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Education Funding

Race to Top Winners Face Data System Challenges

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 14, 2010 5 min read
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In the Race to the Top, state data systems were somewhat overshadowed by more high-profile and controversial sections of the competition, such as teacher evaluations and school turnaround plans.

Yet several key reforms in winning states hinge on the effectiveness of those data systems, and judges and outside experts worry states could face some heavy lifting to ensure their data systems keep up with their policy plans.

“There is a heavy data component” in Race to the Top, or RTT, reforms, said Alex M. Jackl, the director of information systems for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “There’s hope for some real progress to be made, but there are some challenges and some real risks we’re just going to flush that money down the toilet. Most of the winning states call for a fairly major rewrite or upgrade of their data systems, and most of those states’ systems are not ready for the level of detail required of their data.”

Many states have multiple independent or loosely connected data systems for K-12 and higher education, children’s welfare and health services, and labor agencies, all of which have evolved organically over time in response to a governor’s request here, a legislator’s bill there. According to the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which promotes greater use of student data in education, only a handful of states had longitudinal data systems of any kind in 2005. Today only 11 states—including grant-winners Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Delaware—meet the campaign’s 10 essential data system elements, such as having unique student and teacher identifier numbers.

Moreover, none of the winners have taken more than a handful of the actions the campaign deems necessary to ensure educators can actually use the data to improve instruction. As a result, Race to the Top winners’ state data systems are “sort of all over the board in terms of their maturation and interoperability,” said Larry L. Fruth, the executive director and chief executive officer of the SIF, or Schools Interoperability Framework, Association, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports data standards among state and local education systems.

Tight Timelines?

Even though the $4-billion grant competition required states to remove firewalls against data sharing as a precondition for applying, states could earn only 47 points in the competition for upgrading data systems to improve instruction—the least of any section of the competition. Most winning states built on existing plans developed for another federal grant program, the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems initiative, which was created in 2002 to encourage states to ramp up their education data-collection systems.

States then added innovations such as: data “portals” to allow teachers and administrators in schools to access state data on their students; evaluation tools to help school improvement teams identify problems or link students to health and social services; value-added trackers to connect student test performance to teachers, and teachers to their college-preparation programs; and early-warning systems to alert educators quickly if a student falls off the track leading to college-ready graduation.

Judges for the competition seemed to agree with Mr. Fruth’s assessment. Among the most common criticisms was that applicants’ timelines to upgrade their data infrastructure seemed too tight, and delays in the data system rollout would ripple out into other proposals. For example, one reviewer praised Georgia’s planned P-20 comprehensive longitudinal data-collection system, but voiced concern that “full implementation … is dependent on access to adequate funding and the capacity of the state’s many small districts to provide timely, accurate source data.”

Georgia’s Plan

For its part, Georgia officials are developing a task force to align new parts of that state’s longitudinal database. This month the state will roll out a new “tunneling tool” that will allow administrators and educators to pull up state longitudinal records on students from regular school computers.

Georgia’s proposals for Race to the Top were “not necessarily geared to the tunnel [tool] the way we were implementing it,” according to Debra Holdren, the director of the state’s concurrent Statewide Longitudinal Data System grant project, but the state has adapted its longitudinal data system work to align the two grants better. “The data that we are compiling and sharing back to the districts is necessary to implementing Race to the Top,” she said.

Yet Ms. Holdren admitted that she has not been a part of RTT discussions, which have taken place mostly in the governor’s office, even though the state’s Race to the Top proposals revolve around the longitudinal data system.

Georgia is hardly alone in that, according to Paige Kowalski, a senior associate at the Data Quality Campaign. “There’s still a big disconnect between the policymakers and the people who are building the data systems,” she said.

Building Flexibility

Mr. Jackl and other researchers worry that pressure could put staff-strapped states into a “survival mode” when rolling out the upgrades. States have 90 days to plan for implementation and begin rolling out reforms.

“One of the fears I really do have is when large bureaucracies write new laws or create new rules for a system to get grant money, you build the best system you can and a few years later you can’t undo it when you find a few problems,” said Arie van de Ploeg, senior researcher for the Naperville, Ill.-based Learning Point Associates, now a division of the American Institutes of Research. “It’s going to be really hard to change them nimbly.”

Mr. Jackl argued states will have to spend some of their grant funds to tear down old, monolithic data systems and implement something “more flexible and modular.”

“Two years down the road if [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] is reauthorized, who knows what the requirements are going to be?” Mr. Jackl said.

One of the oldest state systems in the country is planning just that kind of overhaul. Nancy Copa, the executive staff director for accountability, research and measurement in the Florida education department, said Florida is spending the first month of its Race to the Top project planning how to align that grant with two concurrent federal longitudinal data-system grants, as well as overhaul the state’s three K-12, community college, and career- and adult-education data systems, creating a new consolidated platform. “We’re trying to have less disparate systems,” Ms. Copa said.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Winners Facing Steep Hurdles on Data Systems

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