States’ Ed-Tech Directors Working to Make Student Data More Useful for Instruction

Associate Editor

States are collecting more student data than ever, but aren’t managing it in a way that helps districts make decisions that support teaching and learning. A new, national report hopes to change that, based on suggestions from state ed-tech and academic leaders that could improve the use of that data by educators.

“The systems we use to collect, manage, analyze and report on data are often disconnected and don’t work well together,” wrote the authors of a new report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association or SETDA, which convened officials from nine states to lay the groundwork for a better future of data sharing.

Figuring out how to fix this problem requires data interoperability of technology, which refers to the ability for apps to exchange data seamlessly, in a secure and controlled way. Right now, that level of data exchange is more the exception than the rule in most educational technology, at the district level and beyond.

A major reason: most states have systems from multiple vendors, and their districts have additional systems and applications that have had limited or no underlying data standards, according to the study, State Education Leadership for Interoperability: Leveraging Data for Academic ExcellenceAgreeing on a plan to implement interoperability and the standards that go with it is a step that could help, according to the study.

The report is an outgrowth of an initial meeting held last December with representatives of the selected states and invited vendors, said Tracy Weeks, executive director of SETDA, in an interview. The conversation was “around what states are doing, what’s the vision for it, and if we started to build next steps to the best future, what would they be?” she said. Included in the conversation were academic and technology representatives from the states’ departments of education.

From this point, “we really need to build a roadmap,” said Weeks. “What are all the common efforts going on that we can identify? All states are working on portability of data from state to state. They’re looking deeply at instructional content and materials. What’s behind the state line?”

While many states are applying interoperability solutions to existing practices, few are applying those solutions to “transform current practices to support new learning models,” the report said.

Types of student data mentioned include demographics, assessment results, teacher observations, student-created content, attendance, and course grades. “Ideally, data from multiple products such as a learning management system, a student information system, and learning object repositories will be aligned to the same common data standards,” the report said. But states and districts will have to agree on what standards apply. States could use interoperability goals to increase graduation rates, establish more career pathways, increase summative assessment scores, and more, according to SETDA.

Seven practices were identified and recommended by the group. The first was to leverage the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which the group agreed is an “opportunity to drive change” because systems need to be interoperable to easily share data, according to the report. Since each title within ESSA supports personalized learning with technology, the report recommends that states consider pooling their set-aside funds to engage in coordinated interoperability activities.

Other suggested practices included: forming data governance boards or structures; developing an implementation plan that’s flexible; sharing best practices; encouraging stakeholder buy-in; collaborating with districts and communicating with vendors.

The nine states that participated in the discussion were: Delaware, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Asked why states like California, New York, Florida and Texas had not been part of the study, Weeks said these nine were identified based on the question, “Which states do we see out there as leaders” trying to make a difference on interoperability at the state level?

Examples of how states are addressing the issue:

  • Oregon is promoting Project Unicorn, which released a vendor pledge, as an effort to improve data interoperability in K-12 education through the procurement process;
  • Georgia created a “statewide longitudinal data system” that includes most of the applications districts need;
  • North Carolina uses a mandated enterprise statewide student information system that allows automatic transfer of student data across districts; and
  • Utah maintains a data clearinghouse that gathers and stores student data from schools, and is considering adopting a statewide data standard, developing a statewide student information systen that includes a dashboard to facilitate the use of the data.

Weeks said vendors with some stake in the matter were invited to participate in the SETDA meeting that laid the foundation for this report. Private sector partners included AEM Education Services, D2L, ClassLink, Amazon Web Services, MIDAS Education, NWEA, Smarter Balanced, and Eduvate, as well as the National Center for Education Statistics and two nonprofit organizations focused on interoperability: IMS Global Learning Consortium and the Ed-Fi Alliance, a project of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which is supporting the research.

An appendix to the report includes eight non-profit organizations supporting interoperability efforts, as well as five organizations developing common data standards—including IMS Global and Ed-Fi.

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