States

States Make Swift Progress on Student-Data Technology

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 22, 2011 3 min read
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After a big influx of money from the federal economic-stimulus law, states have made “unprecedented progress” in building the technology needed to collect statewide data on students’ academic progress from year to year, according to the latest report on a project that promotes the use of such data. Yet it still will take a political push to ensure all states have fully operational student-data systems by September.

The Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes and tracks the use of education data in policymaking, released Wednesday its sixth annual report on state data systems. The report says nearly half the states now have systems that meet what the campaign deems the 10 critical elements for collecting longitudinal data on individual students and teachers from kindergarten through college.

All states and the District of Columbia, it says, have put into place four of the 10 elements: a unique student-identification code that links information from various agencies through the years; student-level data on enrollment, demographics, and participation in specific programs; the ability to match student test data from one year to the next to calculate growth in achievement; and the ability to track each year individual students who graduate or drop out of school.

In addition, nearly all states now have auditing systems to check the accuracy and validity of data and information on the number of students not included in assessments.

Idaho made the most progress of any state in the past year, moving from a data system that met only three of the campaign’s essential elements to one that met all 10.

“We recognized we were one of the states that were far back in the pack and not making any significant progress for a number of years,” said Tom Luna, Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction. He won support for a $2.5 million state data initiative, which along with a $6 million federal longitudinal-data-system grant financed the fast-track development of the data system. With most of the low-hanging fruit harvested in the form of technology infrastructure, the report says, states must now grapple with more politically delicate issues, such as tying student test scores to individual teachers and their preservice-preparation programs and ensuring educators and policymakers understand how to appropriately use the data collected.

Technology vs. Political Will

“What we’re finding across these states is this isn’t a technical issue at this point; it’s a question of political will and changing behaviors,” said Aimee R. Guidera, the executive director of the Data Quality Campaign.

“States were looking at these 10 elements as a checklist and saying, ‘OK, we can collect these 10 things; we’re done,’ ” Ms. Guidera said. “We’re saying, ‘No, you’re just beginning.’ ”

Seventeen states cannot link teacher and student data, the most common weak link in state data systems, even as more districts move to use student data to reviewteacher effectiveness. Only nine states regularly link K-12 and postsecondary data systems, making it hard to use data to improve preservice teacher-training programs.

Officials in Maryland, where Gov. Martin O’Malley has been chosen as the DQC’s state leader of the year, realized early in the development of the data system there that policy problems would trump technical challenges. Last year, the state launched a longitudinal data-system governing board, with representatives of teachers, principals, and other stakeholders, to iron out the kinks in the evolving system. The state also is using part of its Race to the Top grant for data training for administrators and teachers.

“There’s a very strong recognition that you don’t want to have data for data’s sake,” said John D. Ratliff, the director of policy for the governor, a Democrat.“We don’t want to build a Porsche and park it in a garage.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Make Swift Progress on Student-Data Technology

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