Standardizing Student Data: How to Make it Relevant

Schools have long dealt with data, tracking students' personal information, grades, courses, attendance and the like. But for the most part, these records have been scattered across filing systems -- electronic and otherwise. Although most states have implemented some sort of system by which to collect and monitor students' data, these often remain disconnected. Many databases are not online, and when they are, data often isn't transmissible because of different databases and file systems.

Efforts are underway to help standardize student data, and this week, two new developments occurred in this vein.

As EdWeek's Sarah Sparks reports, the Common Education Data Standards Initiative released the first draft of the second stage of its core data definitions.

The initiative has been working on these standards for almost a year now, trying to devise standards so that a student's school-related information can move with him. As it stands, even within districts, it's been difficult to transfer students' data throughout their academic career.  This new development makes it easier to track the data, whether it's a matter of moving from grade school through high school or from high school to college, or moving from one school to another, in the same or different city or district.

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It will be done by creating a common framework for the fields of information schools track. Some are obvious: name, address, city, zip. But they get increasingly complex: teacher base salary, student race/ethnicity, grade level ("junior" versus "grade 11" for example), course name, Common Core Standard alignment, to name just a few examples.

"We're very interested in expanding the common language for states to be able to talk to each other and do research together on how to improve student performance, program effectiveness and things like that," says Gary West, the strategic initiatives director for information systems at the Council of Chief State School Officers in the EdWeek article. The group is one of the partners in the data initiative. West reports that, so far, 30 states have started to include these standardized definitions as part of their own student data systems.

And that's actually what qualifies it as a "standard" -- how widespread the adoption is. Even if one group or another proposes a standard, if it isn't implemented widely, then it's not as relevant. And interestingly, the same week that the Common Education Data Standards Initiative released its proposals, another group has thrown its version into the ring. It's the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which is proposing an Ed-Fi data standard. It too seeks to make the transfer of information between systems possible. What sets it apart from other standards, according to EdWeek is that it is the "only free large-scale data standard."

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Both of these initiatives are asking for public input and have comment periods that run through the end of next month. While the question of "what is standard" still remains unanswered, students and schools need better data portability and standardization so that what we do know about students, teachers, and schools isn't trapped in one particular database or system and so that students can carry their data, much like their portfolio of work, throughout their academic careers and into their professional ones.

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