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Unleashing the Power of Data

Over the past several years, I have embraced (or is it accepted?) the reality that I am a bit of a data geek. The power of data has appealed to the generalist in me – it can help to explain and quantify a whole host of social challenges, and ideally help to inform a whole host of possible solutions. Data may not always provide the answer, but I have increasingly noted its power to start conversations that may not have otherwise been had. In the education world, there are new ways of linking and analyzing data that have allowed a greater understanding of the performance of our students as they progress through the education system.

Take, for example, what is possible with data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), an organization that links data from the post-secondary and K-12 systems. This allows districts and schools to understand how their students fare in college, and colleges to know more about their students’ preparation and experiences in high school. I recently talked to a woman working on college access for high school students in a rural school district in Washington State, who has used NSC data (via the BERC Group, a Seattle-based research and evaluation firm that makes Washington State data publicly available through their website). In her district – serving 7500 students, 45% of whom are Hispanic – she helps high school students prepare for college – with supports like mentoring and financial aid assistance. When she learned about the college outcomes for the district’s Hispanic graduates, she decided to share this information with the district superintendent and other administrators. She played a game at a meeting with district administrators, asking them to guess how many, of 120 Hispanic graduates, had gone onto a four-year college. The assistant superintendent guessed half – 60 students had enrolled in a four-year institution. The actual answer was two. It was a stunning and eye-opening moment. Before this, the district didn’t know what was happening to its graduates in college. With this data, they learned that the situation was bleak and needed attention.

Linking educational data fills an important knowledge gap. Schools and districts have long been attuned to student outcomes in the K-12 system – how students perform on state assessments and how many graduate, for example. Linking data, however, allows districts to know not just about students while they are “theirs” in the K-12 system, but to track what happens after they graduate. This information also starts critical conversations between the K-12 and post-secondary systems. While looking at student outcomes in college doesn’t point to a solution, it does bring greater clarity to what is happening and where there are problems. There are increasing conversations between districts and colleges about remediation for incoming college students. Using linked data, one can quantify how many students are taking remedial courses before they are eligible for college-level, credit-bearing coursework, and examine the courses they took and how they performed in high school. Having access to this data also gives direction toward finding a solution. For example, it is possible to identify how high school courses and performance align to positive post-secondary outcomes, including avoidance of remediation, passing of credit-bearing courses, and ultimately persistence and completion. Tracking data across the K-12 and college systems brings critical information to bear on the “what is college ready” conversation.

As I embrace my inner data geek, I am pleased to see that such advances are gaining the attention of many administrators and practitioners in the field. Where are you seeing data being connected across systems? How is it being used to fill knowledge gaps, start conversations, and inform solutions?