Spurred by the prospect of grant funding from the federal Race to the Top competition, as well as money made available from other parts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more states are taking strides to link K-12 data systems with postsecondary agencies to develop a more holistic picture of each student.
But despite the emphasis among policy leaders on K-20 data systems, the progress that states have made toward that goal varies greatly, and many challenges—both technical and political—remain.
Although the idea of linking precollegiate data with postsecondary databases has been around for years, the difference is “it is no longer something that seems to be a good idea to people just in education,” says Ben Passmore, the director of policy research for the Adelphi, Md.-based University System of Maryland, which represents 11 universities, two research institutions, and two regional higher education centers in that state.
The federal government has also put a heavy emphasis on beefing up statewide longitudinal-data systems, he says. “This is something that’s going to happen,” says Passmore, “and it’s happened at a really breakneck pace over the past year.”
According to a 2009 survey by the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which encourages state policymakers to improve the use and availability of education data, 32 states have the ability to match student-level K-12 and higher education data, although most states, the survey found, do not have data systems that allow for two-way communication between the databases.
One of the challenges of linking K-12 with postsecondary data is figuring out how to track students accurately from one agency to the next.
An essential step toward linking K-12 and postsecondary data is establishing a unique student-identification number that can help follow each individual student through the K-20 continuum, spanning kindergarten to graduate education, says Adam Levinson, the director of policy and strategic planning for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
“The unique ID is the cornerstone of the longitudinal-data systems,” Levinson says.