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States Trying to Help Districts Navigate New Data Streams

New federal grants and civil rights requirements have led states and districts to generate an unprecedented flood of data on students, from preschool through college, and states are now working to help districts make sense of it.

At the National Center for Education Statistics' annual data conference, many of the state and district presenters noted that their data systems have been changed or expanded by requirements from the state fiscal stabilization fund, Race to the Top, and state longitudinal data system grants—all created or expanded under the federal fiscal-stimulus law—and new school-level civil rights data reporting.

"We have invested a lot of time and a lot of money in building these [student data] systems, and I don't think we've crossed the line into using them effectively," said NCES Commissioner Sean P. "Jack" Buckley.

Patricia Sullivan, a data expert at the Texas Education Agency, said that although her state did not apply for Race to the Top grants, it did take stabilization money, and it has struggled to help its 1,200 school districts report newly required data without endangering student privacy.

"When you put down all the elements on students and teachers, we don't have a lot of that that was collected at the classroom level," Sullivan said. For example, though the state has collected both teacher and student data since 1991, it had never linked individual students to their teachers. Even now, Texas law does not permit the state to release individual teachers' performance, so the state reports aggregate data.

Texas conducted its first new data collection last week, though 147 districts are still in the process of responding. It has developed a "universal access" platform that would allow anyone, from researchers to administrators and teachers, to parents and community members, to analyze the data using new reports, with the first due to launch in April 2012. Yet Sullivan said the state researchers are having trouble convincing educators that using the data system could be useful.

"We went back to the [state] data committee and showed them the reports, and they didn't want any of them. We had people saying, 'We're trying to do this to help you make better decisions,' and they said, 'You already do enough reports about us, and the media only picks up on the bad news.'"

By contrast, Kansas seemed to be one of the leaders of the pack for research and data use. Katerina Grillot, a senior trainer at the Kansas department of education, said the state established a data quality certification program to train district information directors, administrators, and eventually teachers on how to properly collect, clean, and use the new data required. The courses include topics from basic student privacy protections to specialty electives on handling and understanding migrant and English-language learner data. Beginning with a pilot in 2007-08, the program has grown from 144 certifications awarded in 2009-10 to 354 certifications last year, and nearly 500 expected next year.

"I though with what was happening in our economy and what was happening in my state this year, we thought we'd see a drop off in our fourth year, and we did not," Grillot said. The state has also required annual continuing professional development for re-certification. "You can't come in once and know everything you need to work with student data," she said. "Regulations change, laws change."

Kansas also used state fiscal stabilization fund data to develop high school feedback reports from its System for Education Enterprise in Kansas. Principals and superintendents can track their high school graduates who have enrolled in two- and four-year colleges in the state within 16 months after graduation, according to data analyst Kelly Holder. An administrator can identify the types of colleges students are attending over time, the enrollment gaps among student subgroups, and compare college enrollment in a school to the district or state average.

Moreover, the system tracks which students have earned at least a year's worth of college credit within two years of starting college, and is in the process of linking students' math, reading and composite scores on the ACT exam to high school courses and college credits. A principal can identify the courses taken in high school that have been associated with the most college progress for his students after high school.

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