State Progress on Data Seen as Threatened

By Michele McNeil — December 08, 2008 5 min read

States have come a long way in building longitudinal data systems in just three years, but dire budget conditions won’t make it easy to finish them.

Forty-two states can now report uniform graduation-rate data. All but two states can match test records for individual students from year to year. And 29 states track individual students’ college-readiness test scores.

Yet states have a long way to go before they have the kinds of data systems that will help drive student improvement, according to the latest progress report from the 3-year-old Data Quality Campaign, which works to improve state systems.

“We have had a window of opportunity, and I am very conscious that window may be closing,” said Aimee R. Guidera, the executive director of the campaign. “The big question is how do we continue the sustainability of these systems, and that will be determined by how the data is used and if there’s demand for the data. If there’s not, it might be the first thing to get cut.”

Change Without Mandates

States have made progress toward creating data systems with 10 elements identified as essential to improving schools, but the pace has been uneven, largely because of political and financial problems rather than lack of technical know-how.

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SOURCE: Data Quality Campaign

Only 21 states have a teacher-identifier system that can match student-achievement data with individual teachers, and only 17 states collect information on which courses students have completed, according to the report released last month.

The barriers aren’t technical, Ms. Guidera said, but stem from a lack of political will and resources.

The Austin, Texas-based Data Quality Campaign, launched in 2005 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a national effort to spur states to build high-quality, accessible, longitudinal data systems that can track student information and achievement from early-childhood education through college.

The campaign has identified 10 key components of such a data system, ranging from the fundamental, such as requiring every student to have a unique identifier number for tracking purposes, to the more complex, such as keeping track of every course a student has completed.

Change in Attitudes

At stake in the quality of data systems are answers to key questions about school improvement: Which schools produce the best academic growth for students? Or, what percentage of college students take remedial courses?

Thirty-nine states have the essential data elements to answer the first question about academic growth; 27 states can answer the second question about remedial courses, the report found.

Six states are data all-stars, having met all 10 elements: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, and Utah.

Funding is one of the key reasons Maryland’s data system is so far behind other states, said Ron Peiffer, the deputy superintendent for academic policy for the state department of education. Idaho is the only other state besides Maryland to report having three or fewer data elements.

Only in 2007 did Maryland get unique student identifiers to track their data, one of the most basic elements of a longitudinal data system.

Another contributing factor for the state’s sluggishness, Mr. Peiffer said, is that it has only 26 school districts, with fairly large student populations, most of which had already built sophisticated data systems. “There had been less pressure on the state because of that,” he said.

But attitudes toward a state-level data system have changed, he said.

“In six out of 10 meetings, part of the answer to a problem is the longitudinal data system,” he said. “If anything, now there’s greater urgency.”

The Data Quality Campaign counts as one of its biggest successes the following statistic: All but one state—Idaho—will report the high school graduation-rate data voluntarily agreed to in 2005 by the nation’s governors by 2010-11. (“Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates,” July 27, 2005.)

“It’s amazing that this has been accomplished without any mandated change,” said Ms. Guidera, who noted that in 2005, only 14 states had data systems to report graduation rates by tracking completion information for individual students. “Policymakers think you turn a faucet a different way and the data will come out. But you need to invest in the infrastructure. It takes resources, time, and prioritizing staff.”

Not all data elements seem bound for such success.

A shortage of resources, plus political challenges, makes one data point the most difficult: establishing teacher-identifier systems to match student-achievement data with individual teachers.

“That’s been perceived as the grenade thrown into the room,” said Ms. Guidera, who said teachers and their unions are concerned that the data would be used against them, or used to help determine their salaries.

States are tackling the challenge in different ways. In Kansas, once course-completion data is available, the state will be able to track how students are doing in particular schools with particular sets of teachers, for example, in Algebra 1, but won’t be able to make direct student-to-teacher connections.

“The district will be able to do that,” said Kathy Gosa, the director of information technology for the Kansas Department of Education. “We have purposefully done it that way so it isn’t as threatening, but it still empowers us to do the kinds of things we want.”

The notion of what states and school leaders do with their data systems, once they’re built, is another matter altogether, according to the Data Quality Campaign.

For example, although 44 states can track preschool children into kindergarten, and 28 states can track high school graduates into college, the campaign says “it is not clear whether states are actually using this information to improve performance.”

Fighting for Funding

In tough budget times, state data directors are worried that any momentum they’ve built up will be halted if funding to their departments is slashed. Kansas hopes to avoid this.

Unlike most other states, Kansas built its data system with very little outside help from vendors. Its data-collection warehouse and operational systems were all created and maintained by department staff members, eliminating the need for hefty contract fees and annual payments to vendors. Plus, Ms. Gosa said, education officials across all levels, from state to districts, realize the value of high-quality data.

“The conversation around data has really changed, and that, I think, is our biggest success,” said Ms. Gosa. “When we used to talk about data, it was seen as just an [information technology] thing, but now it is part of almost any conversation. There’s a greater awareness of how important data is in making decisions.”

Kansas has six of 10 data elements in place, and is close to being able to link its K-12 system with higher education.

Pennsylvania went from satisfying two elements of a robust data system three years ago to having seven now, and by 2010 will be able to link its early-childhood, K-12, and higher education systems in one data base.

And as his state faces a budget deficit of up to $2 billion, Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak may have to fight to preserve funding.

“I’m trying to make sure we’re not penny wise and pound foolish,” he said. “What may look like savings may end up being enormously expensive for us down the road.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as State Progress on Data Seen as Threatened

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