Federal

A Hunger for Data

By David J. Hoff — June 20, 2007 5 min read
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For the past five years, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has increased demands on school technology officials to put in place new and better systems to collect and analyze data.

Now that Congress is working to renew the law, educators’ hunger for data probably will grow, as will the demand for technology leaders to deliver the information to teachers, administrators, and policymakers in ways that they can use it to improve student achievement. Supporters of the law are floating ideas that would evaluate teachers on the test scores of their students, for example. Members of Congress also are proposing to help schools create a series of tests that track students’ learning in preparation for end-of-year assessments.

And most of all, principals and teachers will want numbers to give them clues about how to meet the law’s ambitious goal of ensuring all students are meeting “proficient” standards in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

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What You Need and Want

“Everyone wants to be [looking at data] because there’s No Child Left Behind,” says Maria Tukeva, the principal of Bell Multicultural High School in Washington. “What’s your choice?”

Regardless of whether the law is reauthorized this year on schedule, the appetite for data will continue to grow, observers say.

“I don’t think this is going to go away, with or without No Child Left Behind,” says Julie A. Marsh, a policy researcher at the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank. “I think it’s here to stay.”

Right now, the law’s goal of proficiency for all has educators at Bell High School and schools throughout the country checking all kinds of test scores to track how well students are moving toward that goal.

That’s going to continue, experts predict, because President Bush and leading Democrats have vowed to keep the proficiency goal in the next version of the law.

To make matters even more challenging, the next version of the law may add new data initiatives.

A blue-ribbon panel convened by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, has laid out a plan that would evaluate teachers based on their students’ scores on state tests. Each state would rate its teachers according to the progress their students made over the course of an academic year.

Teachers who ranked below the 25th percentile would receive intensive professional development. Teachers who continued to be in the bottom quartile would be prohibited from teaching in schools receiving aid under Title I—the $12.7 billion federal program for disadvantaged students that is part of the NCLB law.

While the Aspen plan is just one proposal, it is a sign that policy experts are looking to data analysis to answer a pressing question: How do schools identify effective and ineffective teachers?

No ‘Killer’ System

To meet the demand for such information, school districts will have to overhaul their instructional materials and their data systems to ensure that they are useful to teachers, helping them track students’ academic progress and identify the interventions necessary to keep them on course.

At the same time, principals and other administrators will rely on data to evaluate instructional interventions and perhaps their teachers’ effectiveness.

To build those capabilities, technology officers probably won’t need to start from scratch, Marsh of the RAND Corp. and other experts say.

District technology officials should consider building so-called data warehouses instead. Those “warehouses” are capable of linking the student and teacher data that most districts now collect in several different databases.

“Education data systems are characterized by silos,” says Jeffrey C. Wayman, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied data-driven decisionmaking. “These systems need to be able to talk to each other.”

Because existing data systems were designed to meet specific purposes, such as reporting attendance rates to state officials or registering students for high school courses, they can’t create comprehensive reports on specific students or of groups of them.

In a data-driven world, however, those systems need to be able to deliver numbers that teachers can use in real time.

Because of the time and expense, school technology officials should resist the temptation to completely rebuild their data systems, Wayman advises. Instead, he says, they should look for products that will store various forms of data and provide tools to analyze them no matter what form they’re in.

Many districts are building their own such tools, he says, while others rely on vendors that specialize in the products.

“There’s no ‘killer’ system,” Wayman says. “Those don’t exist and probably never will.”

Real-Time Data

Right now, many teachers don’t see much value in the student scores they receive from state tests, according to a recent online survey by the Teachers Network, a New York City-based coalition of districts and nonprofits that provides professional development for teachers. Forty-two percent of teachers responding said that standardized-test results didn’t help them at all, and only 37 percent considered the results “somewhat useful.”

Although the survey participants were self-selected, the 5,600 respondents suggest that teachers aren’t getting much help from current test results.

“We should be looking at multiple assessments,” says Ellen Meyers, a vice president of the Teachers Network.

End-of-year tests are not “in real time,” she points out, because results often arrive after students have moved to the next grade—too late for their teachers to act on the insights their scores might provide.

In the 58,000-student District of Columbia system, for example, schools give an interim assessment in February, just two months before students are scheduled to take citywide tests that are used to determine adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law.

Just one snapshot so late in the school year isn’t enough, says Tukeva of Washington’s Bell High School. Teachers should be able to give such tests regularly and get results almost immediately, she says. Without that capability, teachers aren’t able to track whether students are making the progress they need to meet end-of-year goals.

“You should really give [tests] every five weeks, starting at the beginning of the year,” Tukeva says. “That way, you can adapt right away, instead of saying at the end of the year: ‘Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t make proficient.’ ”

David J. Hoff, an associate editor for Education Week, covers federal policy and NCLB issues.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as A Hunger for Data

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