Student Data Too Often a Tangled Web for Schools, Report Says

By Sean Cavanagh — May 21, 2013 4 min read
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Schools are flooded with data these days, but students, parents, teachers, and administrators often lack the ability to make use of it because the systems for collecting, storing, and analyzing that information don’t mesh with each other, many officials who work with, or in, K-12 education say.

That lack of “interoperability” between data systems—which results in everything from long lag times in schools receiving useful test results to educators and students having to deal with multiple logins to systems—is the subject of a new report, which calls for a streamlining of those systems, and attempts to offer solutions.

Transforming Data to Information in Service of Learning,” released today, calls on policymakers on all levels to develop long-term plans to increase the capability of technology systems to work together. It also says they need to do so while ensuring student privacy, and calls on state and local officials to demand that private-sector vendors deliver products that are capable of working within a broader tech system full of many parts.

“In spite of the fact that we are awash in useful digital-learning applications and potentially valuable data, the systems we use to collect, manage, analyze, and report on that data are often disconnected and don’t work well together,” according to the report, produced by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a nonprofit organization based in Glen Burnie, Md., that represents state tech leaders.

“Most data currently being collected isn’t captured to inform instruction; it’s used for the purposes of state or federal accountability reporting. Some kinds of data that could give teachers and students immediate insight for personalizing instruction are not being captured at all or not in a systematic fashion.

In other parts of the public and private sector landscape, such as in health care, law enforcement, the entertainment industry, and transportation, systems typically work in smarter, more seamless ways that handle data with more speed and sophistication than schools often do, the association argues.

Where do the breakdowns in K-12 interoperability occur? The state tech association cites several factors at work. Among them:

• Integrating systems and apps is hard work, and today it often has to be done manually;

• Many of the processes for aligning digital resources to state standards are incompatible and costly;

• Districts and schools are often forced to piece together complex storage solutions, both on-site and through other options, such as cloud computing, to maintain the data churned out by their information systems;

• Confusion abounds about student privacy and legal provisions surrounding where student information is stored and how it can be used;

• Families often don’t have a way to access students’ personal data, from test results to accomodations for children with special needs, to share that information in secure ways;

• Users have to muddle through lots of logins and passwords to get to classroom resources or compile data, because different systems have different authentication processes; and

• Once student data is compiled, educators and school leaders lack ways to display it in useful, understandable ways.

The report also offers an overview of what it labels 14 “interoperability initiatives,” led by organizations that are addressing standards for data and improving how it is shared and used. Those efforts range from “open badges infrastructure,” or a standard and platform for issuing and storing microcredentials recognizing student achievements; to inBloom, a system that offers states and districts tech infrastructure to coordinate data, services and applications. InBloom has run into opposition in some states over privacy concerns. (At an event in Washington introducing the report, Doug Levin, SETDA’s executive director, said the overview of initiatives was meant to provide readers with a list of resources, and was not meant as an endorsement of any company or approach.)

One of the event’s attendees was Richard Culatta, the acting director of the office of technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He said policymakers and technology experts need to work harder to convey the benefits of creating a “coherent, interwined, ecosystem,” so that digital novices understand the payoff for students and schools.

The difficulty of explaining the technology and its benefits “is not an excuse not to involve them in the conversation,” Culatta said, adding, “that’s on us to explain it to them.”

The report also says that states and districts, through the requests for proposals that they issue, need to require assurances from vendors that new technologies will meet “widely accepted data and interoperability standards,” or include plans to do so.

When policymakers consider the costs of procuring new products, they need to take the price tag associated with ensuring interoperabiltiy into account, the report says. Even tech products that are offered for free, the authors argue, need to be put through that review.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.