Special Report

Florida Schools Steer by Numbers

By Dakarai I. Aarons — June 05, 2009 7 min read
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When a scholarship opportunity crosses her desk, Christine Siwek doesn’t have to use guesswork to identify students who would be most qualified. With a few computer keystrokes, she taps into a wealth of data she can use to help students find the best college options and the financial aid that will help them get there.

Siwek, a postsecondary adviser at Cooper City High School in Broward County, Fla., uses a combination of data provided by the school district and material she has collected to get information to students. Her databases provide Siwek with pertinent information about students, including grade point averages, the level of courses they have taken, their test scores, and their postsecondary career interests.

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Florida has been hailed as one of the nation’s bright spots in the use of longitudinal data, with a history of building an information-rich “data warehouse” that connects K-12, postsecondary, and workforce information. Educators and policymakers at the state, district, and school levels are using the reams of data to improve schools, and students and parents have been given access to students’ information to help them plan for a future that includes a college degree.

Siwek has information on whether students are in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, for example, a good indicator of whether they are eligible to have fees waived on college-admissions tests and applications.

“If I have a scholarship for engineering for students with a certain GPA,” she says, “I can find those students, call them down, and encourage them to apply. I also have [scholarship] information on a Web site. I think everyone is using technology more than ever.”

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Read the related Commentary,

Leadership Key to Creating Data Systems

The Florida Department of Education uses its data warehouse, which includes information from preschool through college and the workforce, to help high schools learn how well they are doing in preparing students for the world beyond their doors.

Instant Measures

The High School Feedback Report, put together for each high school in the state, provides information on how well students do on admission tests, and also on how they have fared after enrolling in college courses. That database, available online to anyone, allows users to see, at the school level, the percentage of students who earned a diploma or General Educational Development certificate in a given year. It also provides a look at the percentage of students who took dual-enrollment college courses while in high school and tracks those who took the highest-level high school courses in mathematics and science.

Because the data system is linked with Florida’s postsecondary institutions, high schools find out the percentage of their students who must take remedial courses, the percentage that took and passed freshman math and English courses, and the percentage who maintained at least a 2.0 GPA as their college careers continued.

The report gives parents and students an instant measure of their schools’ relative performance, since the school-level numbers are placed next to districtwide and statewide numbers for comparison.

The state also generates a Performance on Common Placement Tests report that looks at how students did on the SAT, the ACT, and Florida’s community-college placement tests, measuring the percentage who scored at or above the college-level “cut score” for each of the exams—those required to enter credit-bearing English and math courses at Florida colleges and universities—and looks at the correlation between the exam and the need for remediation.

A Report Card for High Schools

The Florida High School Feedback Report shows how students at every high school in the state fared on the following measures. This report, for Cooper City High School for 2007, compares its data with information for the Broward County district and the state of Florida.


SOURCE: Florida Department of Education

A 2006 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif., called Florida’s data warehouse a “sizable achievement,” noting that analysis of the data could “drive important policy change.”

Florida schools have used a variety of data sets since the late 1980s. The state began creating a data warehouse in 2001. Since 2003, Florida has had a full-scale longitudinal-data system, which means a system with similar data over a period of time, going back to the 1995-96 school year.

College Prep: Victoria Esiobo, 16, a 10th grader at Cooper City High, works on a trigonometry assignment. The school receives feedback on how its students fare in college classes.

State and local school officials say having such data has been instructive in analyzing how district policies and coursetaking have affected students’ postsecondary success.

In January 2007, Florida became the first state recognized by the Data Quality Campaign, a project based in Austin, Texas, that works to improve state data systems, as having all 10 elements it considers essential. (The DQC is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides support for Diplomas Count.)

Links to Postsecondary Schools

Many states have data on test scores and graduation and dropout rates because the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002, required states to start tracking that information. What sets Florida and a handful of other states apart, says Aimee R. Guidera, the director of the Data Quality Campaign, is their focus on college and career readiness, including coursetaking, statewide information connecting student performance with scores on college-placement exams, and a link with postsecondary institutions that provides a picture of how students fared upon entering.

“They have the wonderful ability to connect with so many systems,” she says.

According to Jeff Sellers, Florida’s deputy education commissioner for accountability, research, and measurement, 17 “identifiers” are used to confirm a student’s identity before he or she is assigned a random, alphanumeric identification for use in the data warehouse. This allows state officials to use the data to run analyses of student performance without running afoul of student-privacy laws.

“It gives us a lot more flexibility as we do our analysis,” Sellers says. “We can look at programs and policies and impacts on education while we have another layer of protection as far as confidentiality goes.”

Not only can the information be used to look at past student performance, but state officials also consult it to examine the potential impact of proposed policies.

In the Sunshine: At Cooper City High School in Broward County, Fla., counselors use the state's extensive database in many practical ways, including to search information on grade point averages to identify students who may qualify for scholarships.

Sellers says this has become an increasingly common use of the data, such as when the Florida legislature was examining a policy on high school accountability last year.

“It’s an evaluation tool, but it is also a tool to help us add context to decisions as they are being made,” he says. “We were able to put together three different models for legislators so they could actually see the impact of those decisions.”

The state uses its databases to help school districts track down students listed as dropouts. State officials search the database to see if a student has enrolled in another Florida district, as often happens, rather than quit school.

As part of the state’s new high school grading system, schools are held accountable for the percentage of students who test ready for college, says Juan Copa, the bureau chief for research and evaluation for the state education department.

Among the indicators included at the high school level are the progress a school is making in increasing the number of its students who are taking more-rigorous courses, including honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, and the International Baccalaureate program.

At any point in their high school careers, students and their parents can log on to a state Web site, at www.facts.org, and see how the students’ GPAs and course accumulations line up with state college-entrance requirements. Districts update their student-level data three times a year, says Ralph Aiello, who coordinates high school guidance for the 256,000-student Broward County district, based in Fort Lauderdale.

Informing Policy Decisions

“We want to make sure they are aware of their opportunities,” Aiello says of students, “and they have exposure to a wide array of opportunities, and we keep all those opportunities open to them.”

State budget woes have placed more pressure on Sellers and his colleagues to show the value of the data systems, which have been supported by a legislative requirement that a portion of education dollars be spent on data collection and use.

“It puts the responsibility back on us to show our value and worth,” Sellers says. “From that perspective, it continues to motivate us to make sure we are up to speed being relevant to do the things that need to be done.”

The move beyond using the data warehouse as a compliance tool, and more as a resource to inform school-level policy, is key, he says: “The data warehouse is becoming an integral part of how we do business in Florida.”

Siwek, the Cooper City High postsecondary guidance counselor, says she tries to get students to understand early the implications of their course selections, grades, and test scores for clearing admissions hurdles.

“When colleges are looking at students, they are looking at data,” she says. “A lot of times, they don’t read the essays from public schools. They are looking at data for acceptance, so that’s what I look at.”

Aiello says using data to help ensure teenagers are prepared for the next step beyond high school isn’t a luxury, but a necessity, especially in districts with as many students as Broward County has.

“Everything is data-driven these days. We are trying to work smarter,” he says. “We need to make sure we are doing everything we can, because we don’t want our kids falling through the cracks.”


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