By requiring greater accountability and spawning a huge expansion of available test results, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has indirectly given states and school districts both a motive and a means to use data to raise student achievement.
In fact, the federal government has been prodding states in that direction starting well before the 4-year-old law took effect. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Education has supported initiatives on using data and has been active in several national initiatives on data standards and quality.
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Last fall, the department gave out the first 14 grants under a program to support the creation of longitudinal data systems in the states. The department also has been revamping its own data systems, notably the one that receives information from the states on their use of federal money. Spring 2005 saw the test run of what eventually will be a massive national database of information related to the school accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Despite those efforts, some states see the Education Department as falling short on helping states upgrade their computerized data systems, says Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, based in Arlington, Va. “I don’t think there’s been a tremendous amount of guidance as to what these data systems should look like,” she says.
But others give the Bush administration credit for seizing an opportunity to upgrade the nation’s approach to education data. “The legacy of this administration is going to be changing how data is collected at the federal level,” says Aimee R. Guidera, the Data Quality Campaign project director in the Washington office of the Austin, Texas-based National Center for Educational Accountability. “It says a lot that they’ve taken on such an unsexy topic.”
On the Same Page
If efforts to devise more-consistent education data systems at the federal, state, and local levels bear fruit, they will give policymakers “common looks” at education challenges—“so at least we all start from a common discussion point,” says Ross C. Santy, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for data and information.
The Education Department’s upgraded data system—called the Education Data Exchange Network, or EDEN—will reduce the administrative burden the federal government places on the states as a condition of receiving its aid, he says.
Federal officials are aiming for other benefits, too, as spelled out in the current National Education Technology Plan, issued by the department in 2004. “Integrated, interoperable data systems are the key to better allocation of resources, greater management efficiency, and online and technology-based assessments of student performance that empower educators to transform teaching and personalize instruction,” the plan says in its recommendations on data systems.
The plan recommends that states and districts “use assessment results to inform and differentiate instruction.”
Meanwhile, the Education Department has quietly pursued consensus with states in developing common data definitions and compatible systems.
“It’s absolutely a national effort, as opposed to a federal effort,” says Santy.
The department is a dues-paying member of the Data Quality Campaign, for example, which advocates establishing systems of longitudinal education data in every state by 2009.
A grant program administered by the department’s Institute for Education Sciences under the Educational Technical Assistance Act of 2002 supports the design and implementation of statewide longitudinal-data systems.
The program has received special attention recently because it is one of the few areas of the education budget for which the Bush administration has asked Congress for a significant increase for the 2007 budget year—to $55 million, compared with $25 million budgeted annually for fiscal 2005 and 2006. The first three-year grant awards, ranging from $1.6 million to $5.8 million, were announced in November 2005 and went to 14 states, out of 48 that applied. The goal is to help states generate and use accurate and timely data to meet reporting requirements, support decisionmaking, and aid education research.
“The 14 states are all at different places in their implementation,” says Santy. “Some already have very robust systems, built for everything from reporting to compliance and really evolving into an instruction tool.”
Although the winning projects all aim to help their states synchronize with the Education Department’s reporting system, “it’s not really standardization,” according to Santy. “You can report to EDEN in 52 different ways.”
The projects also address the states’ own goals. Ohio, for example, is spending part of its $5.7 million federal grant to develop online tools to help teachers use data to prepare for classroom instruction. The other states that received grants are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Wolf says the IES money is “such a tiny, tiny part of what it costs” that even states that received grants will have to spend at least several times the amount of the awards to build data systems that can influence student achievement.
The Education Department also took a low-key role in development of the Schools Interoperability Framework, a set of specifications for software used in schools that is aimed at making data easily transferable to and from databases and other applications.
After a long, convoluted development process, led by software companies in the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, the voluntary SIF standards are being generally adopted for education software. The Education Department, which endorsed the SIF standards, has made nearly all the data elements in the new federal data system SIF-compliant, says Larry Fruth, the executive director of the SIF Association.
Fruth adds that many states that applied for the data-system grants from the Institute for Education Sciences last year specified that their projects would use the framework.
Some experts caution that, while having better data is a worthy goal, seeing that classroom practice changes in response is another matter.
“It’s marvelous that the Department of Education is kicking in $25 million now, and $55 million next year, into enhancing data systems,” says Arie van der Ploeg, a senior researcher at the nonprofit research and consulting company Learning Point Associates, based in Naperville, Ill. “If their goal is to change some of rules under which we operate, that’s probably fine, but to change the way teachers teach by 2014, that’s unrealistic.”