Federal

States Said to Be Progressing on Data Systems

By Dakarai I. Aarons — November 23, 2009 4 min read
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The states are all on course to have data systems that track student performance from year to year in place by 2011, and many are collecting a wealth of information that could lead to better policy and classroom practice, according to a report released Nov. 23.

The Data Quality Campaign, an organization based in Austin, Texas, that works to improve state data systems, reported that 44 states, for example, now collect data that can identify the schools producing the strongest academic growth for students, up from 21 states in 2005. In addition, 47 states now have the components needed to calculate a longitudinal graduation rate using the method agreed upon in 2005 via a National Governors Association compact.

The campaign has identified a set of 10 elements it believes are crucial for any longitudinal-data system. They include a “unique student identifier” that connects student data in more than one database, and information on students who weren’t tested and why.

“The progress states are making, and have been making consistently over the past years, has been expedited this past year, thanks to the stimulus,” said Aimee R. Guidera, the executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, referring to the federal economic-aid package enacted in February.

States had to agree to build out their data systems by 2011 to receive money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.

Many states began building data systems earlier this decade to help keep track of the disaggregated student-achievement data required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. With encouragement and funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, states have expanded their education data systems to cover a wider variety of information.

Priority of Stimulus

The economic-stimulus law included a separate pot of $250 million in competitive grants to help states develop their data systems. How states are progressing on that front also will play a significant role under the selection criteria for the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition, accounting for 9 percent of the maximum of 500 points that states can score. (“Rules Set for $4 Billion Race to Top Contest,” November 18, 2009.)

In addition to looking for states that have built systems with the campaign’s 10 elements in place, the Education Department says it will give equal priority to using instructional data as a tool for educators in addressing students’ needs, informing professional development, and “fostering a culture of continuous improvement.”

“The [Obama] administration and the Education Department have made good data systems and the smart use of data a centerpoint of educational reform efforts,” said department spokesman Justin Hamilton. “When we look at how to boost academic achievement and how to get good teachers into every classroom, data plays a fundamental role.”

Mr. Hamilton said the work states have done changing laws in preparation for applying for Race to the Top shows promising signs.

“We certainly hope to see more progress and we will be working to move the ball forward,” he said.

In Arrears

States remain behind in several areas, according to the DQC report. Only 23 report being able to match student records from prekindergarten to 12th grade with those of the states’ higher education systems. Fewer than half—24—have a “teacher identifier” system that can match teachers and students.

Despite possessing unprecedented amounts of data, many states have yet to put their new capabilities to use in a way that will help not only drive policy, but also lead to improvement in the classroom, the report says.

To get the maximum benefit, state policymakers must continue to push to ensure the data are used, Ms. Guidera said.

“It doesn’t matter if they have the capacity to do it. The real power comes from the use of data,” she said. “The real value of the information will be seen when states take action to make sure they are used.”

States, however, should be especially diligent in ensuring that student privacy is protected while building such data systems, said Joel R. Reidenberg, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law and the academic director of the university’s Center on Law and Information Policy.

According to a study released by the center last month, some states have not taken adequate actions to safeguard sensitive information in student records, in some cases moving information from local to state agencies without regard to federal privacy laws. (“Data Systems Lack Privacy Safeguards,” November 4, 2009.)

“Our concern, from the research we did, is that the states are collecting on an identifiable basis what appears to be more extensive information than is necessary for what the states are trying to accomplish in measuring school accountability,” Mr. Reidenberg said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Report Finds States on Course to Build Pupil-Data Systems

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