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Policymakers Ponder National Data System

By Michele McNeil — July 13, 2007 5 min read
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As states move to set up sophisticated data systems that can track students’ progress over their academic careers, policymakers are beginning to think hard about the value—and challenges—of creating a nationally linked system.

Advocates for such a system, some of whom spoke at the annual conference held here last week by the Education Commision of the States, agree that it’s highly unlikely there will be a federally mandated national database of students’ academic information, given states’ reluctance to cede power to the federal government and concerns over privacy.

Instead, they envision a network of data systems, operated by states, that can communicate with one another regardless of state lines. At a time of high student mobility—the thousands of students from Louisiana who fled to other states after Hurricane Katrina being the most dramatic example—such a system would allow students’ academic background and performance to be more easily tracked as they move around.

“The most powerful data is the ability to follow individual kids over time,” Aimee Guidera, the director of the Data Quality Campaign, which is managed by the Austin, Texas-based National Center for Educational Accountability, told the more than 400 policymakers and educators attending the conference held by the ECS, a nonpartisan education compact based in Denver.

“We now have the technology; we now have the capability,” she said.

At least 45 states are developing longitudinal data systems that assign students unique identifiers so they can be tracked through their school careers. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $62.2 million in grants to 13 states to help them craft such systems.

Cooperation Needed

Technical challenges remain, such as making sure the data systems are compatible, have common data standards, are secure, and protect students’ privacy. That all costs money—another barrier to linking more data systems.

Sharing Data

With at least 45 states working on longitudinal information systems that will include student-by-student data, education advocates are debating how to make those systems compatible state to state.

How a “national database” would work
• Rather than a single, federal database of student information, the system would operate much as the banking system’s ATM network—state data systems would remain separate but be linked for information sharing.
• As students moved, their information could be tracked and transferred across state lines.
• Data would include a unique identifier for each student; the student’s academic information, such as test scores and courses taken; and demographic data, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Uses
• In a disaster that displaced students, as happened with Hurricane Katrina, records could be easily transferred to districts in other states.
• High school transcripts could be electronically transmitted to colleges.

Challenges
• States are still cobbling together their own data systems, let alone figuring out how to make those systems work with other states.
• Computer and data-system upgrades are expensive in terms of hardware, software, and staffing needs.
• Student privacy would need to be protected.
• States would need to have common quality-control and data standards.

Source: Data Quality Campaign; Education Week

But those who have embarked on bridging the data divide say the biggest challenges include the people and politics involved.

“The technology is there—the biggest issue is the human side of things,” Kenneth Sauer, the associate commissioner for research and academic affairs for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, said in an interview. “Especially with a voluntary effort, you have to take time to get people to understand it. This is new to a lot of people.”

States have struggled within their own borders to make different data systems compatible. Bridging their systems with those of other states would require considerable cooperation with policymakers in other states.

But the need is critical, many experts argue, because of high student mobility. Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, who spoke at the ECS conference, pointed to the 700,000 active-duty military personnel who took a college class in 2006, but were largely unaccounted for in data systems. In addition, he said, roughly one-third of students who start at one community college or university finish at another—and half of those transfers were across state lines and largely untracked.

To close those gaps, Ms. Guidera said in an interview, states will have to start small. “That’s how you get the political will and the trust,” she said.

Indiana has embarked on an effort to link its K-12 and higher education data systems, beginning with the high school transcript. Seventy percent of the state’s high schools now take part in the state’s eTranscript Initiative , which allows students to electronically send their transcripts to an Indiana college or university. Thirty of the state’s 31 public and private higher education institutions have signed on.

The initiative required a partnership between the Indiana education department and the state higher education commission, and their data systems. In addition, the state had to persuade high schools and colleges to participate.

While Mr. Sauer, the project leader, said there are obvious benefits—counselors save time by not having to print and mail hundreds of transcripts a year—more important, and less apparent, benefits result as well.

Though colleges have always had access to transcripts, the cumbersome process of keying in all the data has often made detailed analysis difficult. Now, Mr. Sauer said, colleges will be able to analyze why groups of students are failing math, for example, by looking at their course preparation and what high schools they attended.

“This will build the analytical capabilities of the colleges, and provide valuable feedback to the high schools,” said Mr. Sauer. Nearly 14,000 transcripts have been electronically transmitted so far, he added.

Joining Forces

Other Midwestern states are pledging to join the system, with Minnesota being the most recent to sign on. Such multiple-state cooperation would allow students to electronically transmit their transcripts to participating colleges around the region—an exchange of data without regard to state lines.

Georgia started small, too.

The state’s Office of P-16 Initiatives began a data system about two years ago allowing schools of education to track teachers through college and into the workforce. That required the higher education data system, which keeps teacher education information, to be compatible with that of the Georgia education department, which keeps teacher-placement information.

“You have to build it in pieces,” said Mark Pevey, the director of P-16 data management, in an interview. “The most advantageous thing we did toward getting support was we started small. We met a specific need.”

Once policymakers saw the value of the data, he said, building a P-16 longitudinal-data system was an easier sell. The system, which features different layers of security depending on who is seeking access to the information, will become final later this year. The prekindergarten piece will be merged in later, as will student data from other sources, such as the state’s technical colleges.

But expanding data systems so they are linked with those of other states is a “very long way off,” Mr. Pevey said.

“And it’s not due to technical issues,” he said. “There are human issues, bureaucracy, and the value we put on privacy.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Policymakers Ponder National Data System

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