Illinois is about to embark on a new system that will make self-described “data wonks” bug-eyed. They’ll be able to delve into arcane details of test results and graduation rates, among other statistics collected from the state’s 877 school districts each year. What’s different about this new system is that it will track the same group of students from the time they learn their alphabet to the time they embark on college or careers.
State Superintendent Christopher Koch, a passionate data miner, sees more than numbers. He sees trends and gaps and teaching methods that beg new policy questions: how to help high-school students with learning disabilities gain access to pertinent information, for instance.
“That was a much more precise question that helped drive instruction within a building,” he says, recalling his days as a special education teacher.
Now the state’s top school administrator, Koch is leading the effort to develop a so-called longitudinal data system. The continuous stream of information could reveal whether teachers and coursework adequately prepare students for life after high school.
The way that states use data is evolving nationwide, Koch says. Chief state school officials are integrating data into everything from drafting budgets to shaping policies.
In Illinois, educators have collected and analyzed loads of data since the federal No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2001. But this new longitudinal data will allow a more in-depth, comprehensive view of students’ progress.
Ultimately, longitudinal data could show policymakers where to invest time and energy to improve student achievement. In addition, the state’s use of the data could attract federal attention — and funding — as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasizes the need for data-driven reform as part of the federal stimulus package and as a new approach, in general.
But before any of that can happen, the state has to convince teachers that they can’t be penalized by the data results and that it’s worth their time in an already crammed school year.
The value of the system is spelled out in the state legislation that helped create it. Senate Bill 1828 instructs the State Board of Education to link student test scores, length of enrollment and graduation records over time. The system also would connect students to career planning and resources, potentially facilitating the application process for financial aid and records for transfer students.
As it has since No Child Left Behind, the state board will use a unique but anonymous code to identify each student and teacher. A Web site is supposed to allow the public to see clusters of information, although education officials will have various levels of clearance to see more detailed data than the general public.
Parents, for instance, could see how a classroom performed but would be unable to look up an individual student, says Jonathan Furr, senior counsel in the Chicago office of the Holland & Knight consulting firm, which is contracting with the state to develop the system. Furr also served as general counsel for the State Board of Education from 2004 to 2006.
“It is not intended, nor can it be used pursuant to federal laws, as a, ‘I’d like to see how Jane Smith eventually performed in college and what her workforce role is,” Furr says.
On the other hand, parents might be able to look at 18 students in a history course to see how they performed in college. “You have to have more than just a handful of students to make any kind of valid determinations of what an effective program is,” he says.
Teachers could use the data to assess student performance on standardized tests, or they could coordinate with teachers in other grade levels to set curricula. Principals could apply it to see whether teachers effectively convey lessons, or they could find out which students weren’t tested and why. Parents could employ it to gauge whether they’re happy with a school’s performance or whether they want to send their children elsewhere.
Business and civic organizations, furthermore, could use it to monitor the future workforce and citizenry, as well as to keep a watchful eye on how and where the state spends taxpayer dollars.
But it’s not a panacea, says Republican Rep. Roger Eddy, who also is a school superintendent in Hutsonville. Compiling the data is just one step.
“I think it’s a good step, but data alone does not improve schools. You have to be able to implement programs that will successfully act on the deficiencies that the data finds.”
Teachers’ unions started out opposing the legislation to create the system.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers’ first response was that the depth of the new data, the potential uses of the information and the easy access to the system sparked concern, says Amy Alsop, the union’s professional development director who is based in Fairview Heights near St. Louis.
She says: “[Because] this is new and the data is so powerful — and has so much potential to do both good and harm, depending on how it’s used — the use of the new data to evaluate teachers should require an agreement between school districts and local unions.”
If school officials wanted to use the new data as a way to evaluate teachers and determine their pay or their benefits — under a system called merit pay — then the legislation would require them to negotiate with the local union’s bargaining unit until they both agreed.
The cost of the system, so far, is covered by a $9 million federal grant. The State Board of Education estimates the first-year cost of developing the program at about $1.1 million, followed by about $2.5 million each of the next three years. Once the grant runs out, the legislature would have to approve funding to maintain the system.
But Illinois is well-positioned to receive more federal assistance as part of the federal stimulus package. Duncan, former Chicago Public Schools chief, says states need to achieve four elements to earn stimulus funds. A longitudinal data system is one of them.
Illinois is ahead of the game, says Connie Wise, assistant state superintendent of standards and assessment. She says she has been working for a number of years to build a so-called data warehouse to help assess the state’s progress in meeting No Child Left Behind standards. Then, in the fall of 2008, even before a national banking crisis created the need for a stimulus program, the State Board of Education applied for a grant to develop a longitudinal data system and received it in March.
Illinois was one of 27 states to get the grant this fiscal year as part of a nationwide effort to use data to guide policy changes.
It’s part of an initiative spearheaded by the Minnesota-based Data Quality Campaign. Executive Director Aimee Guidera says Illinois will be well- positioned to receive more funding through competitive stimulus grants called Race to the Top funds. Duncan will be able to dole out competitive grants to reward states that are furthest ahead in building their data systems, Guidera says.
“Because they are also the ones that are poised to take advantage of saying, ‘Now that we’ve built these systems, how do we really get the information out of these systems to use it, to inform decision- making, to inform good policymaking, to inform teaching and learning?”
To shift focus from merely collecting data to actually applying it, Guidera says states will have to ensure all the information is linked and able to be shared throughout state and local systems. And teachers need time and training to understand how to access and decipher the information.
For instance, if test scores in math reveal that the curriculum isn’t effectively teaching students, then the question for local officials is whether that teacher has the ability and the time to change the curriculum halfway through the year.
The state legislation guiding the implementation of the program also requires the State Board of Education to provide technical support to local districts. But districts might still have to hire someone to help with the technical aspects of matching their data to the state’s classification system for courses.
On the other hand, Koch says he anticipates that the new “data warehouse” will reduce the amount of data collected from local districts. “Right now, they may be entering the same data for four or five different databases,” he says. “This would allow us to just collect it once, and that will save them time and make the entire data process more efficient.”
Business executives of the Illinois Business Roundtable and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago support the development of the new system.
“I don’t think there’s any single thing that could be done, a more important thing that could be done, on a system-wide basis than this one reform,” says Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a nonpartisan group that advocates for education, civil justice and economic issues. “With this system, once it’s fully operational, you’re going to be able to see the kind of rigor of the classes that these kids were offered and the success of the kids when they graduate high school, when they go into the university or the work setting.”
Mays also sits on the school board for Quincy Public School District 172. He says the first thing he’ll look for in the new data is how kids handle the transition from elementary to middle school. Citing a report by the Business Roundtable, Mays says about three-fourths of eighth-graders in Quincy met state standards in math, reading and science. But the graduating class of 2009 performed much poorer on standardized tests, including the ACT college entrance exam.
The problem is not the students’ abilities, he says, it’s the standards. The relatively easy standards on the elementary school tests inflate results that set up large numbers of students to fail once they get to high school, the report says.
The discrepancy, Mays says, underscores the need for uniform, accurate measures of student progress over time.
While the state spends one-third of its general funds, or more than $10 billion, on public education, according to the state comptroller, Mays says local decision-makers have had to rely on anecdotal evidence to suggest policies.
Longitudinal data, he says, is a “game-changer.”
“The real question is, how have we made these decisions in the absence of this data?”
R. Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, says his organization’s interest is more than just economic or business-related. “The interest in having adults who can function in a technology society, who can hold jobs, who can support their families and who can function as citizens is a much broader way to look at this than just having somebody go and work on a technology line in a factory someplace.” Having clear data on school performance will help underscore the need for fundamental reforms, which, Martin adds, are not limited to funding reform.
“I think you need to do a lot more to improve the way money is spent and the way the schools are managed,” he says. “Just to throw money at them isn’t going to change much, if anything.”
Guidera of the Data Quality Campaign says because information will be presented in new and different ways, “parents, teachers, administrators, the public in general, will start having access to information they’ve never had before, and that’s a game-changing situation because all of a sudden, people are going to start demanding more information and asking more questions.”
Illinois Issues, June 2009