May 06 2021

5 Tips for Effectively Curating Student Data

K–12 districts can enact meaningful change when they know how to properly collect and analyze the data at their fingertips.

In response to the increasing conversation about digital equity, schooling loss and achievement gaps, many schools are examining student data more closely this year. Curating and analyzing students’ data can lead to impressive initiatives when done effectively. When Randall Sampson took on this task at Westerville North High School, the result was a 600 percent increase in Black student enrollment in Advanced Placement classes.

For school leaders who aren’t sure where to start, examining student data may seem daunting. Educational technology is working to constantly gather data, which in many ways is beneficial to educators, but it can be overwhelming without effective curation.

We curated the top five tips for gathering and using student data from experts at Project Unicorn, an effort led by InnovateEDU to improve the education industry’s data interoperability standards, and the Data Quality Campaign, a student data policy and advocacy organization. Here’s what they deemed most important when collecting, analyzing and acting on K–12 student data.

1. Create Connections with Interoperable Data Systems

One of the challenges facing school districts currently is the massive amount of information that is readily available but spread across various systems. Educators with different classes and different students may have one program for math and another for reading and a third for test scores.

“Without interoperability, to get a sense of how students are doing, they would need to log in to all of those different platforms to see how they’re progressing,” says Elise Hawthorne, technical support and implementation lead with Project Unicorn. “But with interoperable systems that are able to smoothly transfer data, you have the ability to see all of that information in one place.”

With interoperable data systems, teachers can more easily see the students’ data collectively. This gives educators a better overview of where students might be struggling or doing especially well. Having data systems that work together also makes the information more accessible to educators. “Data interoperability can do a lot to really help increase equitable student achievement,” Hawthorne says.

RELATED: Susan Bearden of InnovateEDU discusses why interoperable ed tech is key.

2. Make Data Accessible to Stakeholders

Collecting student data — and having the right programs to do so — is only effective if that information is then available to the appropriate stakeholders. Teachers may possess all the available data on students but to create an effective culture shift, as Sampson discusses in his Q&A, more stakeholders need to understand the information and be willing to enact change.

“School districts have the opportunity to turn data on for parents too, and not enough school districts are treating parents as partners in their students’ data,” says Brennan Parton, vice president of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign. “The real value of technology is the ease of communication, the speed at which everyone with a stake in student learning can have that information at their fingertips.”

Parton notes that this is true in many of the programs schools are already using. Whether it’s a learning management system or longitudinal student records, schools often overlook the benefits of sharing information with the right people.

3. Protect Student Data with Secure Systems

There’s a fine line between sharing and protecting student data. While it’s important to ensure parents and district stakeholders have access to students’ information, there is also an element of security that must be maintained. The right systems keep student data protected, so there is no additional risk in providing the data to parents and other educators.

“Having to email files with student data is definitely not the most secure way to do that,” Hawthorne says. “Being able to have data passed between secure systems enables more security measures to be taken and also provides the confidence to families that student data will be kept secure. Keeping those strong privacy measures is important for building trust in those relationships too.”

Protecting student data, and protecting the trust of students’ families, also requires the ethical use of data. The point of curating student data is not to judge a student based on past performance, but rather to help them continue to learn and grow, Parton notes.

VP Brennan Parton
Data is not a summation of who you are; it’s a tool to figure out how to best help you advance.”

Brennan Parton Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, Data Quality Campaign

“It’s not just about compliance with the federal education privacy law or state privacy laws,” she says. “Data is not a summation of who you are; it’s a tool to figure out how to best help you advance, and that really needs to be front and center when we talk about using data to inform students’ instruction and their learning journey.”

4. Include All Departments in Planning Data Curation

Frequently, educators are the curators and analyzers of student data, because they are the ones interacting with students every day. They have information at their fingertips on students’ grades and test scores, but they also experience data that others may not consider.

“If my student has their head down on their desk, that’s a data point,” Parton says. “Teachers are reading those day-to-day signals.”

These hard-to-measure data points on social-emotional learning and engagement may be left behind in some schools’ analyses of student information. Despite educators often acting as self-taught data coaches, the initiative to measure student data needs to reach beyond the classroom setting. Other stakeholders need to be involved in how to undertake the curation effort.

“We found that data interoperability is often considered an IT project, but it really is something that needs to include all of the different departments in a school,” Hawthorne notes. “The counseling, curriculum, instruction and data teams of the school system all need to be included in that plan, and there should be stakeholders from all of those teams. It really does need to be a districtwide initiative.”

EXPLORE: BrightBytes offers a secure way to manage and analyze student data.

5. Spend Federal Funds on Data Infrastructure

Since the pandemic began, the government has signed three stimulus bills into law, each providing federal funds to K–12 education. With the influx of funding, there’s an opportunity to upgrade the data infrastructure.

“State policy is a mechanism here that can and should be used,” Parton says. “Governors and legislators should make this a priority.”

She cites an initiative by the state of Georgia to use its resources to make data accessible to teachers, and notes that any of the other states or Washington, D.C., could be doing the same. “They have a real opportunity right now because there’s about to be a pretty significant investment of federal dollars rolling out over the next decade that they have some flexibility to use,” she says. “And they should use some of that money on their data infrastructure — making sure their systems are up to date and focusing on supplying tools, resources, data training and analytics to their districts and classrooms.”

Between the drive to secure and analyze student data and the incoming federal funds that can be used to increase data infrastructure, it’s the perfect time for school districts to take a closer look at how they could be closing the achievement gaps with student data.

DISCOVER: GoGuardian helps educators curate and safeguard student data.

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