Stepping Into the Complex World of Education Data Systems

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

Stepping into the complex world of education data systems In a recent research project, I started to take a few steps into the complex world of education data systems. Previously, my exposure to data systems was as a teacher, when I knew better than to forget to enter attendance at the beginning of the day. The extent of my understanding was that my students’ attendance would find its way to the district and the state, and one magic day per year, that data would determine how much money my school received.

In short, more kids = more money.

I also knew, however, that the value of my attendance data went far beyond the number of copies my school could afford to make in a given year; the chronic absences of some of my kindergartners was beginning a treacherous path of academic struggle. Despite organizations, research, and local campaigns that recognize that attendance data provides valuable insight to student achievement, states and districts often maintain a funding-driven view of attendance, which leaves schools—often individual teachers—to grapple with the deeper ramifications of absenteeism.

One of today’s most hotly contested data points is the annual standardized test score. The vast majority of states compile student assessment data once per year in order to determine the school or district accountability rating. While this data is valuable to bring light to inequalities that exist in the education system, its use is stunted when it doesn’t translate to action that improves schools and student outcomes.

Any teacher knows that the process of supporting students involves constantly checking in and providing feedback. Assessments determine next steps, not the final value of a student’s knowledge. Teachers continually collect data to support student growth, and states should do the same for districts and schools.

In my research to learn more about state data systems, I wanted to know which states have systems that link with district systems to ultimately provide real-time support. As a usually-shameless idealist, I have been sorely disappointed by the word that appears on too many department of education websites to tell the story of their data systems: compliance.

To be fair, I love rules and prefer to follow them to a fault. However, compliance without embracing the true intention—or at the very least understanding the true intention— is a waste of time.

State departments of education can be vehicles of equity and increased opportunities for all children, or they can continue the age-old tradition of honoring high achievers and shaming the strugglers. Some type of middle ground may exist, but when data is pulled once yearly from a few hours of tests, that middle ground is feeble.

This is why I am excited about states like Virginia and New Hampshire (among a few others) that understand that it is not really possible to actualize school improvement when data is collected, analyzed, and acted upon once per year.


States that are serious about supporting schools could take a page out of Virginia’s book, where an early warning system collects student data throughout the year to target interventions to students at risk of dropping out and to identify school climate elements that may contribute to dropout rates.

New Hampshire

As the leader in implementing competency education, New Hampshire recognized the need for a state data system that was better equipped to communicate with district systems and provide necessary supports. The Initiative for School Empowerment and Excellence reduces the burden on schools and gives information back to schools based on regularly collected data to encourage student achievement through rigorous data use and analysis.

By encouraging states to develop data systems with complete information, the Data Quality Campaign has been essential to the first step of creating meaningful data systems across the country. With data collection getting better and better, the next step must address the use of this data. Collection and compliance alone have not and will not support students in reaching their full potential.