How Smarter Data Can Save U.S. Education

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Collecting data on individual students over time may give educators the insight they need to fix America's schools.

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Here's one reason why No Child Left Behind is all but a failed initiative: One of its main metrics, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), is a horrendous measure of educational progress.

With AYP, each state sets its own goals and assesses progress with its own metric. If one state meets AYP and another one does not, it's impossible to make a comparison. NCLB relied on data for improvement, but that data was so unscientific that it hardly had a chance at success. 

But, as a report from the Data Quality Campaign released today concludes, we may be on the verge of meaningful, data-backed reforms. Many states and school districts now have the capability to track individual students longitudinally, which means educators can compile electronic data of a student's yearly progress. In the aggregate, this information is invaluable as it pinpoints, rather than guesses at, the crucial milestones that mark the path toward higher-ed or career success.


"We couldn't have done this ten years ago," Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign explains. When No Child Left behind started, the data platform it needed to succeed simply didn't exist. But, what the program did do effectively, Guidera says, is create a call for transparency in educational data. "AYP was all we had," she says. "Now, because states have the ability to follow students over time, every state has the capability to have a growth model." 

Below is an example of what a longitudinal report looks like. It shows a student's most likely outcome in the next grade, given his or her past progress. In this case, the student is proficient, but this data would help educators better recognize warning signs that he or she might fall off track -- and into that dark "unsatisfactory" region.

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If this makes education sound a lot like a business -- with growth models and performance reviews -- that's because, in a way, it is. Making good business decisions requires good data, but education hasn't always had access to that. "We've been asking them to do all these great things without giving them any feedback on what they are doing," Guidera says of America's schools. 
In compiling these reports and making them transparent (anonymously) to other educators and parents, schools can better predict what makes for success after high school. Schools can even see how many of their students need remediation when they arrive at college. If those numbers are high, they can update their curricula to better prepare students for college-level courses.

It's an approach that appears to be working, at least anecdotally. Kentucky has been tracking its students' progress longitudinally since the early 2000s. From 2002 to 2008, Kentucky students saw significant increases in college readiness, and decreases in the need for remediation upon reaching college, according to the Data Quality Campaign.

Comparability across states is still a problem, but Guidera says more states are adopting similar metrics. Perhaps if NCLB gets a reform, smart data will play a key role.
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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