by Kenneth Corbin

States Get Mixed Report Card on Using Data to Improve Education

News Analysis
Nov 19, 20144 mins
AnalyticsBig DataGovernment

The Data Quality Campaign is a national, collaborative effort to improve the availability and use of high-quality education data to improve student achievement. Though school districts are beginning to embrace DQC, much work remains.

School districts across the country are beginning to embrace data-driven strategies to improve accountability and transparency in the public education sector, but a new study finds that progress among the states has been widely uneven.

Since 2005, the Data Quality Campaign, a group that advocates for harnessing school data to boost student achievement, has been canvasing statehouses to gauge their efforts to tie together disparate and often siloed information sets measuring areas like student proficiency and school and district performance.

Aimee Guidera, the DQC’s executive director, credits many states for modernizing their data architectures and implementing some of the 10 recommendations the group has set out to achieve the vision of synchronized and publicly available education information.

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“It is another world from when we first started compiling state progress through the survey nine years ago, and the investments states have made are beginning to make a difference in classrooms,” Guidera writes in the foreword to the group’s 10th annual report.

When the DQC first began conducting its survey in 2005, “few states even had the basic elements of a data system in place to even start beginning to answer these questions,” Guidera told reporters on a conference call.

At the same time, implementation of the group’s recommendations — which include initiatives such as linking data systems across schools and districts and developing governance structures — remains a work in progress.

This year’s survey identified Kentucky as the third state to act on all 10 DQC recommendations, joining Arkansas and Delaware.

The group also singled out Massachusetts for its efforts to pool together school data in a format that parents can easily access through what the state calls its District Analysis and Review Tools site, or DART. Through that tool, parents can quickly check to see how their child’s school compares to others in the district and across the state in terms of measures like academic achievement and enrollment, according to Carrie Conway, associate commissioner for planning, research and delivery systems at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Pretty much every data series we collect is aggregated to that school and district level,” Conway says, “so that every parent can arm themselves with information about their community.”

Over the years, the DQC survey has identified a steep uptick in advancing education data as a policy priority at the state level. In 2009, the group found that just eight states had allocated funding for their data systems; in this year’s survey, that number had soared to 41.

The number of states providing publicly accessible feedback reports for high schools has followed a similar trajectory, spiking from 12 in 2009 to 41 this year.

More States Need to Incorporate Teacher Performance and Training Info

Still, the DQC’s report found other areas where states have been moving more slowly. For instance, the organization has been advocating for data programs that would incorporate information about teacher performance into training programs, but just 22 states said that they do so in this year’s survey (though that number is up from six in 2011).

Likewise, the report notes that currently, only 11 states are offering “timely, role-based access” to student information for parents, teachers and administrators.

Security Remains a Roadblock

Security has been one roadblock. Student data is one of the more sensitive assets that states preside over, and without the proper security and privacy protocols, officials have been reluctant to allow that information to move outside the vault.

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But the DQC identified 110 bills introduced in statehouses this year that aimed to protect student data. Of those, 30 were signed into law, including one in Colorado that established provisions for how data should be secured and shared, and also carried transparency provisions for contracts with third-party vendors who handle student information.

“That keeps all of us on our toes as far as making sure those agreements adequately protect student information,” says Dan Domagala, CIO of the Colorado Department of Education.

All in all, Guidera credits many states for effecting a cultural shift within their educational bureaucracies to move their data policies beyond “a box-checking exercise” and for beginning to treat student and school information as an asset that can help improve student performance throughout the grade school years and beyond.

“We believe this is because this has been the greatest change for state agencies,” she says. “Traditionally, state agencies have been seen as compliance officers around data.”