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Nebraska Joins States Trying to Link Student Data Systems

Add Nebraska to the growing list of states hoping technology can help educators connect the dots among a wide range of student data currently scattered across multiple incompatible systems.

The Nebraska Department of Education has teamed up with the Ed-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, to create an automated, one-stop shop for teachers, principals, and others looking for information on students' test scores, attendance patterns, class rosters, and more.

"Essentially, the problem that exists [now] is not being able to provide quick, real-time information to teachers," said Dean Folkers, the senior administrator for the Nebraska department's data, research, and evaluation team.

"In many cases, districts are trying to pull all of those pieces together through Excel spreadsheets. Even on a monthly basis, that's an arduous task."

By joining the Ed-Fi Alliance, Folkers said, Nebraska will soon be able to ease that burden on educators, offering them access to browser-based "dashboards" that provide real-time information and customizable reports showing exactly where students stand. The hope is that teachers and principals will be able to use the information to quickly adjust their instruction in order to meet individual students' needs.

14 States Now in Ed-Fi Alliance

Julie Lass, communications director for the alliance, cited teachers or counselors helping students with transfer applications as just one example of how an aligned data system can help educators.

"Now, getting that information may require different logins, or going to different filing cabinets and different people to get the information you need to help students," Lass said.

"Being able to have that information in real-time makes a big difference."

Lass described her organization's "tool suite" for making that happen as more like a "starter kit" than a straightforward product.

For states, the process of implementing "the Ed-Fi solution" involves standardizing the definitions for all the bits of student information already being collected; translating the data from different databases into a common language; writing the computer code that can securely extract that data and feed it into a single place; organizing the data so it can answer key questions; and feeding it back to districts via the user-friendly dashboards that teachers will ultimately see in their classrooms.

"The more knowledge educators have about students, the more likely they will be able to help them in meaningful ways," Lass said. "Being able to get the information they need in a timely way, that is immediately actionable, means educators have time for other things."

Lass said Nebraska is the 14th state to directly license the Ed-Fi Alliance's tool suite. The others include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Three states currently involved in the Ed-Fi Alliance have not publicly disclosed the relationship, said Lass, who would not identify the states. The Ed-Fi tool-suite is also being licensed by inBloom, Inc., another nonprofit that warehouses student data and makes it available to districts—and, in some cases, third-party vendors—in a handful of states.

A Major Switch

The Ed-Fi Alliance licenses its tool suite to states for free, although most, including Nebraska, eventually have to contract with an outside vendor to fully implement the new approach.

"It would be a lot easier if we had a single statewide student information system that we were connecting to," said Folkers of the Nebraska Department of Education. "But we have about 15 different systems that exist in our [249] districts, and not all are deployed in the same way."

Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit, said that's a common challenge.

"States are seeing there's a great return on investment by bringing in a vendor or nonprofit to help them with these systems," Guidera said. "Very few state agencies have the capacity to do this on their own right now."

Each year, the Data Quality Campaign surveys the extent to which each state is creating "a culture of effective data use." In 2012, the group found that Nebraska was at the lower end of the spectrum of states, having implemented just three of 10 recommended action steps.

Joining the Ed-Fi Alliance, said Guidera, will help Nebraska transition from collecting isolated pieces of data primarily for compliance purposes to developing an integrated system that allows data to inform everything from state policy to classroom instruction.

The next step, she said, is to "increase the data literacy of educators."

Folkers said that's already on Nebraska's to-do list. As part of a federal grant to build its longitudinal data systems, the state department of education is planning extensive statewide professional development on how to analyze and use data.

Folkers also stressed that protecting students' privacy will be paramount and that participation in the effort will not be mandatory.

"We're really trying to provide a tool that teachers will use," he said.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed tech policies, practices, and trends.

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