Students Come First: Why State Agencies Must Work Together to Embrace Data

Prioritizing data may be key to effecting policy change and improving student outcomes

GUEST COLUMN | by Maureen Wentworth

It didn’t take long for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to shed a light on key issues within the K-12 education space. Within a few months, it became increasingly clear that the way we’ve always captured student attendance data was insufficient to meet the needs of the moment.

Overnight, students moved to online and blended learning models, and ambiguity around how to accurately capture attendance information, such as exact data around when and for how long they’re absent, receiving virtual instruction, or in some other instructional modality, began to surface. We had no framework for how to accurately record these crucial student data points.

‘This is an evolution of education – and the future of instructional equity.’

Even as much of the country gets vaccinated and moves slowly towards normalcy, understanding how to provide equitable support for students must remain a top priority for institutions. For state education agencies (SEAs), this means being an advocate for standardizing student data specifications, particularly regarding how each learner is participating in instruction.

The COVID-19 Slide and Journey to Reopening Schools  

The importance of students going back to school cannot be understated, and ensuring the safe reopening of schools is a top priority for educators everywhere. As states and districts make strategic decisions about how to reopen (and stay open) safely, they need clear, consistent, accurate, and near real-time data. Without an agreed-upon approach between states and districts about what student data to collect, making sound decisions about school operations is almost impossible.

So, while the main reasons for collecting student attendance data are for state accountability and auditing purposes, the benefits also extend into schools and classrooms, whether physical or virtual. District administrators and policymakers will have greater access to the comprehensive data needed when planning school logistics and operational support.

For teachers, data that is connected through a standard help to provide a real-time view of the students on their roster. This granularity allows instructors to provide more individual attention to students, which is especially crucial when considering how varied each learner’s circumstances are throughout the pandemic. 

How Data-Driven Insights Help to Increase Digital Equity

Providing resources and technical assistance to schools should not be approached with a “one-size-fits-all” mindset. To equitably deploy provisions, state agencies have a responsibility to first analyze data to accurately diagnose what a specific school district needs. Consider the following scenario:

District A is using a hybrid model of instruction. Students are physically in school for two days and distance learning from home for three. While engaged in virtual learning, student access to broadband connection is varied, leaving district and state leaders struggling to understand what these students need to fully engage in learning. Of course, before the SEA can direct funds to schools, homes, and under-resourced communities, it must first be able to identify a gap in digital equity. And the quickest and most effective way to do this is by analyzing a comprehensive and standardized data set.

In the absence of an agreed-upon data standard, each school within a district is left collecting data in disconnected silos or worse, relying on anecdotal evidence and intuition, making it even more cumbersome to identify patterns, provide assistance, or help solve challenges. Sadly, this is the reality for many school districts across the country: Outdated and siloed data are obscuring the full picture.

Community + Collaboration = Success

A school, a district, a state. These should not be treated as separate entities. Together, they create a unified community working toward a common goal: Improve student outcomes and achievement.

In many ways, states have the power of influence, and thus must set an example for other entities, including and especially other states. By leading the way and advocating for greater community collaboration and data standardization, states can work more efficiently and effectively. Most importantly, SEAs can be a champion for their schools and students, and help to inform smart education policy decisions.

A Call to Action for SEAs: Work Together

While the pandemic exacerbated the challenges brought on by a lack of data standardization, it merely shed a light on what the education space already knew. Without the full breadth of connected student data, increasing the quality of education remains at a standstill. At best, nothing changes. At worst, students are at increased risk of truancy, teachers don’t receive the support they need, and state education systems cannot keep up with the pace of innovation.

There’s much work to be done, and states have a responsibility to lead the way. This is an evolution of education – and the future of instructional equity.

Maureen Wentworth is the Manager of Strategic Partnerships for the Ed-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to helping every school district and state achieve data interoperability. By connecting educational data systems, the Ed-Fi Alliance empowers educators with comprehensive, real-time insights into their students’ performance and needs. In this role, Maureen serves as part of the leadership team working to drive meaningful adoption of the Ed-Fi Standard, leading outreach and support across state education agencies and helping to guide the direction of the Ed-Fi community. Learn more about Ed-Fi’s work with State Education Agencies here.


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