Stimulus Boosted State Data Systems, Despite Compliance Hurdles

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In the midst of the Great Recession, the U.S. Department of Education handed out more than $50 billion in economic-stimulus aid to prop up K-12 budgets, with the condition that states must publicly report data on dozens of key education indicators—from the performance of charter schools to the percentage of high school graduates who complete college courses.

Five years later, you'd be hard pressed to find all of that information in one place.

State implementation of those indicators, required by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has varied widely. Federal officials ended up waiving some of the requirements, delaying others, and ultimately looking the other way as states struggled to comply with the strings attached to billions of dollars in economic-survival money.

Still, federal and data policy experts say that the data requirements that accompanied the $53.6 billion stimulus-era State Fiscal Stabilization Fund shaped how states used and collected data, and what information they tracked. What's more, the stimulus package's data requirements became embedded in future federal programs.

"Many of the indicators and descriptors laid the groundwork for the department's education reform initiatives and have been incorporated into those initiatives, particularly Race to the Top, [No Child Left Behind Act waivers], and the School Improvement Grants program," said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Education Department.

For example, the 43 states plus the District of Columbia that have waivers from provisions of the NCLB law must report on the percentage of students that are enrolling and completing courses in college. That's a holdover from the fiscal stabilization fund.

Data Deadline

In 2009, Congress passed the sweeping economic-stimulus package meant to rescue schools, and the rest of the country, from a debilitating downturn. To receive the nearly $54 billion from the stabilization fund to help shore up school funding, states had to agree that they would collect and report 37 different pieces of data or information—29 of them new. The deadline to comply: Jan. 30, 2012.

Among the new data points required: average test-score gains for specific subgroups of students, the number of lowest-performing schools that have been shuttered, and whether a state provides student-growth data to teachers.

Cash Incentive

The $53.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package intended to keep state education systems afloat during the Great Recession—included a requirement that states collect and publicize more than a dozen new data points.

The goal was to allow the public to keep track of how states were doing to improve student achievement in four areas: equity in teacher distribution, data collection, standards and assessments, and low-performing schools.

"To have billions of federal dollars linked to the theory that with state longitudinal data systems and data use you could better accomplish your policy goals ... from our perspective, it was huge," said Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, which works to improve the collection and use of data in states.

Even six years after the stimulus law's passage, the department acknowledges that not every state has fully complied with the data rules. But federal officials say the majority have, and that the rest have at least made a concerted effort to fulfill the requirements. (The department wouldn't name the states that haven't complied.)

States were required to report their data publicly—but that took varying forms, the Education Department said. Some created new websites, while some just relied on their existing data reports. Others did little to highlight the new information.

Some of these data requirements proved especially problematic. States struggled with beefing up their longitudinal data systems, and collecting and reporting data about how high school students fared in college. So the federal department gave them an additional two years, until December 2013, to comply—or risk some form of enforcement action. (That could include having their federal grants placed on "high risk" status.)

Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia wanted the extra two years. The department said it is still reviewing whether those states, which includes Arizona, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, have complied.

In addition, the department ended up waiving nine data points on teacher quality for states with approved waiver plans because those states would be working on revamping their teacher-evaluation systems anyway through the waiver process.

Originally, the department wanted states to report on whether their evaluation systems include student growth, how many teachers were rated at different performance levels, and whether teacher evaluations helped inform professional development and compensation.

Those requirements still stand for the seven nonwaiver states. The department said that five of the seven states without waivers have complied with the original teacher-evaluation data requirements, while Montana and Wyoming are still working on the issue.

Money Spent

Regardless of how much progress states have made, one thing is clear: According to federal officials, states are no longer required to report the data as part of the stabilization fund rules because the money has all been spent.

Audits of the stabilization fund have focused primarily on how states spent the money, versus whether they complied with the data requirements. For example, a final audit of the fund from the Government Accountability Office in September 2010 found flaws in how the department made sure states spent the money as they said they did—but didn't mention the follow-through on the data requirements.

But the long view is much more positive, said Ms. Kowalski.

"States may not have gone to the letter of the law, but we do see huge evidence of impact," she said. One example: In 2009, just nine states provided information about how high school graduates did in college. In 2013, 47 states did.

Related Blog

For states like Georgia, the stimulus-era data requirements—whether they came via the stabilization fund or the Race to the Top grant competition—helped change the culture around data.

"We had an adequate infrastructure, but the big problem was the data wasn't given to anyone. It was really an untapped resource," said Robert Swiggum, the chief information officer for Georgia, who added that his state was able to comply with the stabilization fund data rules. "The whole mentality of the [state] education department was that we were here for compliance. The concept of customer service took a back seat."

Still, Mr. Swiggum admits there was a downside: The federal requirements have heightened worries about student-data privacy, and the federal role in collecting data.

Regardless, his state is forging ahead with the next iteration of data systems: Migrating those systems into user-friendly portals that teachers can use every day to assess how their students are doing and to provide instructional resources to guide their lessons. Eventually, teachers will use these new data systems to assign work and resources directly to students, who will access them on district-provided devices.

"Longitudinal data systems offer us a historical look back," Mr. Swiggum said. "The next step is how do you take data and turn it into a daily classroom tool?"

Vol. 33, Issue 30, Pages 1, 31

Published in Print: May 7, 2014, as Spotty Data Push From Stimulus Aid
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