Following the Facts
Many education leaders feel that better student data tracking systems are essential to improving students' performance at both the K-12 and college levels. Databases that offer detailed information about individual students help educators implement sweeping changes while still fine-tuning the experience of each student. Florida, one of the earliest states to adopt student record systems, uses the data for everything from adjusting tuition costs at state universities to improving specific courses at teachers' colleges.
Student data can be as useful for teachers in the classroom as it can be for administrators. A recent report by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation indicates that many school districts have implemented effective performance management strategies that rely on detailed student databases. The study cites the case of a young student in the Austin Independent School District who was on track for graduating from high school but struggling to improve in a crucial subject to be successful in college: algebra. By comparing his performance with data from comparable students, his teachers were able to tailor his math studies and get his academic achievement back up before he failed a class.
Education Secretary Arnie Duncan
It is with an eye on this kind of progress that both the Bush and Obama administrations have pushed for improved student data tracking. However, the Bush administration took a top-down approach that met a lot of resistance - very few states were willing to hand over detailed personal information on individuals to a federal database. In July 2008 Congress passed a law banning the Education Department from creating any nationwide student-specific, or 'unit record,' system to track student data.
Learning from Bush's mistake, the Obama administration is trying a different approach towards achieving the same goal. Rather than trying to create a federal database, the Education Department has strongly encouraged states to implement their own tracking systems. This has been met with much greater cooperation - Congress even approved $250 million in the 2009 economic stimulus package to help states build their own systems.
From the Data Quality Campaign's 2009 survey of state-level student data collection systems.
These efforts have in turn seen a remarkable amount of participation from school districts and higher education. According to a November survey by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), at least 31 states are managing student databases with some college participation. This is up from only 12 in 2005.
Even more impressive, the survey showed that every single state in the U.S. has implemented at least three of what the DQC calls the 10 essential state longitudinal data system elements. As the map above indicates, most have implemented at least 4-6, and a full 10 states have implemented all of the measures. Those key elements are:
- A statewide student identifier
- Student-level enrollment data
- Student-level test data
- Information on untested students
- Statewide teacher-identifier w. teacher-student match
- Student-level course completion data (transcripts)
- Student-level SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) Exam Data
- Student-level graduation and dropout data
- Ability to match student-level preschool-12 and higher education data
- A state audit data system
Not all institutions are eager to jump on the unit-record bandwagon, however. Many private colleges continue to have strong reservations about student privacy. They argue that the significant intrusion represented by student-specific identifiers is not necessary for student databases to be useful. In fact, institutions have long supplied data on grades, course completion, graduation rates and related topics for groups of students. Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College, contends that educators and policymakers should be able to achieve the same results with these traditional survey methods. Leaders at many private colleges and universities across the country have taken the same position, cooperating only on a very limited basis with statewide student record systems.
Muriel Howard, American Association of State Colleges and Universities president, argues that states have had no trouble thus far handling individual student data without privacy violations. She expressed hope that greater participation from private colleges would allow for more detailed tracking of students who move or change schools and a more accurate comparison between public and private institutions.