"It enables us to take all the different streams of data and mesh it together into incredibly visual reports." —Dane Conrad, CIO, Hattiesburg Public School District

Jan 06 2016

Schools Tap Big Data To Understand Trends

New analytics tools help districts identify at-risk students and gauge college and career readiness.

School districts navigating the new world of Big Data find more tools and technology available than ever before, offering greater insights as well as a host of services that can be leveraged to improve performance and other benchmarks.

In Mississippi, the Hattiesburg Public School District taps data analytics tools for more than student performance and behavior tracking. Officials there say such tools also allow them to spot trends, such as students who score lower in assessments or who repeatedly miss school. Principals and teachers can intervene sooner and take action before those become larger issues, CIO Dane Conrad says.

“It enables us to take all the different streams of data and mesh it together into incredibly visual reports,” he says. “That improves our ability to know more about our students and be proactive in responding to issues that we otherwise might not see.”

Some districts and state education departments increasingly view data analytics as an important part of their overall IT strategy. Business intelligence and data analytics tools not only help educators bolster student academic performance, but also allow district leaders to improve operations and administrative decisions.

To embark on such data-driven missions, districts must invest in new technology, from data analytics software to additional storage hardware, then train staff and faculty on how to use it.

Gus Vargas, technology manager of P3 Strategies, an education consulting firm in Jackson, Miss., says many district officials may feel they already have access to such reporting “because their student information system spits out a report on current-year data points, but that’s surface level. To make reporting useful, you need to connect silos of data, and compare historical data with the current year, so you know the context.”

How It’s Done

Schools and districts building their own data analytics stack should first consider the problem they’re trying to solve. Typically, the data stack comprises four layers: the data layer, the data preparation layer, the analysis layer and the presentation layer. Databases and storage tools make up the data layer, the raw ingredient that feeds the rest of the stack.

The preparation layer extracts the data from its sources and prepares it for the analysis tool. At the analysis layer, calculations make sense of the data, which is then pumped into the presentation layer, where users can see the results of the calculations, recognize trends and create charts or other visual displays to help others understand what the data show.

At any layer, new cloud-based tools offer districts the ability to store, manage and extract data more efficiently, allowing officials to put greater focus on how they can start to use all of the data that’s available.

What’s Possible?

Thanks to new data initiatives, officials in Spokane, Wash., Public Schools can more readily identify at-risk students and have improved graduation rates. In three years, the district’s graduation rate has risen nearly 8 percent, from 76.6 percent to 84.5 percent.

“It’s an early-warning system, and it’s definitely a key part of our overall success,” says Steven Gering, the district’s chief academic officer.

The district selected Tableau Software’s business intelligence tool and set up a wide-ranging data analytics system in-house by first installing the software on a virtualized server.

The IT team integrated data from separate applications using a Microsoft SQL Server database to build a data warehouse — a central repository pulls data from various sources, including the student information system, explains Jameus Hutchens, a senior applications specialist for the district. District programmers use Tableau to design a dashboard and create a variety of reports, or visualizations, of all the data the district needs.

On the back end, the software pulls the data from the data warehouse and performs the analysis, Hutchens says. The IT team also built a secure website that allows district leaders and school staff to log in and view the analytics and reports in easy-to-understand templates, he says.

Spokane hired a consultant in 2011 to study the educational history of two recent graduating classes and identify the greatest indicators of at-risk students. The consultant discovered that unexcused absences in elementary school and failing classes in high school were the greatest predictors of dropping out. Armed with that knowledge, the district sought to build its data analytics system around that, Gering says.

The software tool creates a profile of every student, updated daily. Grades, attendance, behavior and test scores are the top indicators weighed, and each contributes to an overall risk score for each student.

“Real-time data shows when kids are at risk, and it allows us to intervene early,” Gering says. “Once a student fails a class, it’s too late. But if we see in the first week of October that high school students are failing a class, we can get them academic assistance.”

College and Career Readiness

The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) also has embraced data analytics to help its 136 school districts track and improve performance.

The department collects huge volumes of data to meet state and federal reporting requirements and over the course of three years has developed about 20 web portals to provide reports designed to help district and school officials make more informed decisions, says Melinda Maddox, Alabama’s deputy state superintendent for technology and data.

The department has developed portals on graduation rates, assessment scores and the college and career readiness of high school students. It also has built software that serves as an early-warning system to identify students who could potentially drop out, she says.

ALSDE tapped a mix of technology to build out its solution. Some data is stored in an IBM Cognos data warehouse, while other data is stored in Microsoft SQL Server databases. The department developed most of its analytics solution in-house using Microsoft software tools, says Dom Martel, ALSDE’s coordinator for data and development.

Drilling Down

Back in Hattiesburg, Tableau Software’s data analytics tool and dashboards allow officials to analyze data on assessment scores, grades, attendance, disciplinary issues, demographics and human resources, Conrad says.

Robert Williams, principal at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg, says the data analytics tool has made it easier for him to do his job. When he logs in, he can search each student and see a full profile, showing current and historical data. Because six elementary schools feed into his school, the data provides background and talking points for parent conferences, he says.

To track attendance, Williams has weekly reports emailed to him, allowing him to compare attendance figures week to week. The analytics tool also helps him improve the teacher observation process. New insights mean new ways to tackle problems that may have gone unnoticed, or seemed insurmountable.

“We pull together disparate data sources in a way that everyone can understand,” says Tony Thacker, ALSDE’s coordinator for research and development. “The more clear and concise data that we can provide to those who work directly with students, the more effectively that data can be used to help students.”

Daymon Gardner

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