Special Report

Enthusiasm Builds for Data Systems

By Dakarai I. Aarons — June 05, 2009 8 min read

Arcane as the topic may seem, enthusiasts are convinced that data can be a critical lever in helping schools focus on what matters in preparing students for college.

The idea is for states and districts to collect, analyze, and—most important—act on good information that can provide feedback and guidance on efforts to prepare students for academic work beyond high school.

Many states were already at work creating longitudinal-data systems that allow for measuring college readiness by tracking the progress of individual students over time. But this year has seen an unprecedented focus on the issue as the federal government has pumped hundreds of millions into the effort.

Most states’ data systems were built in response to the demand for regular reporting of accountability data required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Now, experts are pushing for a shift from compliance-oriented systems to those that would link with higher education institutions and other agencies to provide information on how students fare after leaving high school.

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Readiness to attend a postsecondary institution would then be measured not just by students’ high school coursetaking and test performance, but by their scores on college-placement exams and their records in taking and passing credit-bearing college classes once they enroll.

“We are asking these states to do something they haven’t done before,” says Aimee R. Guidera, the director of the Austin, Texas-based Data Quality Campaign, which works to improve state data systems. (The DQC receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides support for Diplomas Count.)

“They haven’t been the collector of SAT and ACT information,” she adds. “We need governors and chief state officers and school board members and legislators to articulate and provide leadership on why this information needs to be collected and shared in a way it can be used.”

Just a First Step

The Data Quality Campaign reports that just six states have all 10 of the elements it says must be in place to track how well students are prepared for college and how well they do once there.

While building data systems is a complex endeavor, that is only a first step. What educators and policymakers do with the data is key, experts say. Jeff Sellers, Florida’s deputy education commissioner for accountability, research, and measurement, said thinking bigger with data is crucial.

“I think the main focus in a lot of states is how they can report their NCLB data, which is important and a necessity, but don’t stop there,” he says. “Use that as a first step, but continue to look at broader applications as you do your planning.”

But finding and reporting college-readiness indicators is not enough, says John Kraman, the associate director of research for Achieve, a Washington-based group that works with 35 states through its American Diploma Project to make sure high school rigor meets the demands of college and the workforce.

The Federal Role

The U.S. Department of Education issued this guidance in April to help states and school systems build their information systems. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $250 million for competitive grants to states, available this fall, for data systems. The federal Institute of Education Sciences also gave $150 million to 27 states in April under the Statewide Longitudinal Data System Grant Program.

Examples of investments in data systems and effective use of data include efforts to:

•Develop or enhance existing data systems to provide teachers access to student data in such areas as attendance, grades, course schedules, and disability or English-language-learner status, and data that show academic performance and growth, how those compare to statewide averages for similar students and schools, and whether students are on track to meet standards and graduate from high school.

•Train principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and other staff to use data to identify the specific help students need to succeed, to adjust classroom instruction to better address student strengths and weaknesses, and to target professional development and other resources on student and teacher needs.

•Track the number and percentage of students by school who graduate high school and go on to complete at least one year’s worth of college credit. Use the information to strengthen high school programs and increase the percentage of students going on to college.

•Link districts’ multiple data systems (including student, financial, and personnel) and use the resulting information for analyses and reports that enable community, district, and school leaders to better understand the educational and cost-effectiveness of district programs and strategies and allocate resources accordingly.

•Launch an easy-to-use, online Individualized Education Program system for students with disabilities that is aligned with state academic standards and can be used by educators to create content-rich IEPs that are aligned with the general education curriculum.

Once data points are selected, work must go into creating a common measure of those indicators by both K-12 and higher education policymakers.

“You have to start anchoring it in different ways,” Kraman says. “You can come up with definitions, but each one requires due diligence and a set of policies. All of it needs to be built into a data system and an accountability system.”

For example, he says, determining which mathematics courses students need to take in high school to prepare for college-placement exams not only differs based on their intended majors, but also is influenced by the wide variety of courses college freshmen take, including statistics.

“It’s really easy to say things like you have to be ready for college algebra,” Kraman says. “But you have to count on the fact that it might mean something different to two different people, even on the same college campus.”

Guidera says robust data systems allow for the kinds of analysis that help make the college-readiness indicators stronger. A district could determine what kind of professional development Algebra 2 teachers, for example, need to help their students be more successful.

So far, though, most states have not built accountability systems that include measures of college readiness, according to a February 2009 report by Achieve. Only 18 states, for instance, report the percentage of students who require remediation when they enter college, and 11 report the percentage of those who earn college- or career-ready diplomas. But even those results, while reported, are not what schools are officially answerable for, since it is not part of the states’ accountability systems.

West Virginia collects data showing what proportions of each county’s and each high school’s students enroll in public two- and four-year colleges. Missouri uses college-enrollment rates as one indicator when it appraises high schools’ and districts’ performance.

And some districts themselves are tackling the accountability question.

In Baltimore, school leaders are developing a proposal to hold high schools locally accountable for college-oriented indicators, such as how many students have submitted college applications or taken the sat. Chicago has been tracking the college experiences of its students and funneling that information back to inform its K-12 policy and practice.

The focus on the nation’s school data systems has been spurred in part by investments by the federal government.

The Institute of Education Sciences, the main research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, awarded $150 million in multiyear data grants to 27 state agencies earlier this year for use in building data systems. In total, 41 states and the District of Columbia have received funding as part of that Statewide Longitudinal Data System Grant Program, which has been giving states money since 2005.

Even more money for data systems was set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion economic-stimulus package that passed in February. This coming fall, the ies will distribute another $250 million in new competitive grants with stimulus funding.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argues that data systems are essential to ensuring that fewer students fall through the cracks. He also wants to tie the performance of students back to their teachers, and teachers’ performance back to their education schools.

“I think in too many places, children get lost in the educational trajectory, and we don’t know where they went,” the secretary told a group of school administrators at an April legislative conference.

The Education Department highlighted data systems as a prime use for stimulus money in guidance sent out to states and school districts this spring, saying the use of such systems is “at the heart of improving schools and school districts.”

States and districts should track the number and percentage of students, by school, who graduate from high school and earn at least one year of college credit, the department says, in advice that aligns with President Barack Obama’s college-going challenge to the nation.

Harvesting Information

But building data systems can be a real challenge. When Maine conducted an inventory, it found 133 places where information was being collected and held, says Bill Hurwitch, the director of the state’s longitudinal-data-system project.

“Like many states, we had far too many data silos. What you have in the public sector is, people get grants and they take the grant money and build a system,” Hurwitch explains.

Maine has spent much of its time building a “data dictionary,” or common definition for terms to be used in the data warehouse, such as “graduate”—a necessity when the warehouse will be fed data from more than 200 school districts.

“The advantage of the state system is we set the validation rules. It is more consistent,” Hurwitch says. “Because we are a small state, we have some small districts where their data systems are basically spreadsheets or locally grown ones.”

Maine is now moving its districts to a state-funded student-information system that will automatically synchronize data, eliminating duplication that can introduce errors.

In Tennessee, the state education department and the higher education commission have embarked on a project to create a P-20 database that will allow the state to follow its students from preschool through college and into their first four years in the workforce, says Irma Jones, the chief analytic officer for the state education department.

Jones says several states have begun the conversation about having similar measures in their data systems to help make comparisons easier.

“We’re wanting to have a transparency between states so we can share information,” she says. “We’re trying to build the data warehouses in a similar fashion with similar measures so it will be easier to share information.”

The New England Secondary School Consortium, which includes Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, has established college-readiness standards that the states all plan to achieve. Those standards are being used to build data systems so a common basis exists to help the states compare information on student progress.

“Over the next year, we will start to collect the data and get feedback from schools on what is useful, and start to refine what’s going to be the greatest benefit to our schools in order to help them improve student achievement,” Hurwitch says. “We will work with the other states as well in looking at best practices.”

Assistant Editor Catherine Gewertz contributed to this story.


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