Q&A: Darrell Ashton of the D.C. OSSE Explains How Data Keeps Kids in School

Through data collection and analysis, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education can identify and prevent at-risk students from dropping out of school.

Big Data has become a helpful tool for educators in the K–12 sphere, especially as personalized learning continues to rise in popularity in classrooms across the country. 

For the Washington, D.C., Office of the State Superintendent of Education, analysis through data management and analytics platform Qlik is the key to getting students who have dropped out of school to re-enter and graduate. 


Photo: Courtesy of OSSE
Darrell Ashton, assistant superintendent of data, assessment and research, OSSE.

“By implementing data sharing and data analytics technologies, local education agencies can identify and engage with students to get them motivated to re-enter the education system and finish their schooling,” the office told Edtech.

To understand how this program is helping to bring more students back into the education system, EdTech spoke with Darrell Ashton, assistant superintendent of data, assessment and research, to explain how OSSE collects and analyzes student data in D.C.

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EDTECH: What is OSSE’s data-driven re-engagement project?

ASHTON: What we do is we provide schools with a report on disengaged youth. This is a report on students who have dropped out or are no longer engaged in public education based on information given to OSSE through tools required by D.C. 

Schools can use this information to reach out to those students and get them to come back into the education space in some capacity. A lot of times, we find it is helpful for getting adult students to come back in to get their high school diplomas in order to improve their quality of life. 

I cannot go into the hard data points, but generally, we use the information we receive from the schools to record who has enrolled, who has exited and other important student information.

We aggregate this data to flag students who are no longer attending their classes, as well as to put down the current contact information for those students to help schools reach out and re-engage them through our re-engagement center.

The center specifically focuses on working with schools to utilize the data we collect and disseminate. They receive and work on this information, trying to get specific students to re-engage. The center also provides a place to support students who voluntarily want to re-engage. 

EDTECH: What is the process for schools to input and send their data? How does this partnership work?

ASHTON:  We get daily information from all of the schools about the students currently enrolled at each of those schools. Usually, what precipitates a student to be flagged as having dropped out is some period of time of absence because most students don’t come into school and say, “Hey, I’m dropping out now.” 

We receive the attendance status of each student, and after a certain number of absences, the school will officially exit that student. At that point, that student is considered — assuming that the student has not continued on with their education elsewhere — to have left the system.

Unless they enrolled in a different school, or they were close to graduation and skipped getting a regular diploma and went right to getting an associate degree, that would be considered as disengaged. 

What we do then is take that information and regularly update the application so that the re-engagement center can see. We don't provide data back out to the schools directly; instead we simply put the school's data that were we're running the analytics on into a system and provide it to the re-engagement center. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how K–12 schools are using big data to uncover trends in education!

EDTECH: With 220 D.C. K–12 schools to organize, data collection can get kind of messy, how do you clean up the data from these schools?

ASHTON: D.C. is a choice environment, which means schools have a lot of autonomy to make their own choices. So, we cannot mandate that all schools have to use the same student information system

There are roughly between 15 and 20 different information systems across all of our schools. We can't require them to use the same product, so instead we provide a template. 

The template tells administrators the data points that they have to be able to provide for us on a daily basis, as well as the allowable values. Because there are different student information systems, schools may not be able to fully use our template, so we also provide them with a mapping tool. 

For example, we might tell a school they have to provide us with a gender for each student, and that gender has to fit allowable fields, using an uppercase M or uppercase F. A school might decide to call that field in their own system something else, they may decide that instead of uppercase they use lowercase, they use the full words, or they may decide that they want to have something else. 

They have to map whatever they call their field into what we call it. And they have to identify what their allowable values are and how they map to our allowable field, which they do at the start of every school year. 

We then keep that information so that every day, when we receive their data, we're able to automatically transpose it into a standard.

EDTECH: Targeting adult students who dropped out a long time ago means keeping their records. How long do you hold onto student records?

ASHTON: OSSE does not have a policy on destruction of student data in terms of how long we keep that information. We follow the regulations set forth in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to honor the rights of families to the privacy of their education records. Schools are required under FERPA to retain student records for at least five years

At OSSE, we maintain those student records in our systems indefinitely. In terms of re-engagement, there is some point where that data is no longer used, but we don't remove it from our system because a student can opt to re-engage at any point

We like to hold on to that data because, if nothing else, it provides information on where a student left their education so that the re-engagement process can be better thought out. 

Depending on what the student is looking to do, knowing how many credits they have prior to their returning to school is very important. Also, this data can be used to calculate trends to pre-emptively identify students who may be in danger of dropping out but have not yet.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how data analytics skills are essential for K–12 educators!

EDTECH: What is the biggest challenge with collecting and analyzing this data?

ASHTON: What we have to spend a lot of our time on is providing or combining data sets to make sure there's consistency across data. For example, when one school says that “Chloe” is attending that school, we need to make sure we don't have another school also sending us data saying “Chloe” is attending that second school. We have to go through the processes of resolving those sorts of errors in the data as a whole. 

The other thing we do is ensure that a school does not send attendance information for students without first also sending us information that the student is actually enrolled.

Some of the schools are very good at making sure that those data are consistent. Other schools, because of their limited resources, aren't able to do that. So, for those schools, we help them with that and show them how to use our template. 

What we try to stress is that schools should not wait for their data to be “clean” to send it. Time and time again, what we hear when folks are getting ready to start their data analytics journey is, “I can't start yet because my data is really dirty,” or, “I have got to get my data perfect, otherwise I'll be reporting wrong.” But the reality is that data is coming in all the time. If you're waiting for data to be clean, it is never going to happen.

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Nov 14 2018