States

States Making Swift Progress on Student-Data Systems, Report Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 16, 2011 4 min read

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 and career.

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 individual students who graduate or drop out of school each year.

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

“We recognized how critical it was to have timely, accurate data … if we were going to make decisions based on data,” Mr. Luna said. “Sometimes you can get this analysis-to-paralysis situation in public education, and we didn’t fall victim to that.”

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.

“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 to be able to tap in and leverage the investments you’ve made.’ ”

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

Policy vs. Technology

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.

“When we were looking at what other states have done in linking their data systems, in many places it was almost a technical solution; the data was connected, but it wasn’t driven by policy,” said John D. Ratliff, the director of policy for the governor, a Democrat. “We laid out the policy questions we need to answer—dropout rates, graduation rates, the things we were trying to have an impact on—and that’s what drove the development of the system.”

In the past year, Maryland launched a longitudinal data system governing board, including representatives of teachers, principals, and other stakeholders, to iron out the kinks of the evolving system.

“The real power of these data systems doesn’t come from collecting the data,” Ms. Guidera said. “The real power comes from every stakeholder having appropriate access to the data to be analyzed and used, and that is much harder than building a system of infrastructure.”

Governors and chief school officers in the remaining states have pledged to complete their data systems by September of this year. The technical working group of the Common Data Standards Initiative last fall released its first set of voluntary common-data standards, intended to make it easier to compare and exchange information across districts and states.

The one-shot cash infusion from the 2009 federal stimulus package helped states ramp up their work, Ms. Guidera said. The stimulus program required each state, as one of its four core requirements for receiving State Fiscal Stabilization Fund aid and other grants, to establish a data system that could track students from prekindergarten to career. The stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also provided an additional $250 million in Statewide Longitudinal Data System grants as part of the package.

Winning one of the economic-stimulus program’s Race to the Top grants certainly has spurred Maryland’s progress, Mr. Ratliff said. The state focused its application in large part on perfecting the state data system and developing training to help teachers and administrators use it.

“There’s a very strong recognition that you don’t want to have data for data’s sake,” Mr. Ratliff said. “We don’t want to build a Porsche and park it in a garage.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Report Finds States Forging Ahead in Setting Up Student-Data Systems

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