N.C. to implement unified student records database

Although a previous administration tried and failed to implement a nationwide student-record database, President Barack Obama is trying again, albeit in a different manner.

The Obama administration is encouraging states to implement their own systems, providing $250 million in stimulus funds. This is a compromise Congress came to after deciding states must implement the data tracking policies themselves and report the data to the federal government. The database would compile student records of individual performance from preschool through adult employment.

“Longitudinal data systems in general play an important role in education,” said Justin Hamilton, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, discussing the importance of the database. “[The databases] tell us what’s working in the classroom, what techniques are effective and which colleges of education are turning out great teachers.”

Multiple states including North Carolina, Wyoming and Florida have been actively implementing these data tracking systems. But the Tar Heel state has been ahead of other states for a while, said Karl Pond, enterprise data manager for the N.C. Department of Instruction.

“We’ve always collected student-level data,” he said. “What we didn’t have was a [unique ID], which we do now. Now it’s a lot easier.”

Prior to having a UID, the state had to use different algorithms to collect and integrate statistics from the 20 to 30 different data collection systems in North Carolina, Pond said.

Data collected are similar among states because they are required to submit the information to the federal government or receive a reduction in federal education funding.

The Wyoming Department of Education provides student-level data for the departments, aggregate reports for the public and disaggregate data for districts, said Meredith Bickell, technical services supervisor for the department.

All schools in North Carolina are required to submit data on student performance. The information collected ranges from student and staff demographics to data pertaining to teacher education, certification, programs and whether a student is delinquent, homeless or an immigrant.

This information is collected within separate systems and an algorithm is used to compile a complete student record, Pond said.

Data can be particularly useful to legislators, state policy makers and researchers within a state, said Jeff Sellers, deputy commissioner for accountability, research and measurement of the Florida Department of Education.

“As [state legislators] are developing and defining policy, [the data system] is able to be a tool for them to run models of the impact of these policies, but we are also able to evaluate the policies over time,” he said.

For many states, these data collection systems are not new.

Florida has had a university data collection system since the late 1970s, and the K-12, career and technical education and community college systems have been used since the 1980s, Sellers said. Bickell noted that the Wyoming Department of Education has had its data system in place since 1989.

Although student privacy issues have derailed attempts to collect student data on a national scale, Pond said individual level data is very secure.

“There is a lot of concern about our data getting out, but it is not big brother watching,” he said. “No data is sent to the government on the individual level—everything posted is aggregated. Every precaution is taken to protect the individual.”

Pond added that when North Carolina gets its new system feeders up and running, the same rules and regulations will apply to it also.

“Everyone is held to the same guidelines that we have,” he said.

The Department of Education is also very strict with privacy laws, since states are expected to follow the privacy laws outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 data requirements, Hamilton said.

But students are still concerned with the privacy aspect of the database system.

“As long as the name isn’t included in the data, I think the [system] could be helpful in terms of seeing which areas the United States can improve in,” sophomore Jonathan Lee said.

All three states are also looking to expand their databases in the future and possibly make the collected information available to a wider audience while maintaining appropriate security levels.

“Our intent is to open up our data to the world, make it secure, aggregated and non-identified,” Pond said. She added that if a school is performing poorly in one area while another institution is doing well, the open data system should help to foster conversation between them.

The Department of Education is also looking to change in the future, Hamilton said.

“We want to improve the way we protect student privacy while meeting the public’s demands for transparency and accountability,” he said.


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