive everything else” in complying with the federal law.

State officials also hope that the investments in these systems will pay dividends by giving educators the instructional strategies they need to reach the federal law’s goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

For instance, if a principal notices that 4th graders are struggling with reading comprehension, the school can undertake specific efforts to remedy the problem.

“You really need to be strategic and focused” in efforts to improve student achievement, says Debbie L. Youngblood, the director of K-12 educational services for California’s 50,000-student Garden Grove Unified School District, near Los Angeles.

Such data, she says, give teachers “the information they need so they can work with students” to address their needs.

New Spending Priority

In a survey of state education officials conducted for Technology Counts 2005 by the Education WeekResearch Center, 15 states reported that the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act had influenced their decisions to put in place bigger and better data-collection systems.

States throughout the country are directing more money toward that priority.

Educators are looking for ways to ensure that technology identifies the best ways to give students access to the instruction that they need.

Ohio is developing a tool that will help educators draw up individualized plans to help high school students pass exit tests. The new data tool will analyze students’ test results and report which skills the students struggle with and predict instructional strategies that might be successful in helping them improve their test scores. The project is being financed with $900,000 in private funds and another $900,000 in state money.

In a separate data-management project, the Buckeye State is creating reports that track the progress of individual students as they move through grades 3-8. The project will cost $2 per student. The state has about 140,000 students in each of those grades.

“You can get some very rich information about which kids are progressing and which kids are not,” says Mitchell D. Chester, the assistant superintendent of policy and accountability for the Ohio Department of Education.

In Arizona, state schools Superintendent Tom Horne is requesting $1.5 million from the legislature for the Integrated Database for Enhancing Arizona Learning system. Known as IDEAL, it will expand the state’s current data system to include students’ scores on specific skills tested by the state. The current system reports a student’s score only on overall subject knowledge.

In Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle has proposed spending $2 million to provide every teacher in the state-operated school system with a computer to access Hawaii’s student-records system.

‘A Huge Shift’

This new emphasis on student-data systems marks the latest wave in the use of technology in schools. Throughout the 1990s, educators worked to install computers in classrooms and build networks that were linked to the Internet. At the same time, teachers tried to incorporate various forms of digital content—Web sites, CD-ROMs, and videos—into instruction.

Now that most schools have adequate access to the Internet and other digital content, educators are looking for ways to ensure that technology identifies the best ways to give students access to the instruction that they need.

Such “data systems are the key to better allocation of resources, greater management efficiency, and online and technology-based assessments of student performance that empower educators to transform teaching and personalize instruction,” says the National Education Technology Plan released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005. In particular, the plan recommends that state leaders, district officials, and school administrators use data systems to evaluate how they can effectively use financial resources to improve student learning and analyze test scores to design an instructional plan for every child.

School officials “have moved from simply talking about [technology] being a supplemental tool … to using it to help schools do their business better,” says Christie of the ECS. “That’s a huge shift.”

Still, experts point out that the process is clearly in a nascent stage.

North Carolina is still two years away from having its system operating in all of its regular public schools and charter schools. And most other states are trailing the Tar Heel State.

A private-public partnership in Idaho to set up a similar data system stalled after the project ran into cost overruns.

Local districts, too, say they are just getting started in using data to inform instructional strategies.

In a Web-based poll conducted by CoSN, 40 percent of district officials said they were “developing” the skill to collect the data they need for data-based decisionmaking, and another 20 percent were “proficient” at collecting the data.

But only 15 percent said they were “proficient” in using the data to inform their decisionmaking, and 31 percent said they were still developing the skills to do so.

The survey included responses from 950 districts, Spero of CoSN says.

In the end, though, advocates of the approach say it will pay more dividends than previous efforts to use technology in the classroom.

“I can cite case after case when thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars of technology was thrown at classrooms, and they were operating in the dark,” says Robert H. Bellamy, North Carolina’s associate superintendent for technology services and the architect of NC WISE. “We can give teachers the information they need to do individualized, prescriptive instruction. That [instruction] may or it may not include technology.”

Financial Factors

The biggest hurdle for such efforts may be the price tag.

In December 2004, the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation abandoned the statewide database it had agreed to help underwrite for Idaho.

The Boise-based family foundation established by the founders of a supermarket chain originally planned to build an online tool filled with student-achievement data as well as lesson plans to aid teachers in addressing students’ weaknesses.

When the project began in 2003, foundation officials estimated it would cost $35 million over five years to get up and running. But the project turned out to be more complicated—and therefore more costly—than first expected.

By the end of 2004, consultants to the foundation calculated its cost to be $180 million. The foundation couldn’t afford to continue subsidizing the project without restricting funds available for other education projects it supports in the state, according to a news release announcing the end of the project.

As it is, the foundation will pay for 29 of the state’s 114 districts to buy software that tracks student attendance, test scores, and grades.

So far, the state department of education hasn’t been able to secure funding from the legislature to expand the project to the rest of the state’s school districts.

“It’s certainly not what it was envisioned to be,” says Allison Westfall, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

In North Carolina, the cost of NC WISE has been an issue in the bitterly contested race for state superintendent of public instruction. Republican Bill Fletcher—who was still embroiled in legal and legislative wrangling with Democrat June Atkinson in spring 2005 over the outcome of the November 2004 election—calls the database a “software boondoggle” that is cumbersome for teachers to use.

The cost, however, isn’t too much more compared with how much North Carolina spent on the system that NC WISE replaces, says Bellamy, the state official overseeing the database’s development.

Over the past 20 years, the state has spent $500 million on the software and equipment needed to run the current system, Bellamy says.

Student-Achievement Dividends

But cost need not be a roadblock, some school administrators say.

Any district can start with a simple database and spreadsheets, says Frank V. Auriemma, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Pearl River, N.Y., district, near New York City.

“Once you know the data you have,” he points out, “you can tell a vendor what you need.”

The investment in data building will pay off in the end, Auriemma and other educators say.

For instance, in California’s Garden Grove district—where about half the students are English-language learners—officials have been poring over data in efforts to improve instruction for three years, Youngblood says.

The district set goals for students to improve their scores in reading and math on the state tests.

Because Garden Grove has such a large percentage of students testing at the “basic” level, it gives them two years to advance to “proficient.” But it’s able to check whether students are on track for jumping up to “proficient” the following year.

Students who are “below basic” or “far below basic” are expected to move up one achievement level every year. The district also continues to work with students who are proficient so they can move up to “advanced.”

New York’s Pearl River school board sets annual achievement goals for the district. Two years ago, the board noted the 75 percent passing rate on the state Regents test in global studies. The passing rate is now 95 percent, Auriemma says.

“Just with the attention—coupled with staff development—we’ve been able to put the numbers on the board,” he says.

In the Montgomery County, Md., school district, outside Washington, educators have computerized data-analysis tools that help elementary school teachers analyze students’ reading progress. When the district gives K-2 pupils batteries of reading tests three times a year, teachers using the tool are able to identify the specific areas where children need help, says Dale Fulton, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the district.

Montgomery County uses similar computerized data-analysis tools when it gives unit exams about six times a year in mathematics to track students’ progress. Students who are below grade level review a topic until they understand it, Fulton says.

The 140,000-student district will continue to expand its testing and track students’ progress as it continues to build a new curriculum through every grade.

Data Coaching for Teachers

Once a data tool is operational, the most difficult job is teaching educators how to use it, says Spero of CoSN.

“You can’t just give data to people and expect them to look at it the way you do as a trained analyst,” says Catherine McCaslin, the supervisor of research, program evaluation, and assessment for the 18,500-student Beaufort County schools in South Carolina.

The district offers professional development for teachers explaining how to interpret the data from classroom assessments and how to design instructional programs that overcome students’ weaknesses. The teachers track students’ performance after the students receive the instruction. Teams of teachers use databases to analyze test scores and put them in formats that help school officials make detailed plans of action. Each Beaufort County school has a “data coach,” a teacher or administrator who regularly tracks achievement.

Without such training, attention to curriculum, and monitoring, student achievement is unlikely to increase dramatically, say other educators.

“If you think you can do [technology] without the others, you’re not going to make progress,” says Fulton of Maryland’s Montgomery County district.

Others add that technology’s more focused role under the No Child Left Behind Act will help schools target their technology investments more efficiently.

“No Child Left Behind has really focused people on curriculum, instruction, and getting student results,” says Maureen DiMarco, a former secretary of education in California and currently the vice president of educational and governmental affairs for the Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co., a major textbook and test publisher. “No Child Left Behind has helped focus [technology] on … how it’s ultimately tied to instruction and student results.”


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