A Mountain of Information: The Future Is Here for Student Data

Public schools face difficult decisions each day about how to allocate scarce resources. By revolutionizing statewide collection of data on students, making wise decisions on where dollars should go has never been easier. Getting to the point of having this plethora of data, though, was no simple task.

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To Build a Mountain

If decisions about school funding are to move away from partisan politics and anecdotal evidence, there must be a mountain of data in place. It's essential that schools comprehensively track their students in order to understand what works and what doesn't. To that end, Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a non-profit focused on the use of education data in policymaking, has pushed states for more rigorous data systems. As of their latest report, which was released in December, it's clear that they're getting the job done.

DQC has spent the better part of a decade focused on its Ten Essential Elements of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems. In theory, these ten elements provide a straightforward roadmap for politicians as they weigh changes to education. In addition to educating states on what data is useful and how to collect it, they've also instituted a recognition program that highlights policymakers, state data leaders and district data leaders who excel in improving their data systems.

A Complex Web of Metrics

The ten elements identified by DQC form a complex web of data points. They include simple but critical items, such as instituting a unique statewide student identifier that links student data across each student's academic career. There is also student enrollment data, which includes demographic information and statistics on participation in programs such as reduced-price lunches and special education.

Then there are more challenging elements. The one that states have had the most difficult time implementing is student coursework information, or transcripts. The trick with this item is in creating an online tracking system in which standardized course identifiers are used. This enables analysts to compare how various classes prepare students for future success, as well as how performance in one class is an indicator of performance in subsequent classes.

The Future of Education

As of late 2011, most states had developed the infrastructure for most, if not all, of the data recommended by DQC. The next step is to take action. Teachers, administrators and parents must be taught to interpret the data and use it to make informed decisions. This may be easier said than done.

However, the success states have had in compiling student data is promising. While they learn how to utilize what they're collecting, states will continue to add to the mountain of data. With each passing year, the increased volume of information normalizes any aberrations and makes trends more clear. In the end, students should reap the rewards of statistic and fact-driven decisions regarding the future of education.

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