The Education Department this month began circulating a proposal for a radical restructuring of its national statistics-gathering system for precollegiate education.
The new system would require an unprecedented level of federal, state, and local cooperation and would result, the authors of the 102-page report say, in the creation of a new “national educational information system.”
That system would replace the set of programs operated by the 12-year-old National Center for Education Statistics, which the authors said were “flawed in fundamental ways.” The N.C.E.S. was renamed the Center for Statistics following the reorganization of the department’s research office last October.
The authors of the new report say nationwide adoption of a new method of collecting data advocated in the proposal would allow researchers and policymakers for the first time to examine all nationally collected data on a state-by-state and even classroom-by-classroom basis.
The new system, they add, would allow educators to link currently unintegrated data on the nation’s schools, thus enabling them to draw conclusions about the effects of changes in one variable on another, such as changes in funding on student achievement.
“Only a fundamentally new system can produce essential data for the nation and the states that are correct, accurate, precise, timely, comparable, and useful,” say the authors of the document, which was prepared under contract to the department as part of its year-old project to revamp the Center for Statistics’ elementary- and secondary-education data-collection program. “Our proposal may appear costly, demanding, and complex, and will require a long-term commitment from the federal government and the states, but we believe there is no alternative.”
“Our assessment of current [federal] data-collection activities . . . leads us to the conclusion that tinkering with the present system is not an answer,” they say in another section of the report. “What is needed is a radically improved, and vastly modified, national elementary- and secondary-education data system.”
The authors of the report are George E. Hall, president of Baseline Data Corporation of Washington, D.C.; Richard M. Jaeger, professor of education at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro; C. Philip Kearney, professor of education at the University of Michigan; and David E. Wiley, dean of the school of education at Northwestern University.
The report’s authors did not give a precise estimate of the anticipated cost to the federal government of the changes they advocate. They note, however, that “realistic investments in personnel, facilities, equipment, and funding would have to be made.” Costs to state and local education agencies would depend upon the degree to which they participate in the new data-collection system.
The fiscal 1986 appropriations bill for the Education Department would set the Center for Statistics’ budget at $8.75 million. That amount, however, will be reduced to $8.37 million under the provisions of the recently enacted Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law.
Emerson J. Elliott, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and head of the Center for Statistics, could not be reached for comment on the new report.
The distribution of the report this month is the latest step in a process begun last March when the Center for Statistics-then known as the National Center for Education Statistics- mailed letters to more than 100 organizations and to 55 prominent researchers inviting them to submit detailed papers appraising the center’s work to date and outlining the data they will need in the years ahead to address emerging and continuing issues in precollegiate education.
The center’s work is also being reviewed by a panel of statisticians and researchers convened by the National Academy of Sciences. Their report is not expected to be completed until next fall or early winter.
The authors of the new report based their recommendations on a synthesis of the comments solicited from researchers and organizations that was prepared by analysts at the center last fall. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1985.)
According to the report’s authors, their analysis of those comments indicates that “the deficiencies of data-collection projects operated by [the center] as of the spring of 1985 are legion.”
“The current data system is flawed in fundamental ways; it does not produce traditional statistics that are useful, accurate, comparable, and timely,” they said. ''The current data system does not, and cannot, provide the information needed to understand the context, processes, and outcomes of schooling in the United States.”
On the issue of timeliness, for example, the authors note that as of July 1985, the center’s most recent data on enrollments by grade were already two years old. Data on expenditures for salaries of nonprofessional staff and for instructional materials such as library books, they point out, have not been compiled for 10 years.
The report’s authors also note that “of greater concern is the paucity of information essential to an assessment of the need for, and the consequences of, the reform actions that are currently reshaping American education.”
‘Many authors of papers prepared for the [redesign project] document the inability of the current data-collection projects either to substantiate the need for recommended reforms or to support an investigation of their effects, should they be put into practice,” the researchers write.
Perhaps the chief weakness of the existing data-gathering system, they argue, is that information currently collected typically cannot be ''linked together in ways which allow the tracing of resource flows.”
''The database must be able to provide information to answer such questions as, ‘What dollars buy what services for which students with what results?’ Or, ‘What programs staffed by what types of teachers are effective for pupils with particular educative difficulties at what costs?’” the authors write. “Only if the database is so structured as to allow relevant linkages among its elements, files, and records will the requirement for an integrated educational information system be met.”
Key to the development of such a system, they say, is the collection of all data in “micro record” form, as opposed to the current ‘macrorecord,’ or aggregated, form.
“The microrecord permits linkages with other microrecords; for example, microrecords on individual pupils can be linked with microrecords on individual teachers and, in turn, with microrecords on specific curricular offerings in which the teachers and pupils are participating,” the researchers explain. This format would enable data users for the first time “to ask questions about relationships among the sets that make up the database.”
The authors recommend that, at a minimum, data should be collected in micro record form in the following categories: school environment, including community and family characteristics; revenues and nonmonetary resources, such as volunteer time and equipment donations; measures of “educative difficulties,” such as handicapped and limited-English-proficient students; school goals and objectives; educational pursuits, including curricular offerings; student participation in the process of schooling; and student outcomes, such as graduation and dropout rates.
Joint Action Essential
“Any attempt by the federal government to impose a uniform information system ... is doomed to failure,” they say. “Users of educational information at all levels of government must decide for themselves what information they need and what information they will use.”
State educational agencies would be free “to keep their own data systems completely separate from the national data system” or to fully integrate their data systems with the national one, adopting the proposed microrecord method of gathering information. The effect of the proposed changes on local educational agencies would largely be determined by the degree to which state officials participate in the new system.
To ensure adequate outside participation in decisionmaking, the authors call for the creation of a consortium composed of representatives of state governments, private-school groups, academia, and department staff. The group’s first major task would be “to consider specific information requirements and [to] recommend development and phasing priorities, with special attention to the standardization of data definitions for the system.”
“The benefits of a cohesive system of this type producing national and state comparable data would be far-reaching,” the authors conclude. “Not only would the majority of consumers of educational information be provided with relevant, integrated, timely, and accurate information at these two levels, but the establishment of such a system would produce similar changes in district-level information systems.
''This, in turn, would increase the comprehensiveness and comparability of the information about education taking place in local communities,” they write. ''Thus, the national educational information system, as it is established at the state and national levels, will introduce cohesion into the total system.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week