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Dell Foundation Launches Tool to Connect Student Data

After years of work and more than $250 million in federal support, nearly all states and many districts have established longitudinal student data systems for accountability, yet many of those systems, even within the same state, still can't talk to each other, nor easily provide data to answer daily instructional questions from educators and policymakers.

The Austin, Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is hoping its new Ed-Fi data standard, released this morning, will allow educators and researchers to access information on kindergarten through 12th grade from state and local systems even before the systems have been aligned.

"In reality, for millions of students and teachers, students show up on the first day of school and they are really not much more than a name and a grade on a page. People collect a lot of data and yet really fundamental questions are not able to be answered," said Lori M. Fey, the portfolio director for policy initiatives at the Dell Foundation. "We think [a data standard] is a fundamental building block that allows states to take advantage of what they already have."

Ed-Fi works with multiple longitudinal warehouses in the same way an ATM system might connect to multiple banks to identify a customer's account. It can pull data from various warehouses in a core set of areas, including demographics, attendance, grades, behavior reports, formative assessments, standardized test scores, and special education information, and translate them into a simplified format. The tool allows states and districts to develop their own tracking reports for individual and cohorts of students based on risk indicators like absenteeism. It also provides commonly used performance metrics for different benchmark indicators for accountability and reporting.

The new tool seems to be part of a wave of work in the past year to help educators and researchers make better use of the massive piles of data being collected on students and schools. The Common Data Standards Initiative's Technical Working Group released a set of common technical definitions for frequently collected data last September, and in June, the Association of Educational Publishers and Creative Commons announced a plan to create a standard coding language for all searchable educational content on the Web. While several individual states and districts also have been developing tools for "data dashboards," Dell's seems to be the only free large-scale data standard.

"When you think about it, the data in the K-12 world is pretty well known, and the relationships should be pretty well defined; it's not something that you should have to build it from scratch," said Reese Robinson, Delaware's project manager for Education Insight, the state's data initiative for the federal Race to the Top program. Yet he warned, "There are really not a lot of options out there. The [Common Data Standards Initiative's] handbooks are like dictionaries that tell you all the bits and pieces, but when you are building a system it doesn't really help you."

Delaware is one of five states—including Colorado, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee—that have signed on to use Dell's data standard. The state is incorporating the tool into its own data dashboard system, which it plans to roll out next spring.

"If we were creating this all from scratch, we would never be able to do this in one year," Reese told me. "There's a lot of information out there in terms of data maintained in schools. There's a need to have a common way of referring to things, so you know what you need to report."

Fey, of the Dell Foundation, said that the tool could be used both by states and for individual districts to connect data systems. But Reese said users would need to commit to using the standards holistically, not piecemeal. "It is working best when you adopt it lock stock and barrel," he said. "If you say, 'I like the standard but I want to change 20 percent of it to adapt to local needs,' you start to lose some of the benefits of the standard."

Moreover, while Ed-Fi does allow privacy controls on which users can see different pieces of data, it's still up to states and districts to create and enforce those rules. And the discussion on privacy standards for using these massive piles of data is by no means settled.

The standard isn't sufficient on its own to meet Race to the Top's lofty goal of connecting data to track students throughout their academic careers and into the workforce. The tool can connect any K-12 data system, but Fey said it cannot connect to higher education, preschool, juvenile justice, health, or labor databases. Yet she said the tool could be expanded as more states and districts use the tool and relay priorities for new data to be connected.

"For too long, we have expected teachers to go on data scavenger hunts to piece together holistic views of their students and classes," said Michael Dell, co-founder of the foundation, in a statement. "How many more children will miss opportunities to grow and succeed while the data schools already collect remains out of their teacher's reach and unexamined?"

Dell has opened a review and comment period on the new standards, running through the end of August. It plans to use the comments to plan improvements for future editions of the tool.

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