When Pam Williams wanted to learn about a new student a few years ago, the Georgia teacher often spent hours perusing file cabinets and following a long trail of paper records.
Tracking down files consumed much of her time. The paper records also did not provide a complete picture of her class.
To improve access to student information, the Georgia Department of Education obtained a federal grant and launched a new data system in September 2010. All of the state’s 180 school districts elected to join the voluntary program, which provides teachers with grades, test scores, demographic information, attendance records and numerous other data.
“I can access data now with my right click that I used to have to access in a vault,” said Williams, a government and economics teacher at Appling County High School.
A Data Quality Campaign report released Thursday shows Georgia and other states recently made significant strides in building education data systems. But challenges still remain in changing how educators perceive data, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group.
The study found all states now maintain robust data systems, enabling educators to track a student’s progress over time. These systems typically provide extensive information beyond basic test scores.
"For the first time, every state now has the capacity to empower education stakeholders," said Aimee Guidera, the campaign's executive director.
Georgia’s longitudinal data system, for example, helps Williams tailor her teaching plans. Each time she greets a new class, she adjusts her approach for teaching the material. Williams also frequently groups students within a class based on their academic data.
Bob Swiggum, the Georgia Department of Education’s chief information officer, said another main advantage of the system is that it quickly provides teachers with six years of information on students who move to a new district. Before, it took up to two months to transfer records.
“There were a lot of times that children could fall between the cracks because of poor access to data,” Williams said.
Still, the report indicates many states face challenges in fully leveraging their systems. These don’t involve buying new computers or hardware. Rather, changing the mentality about education data is the most difficult to overcome.
Cultures and agency boundaries are common obstacles. The Data Quality Campaign reports 38 states had not established policies for sharing education data among agencies.
The group also finds many educators express skepticism about reasons for collecting education data. In many school systems, data showing poor performance was traditionally used as justification for punishment.
In Georgia, earning trust from skeptical educators was a top priority.
“The technology was never the issue,” Swiggum said. “It was about the perception if this was something that would save us time and effort.”
The department opted to make the system voluntary as to not impose upon local districts. The development team also sought feedback from educators.
“We set about making sure our 120,000 teachers saw value in it because they are the ones who will ultimately make it successful,” Swiggum said.
Compiling the data, though, can’t benefit educators if they don’t know how to use it.
The report identified improving data literacy as another priority for states. Only 10 states had policies requiring data literacy for both program approval and educator certification.
In Oregon, the state Department of Education has certified thousands of instructors in data training. Everyone from teachers to school board members can access a secure website with relevant data.
"We have a pretty progressive group of educators in Oregon that embrace the power of data," said Doug Kosty, assistant superintendent of the department's Office of Assessment and Information Services.
Oregon, along with Washington state, Idaho and Hawaii, also participate in an ongoing effort to share education data across state borders. The initiative, supported by the Gates Foundation, is in the early stages.
Kosty said the states ultimately plan to share records at the K-12 and K-12 to post secondary levels. Oregon also expects to further collect and share graduate workforce data.
"I think we’ve made enormous progress over 14 or 15 years, but there is still a ton of work to do,” Kosty said.
GOVERNING By the Numbers is a companion to GOVERNING Data that digests the growing body of work at the intersection of computer-assisted journalism, data visualization and government transparency.
GOVERNING By the Numbers is dedicated to telling important stories through numbers, with a focus on both our original work in data visualization on GOVERING Data and providing an ongoing tally of editor's picks of new and notable data releases of use to those in government and those who care about it.