State Education Data System Development

Looking back at the roots of state data system development shows us much has changed. Yet we have to recognize it has been a slow process and one that will be ongoing. The first evidence that education data were collected dates back to the early 1800s when school administrative records contained enrollment, attendance, and literacy figures (Goldin, 1999). The data were unreliable, but served as a springboard for future data collection.

In 1867, Congress legislated a Department of Education to “collect such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several states and territories” (see An Act to Establish a Department of Education, Ch. 158. 39th Congress., 2nd Sess., 14 Stat. 434 of 1867). States now needed to provide the federal government with public school data on students, teachers, and schools, as well as basic finances. At the time, you could get the number of students and staff in a township and compare it to another, but little else was possible. Not only did these data have little detail, they were not connected. For example, you could not compute students by grade until around 1910 or relate a teacher’s education level to income until three decades later.

Data must be accessible, of high quality, and easily understood.

In the early twentieth century, when data collection was becoming more sophisticated, states were also growing more interested in student proficiency. A number of states began testing students using state or national standardized tests and collecting the results. This was an important first step toward having data to assess student performance; however, student demographic data, such as race/ethnicity, gender, and age, were not collected until much later (Dorn, 2003).

These early attempts to collect data served as a basis for creating many current statewide education data systems. However, it was not until the 1970s or 1980s that most of these data systems were actually established, some a decade later. They were designed to collect data for specific purposes, most often in response to federal reporting requirements, budget management, and district compliance tracking. As state accountability priorities took precedence in education decision making, new data collection and management became necessary.

The majority of state data systems established were composed of distinct databases focused on one level of data, i.e., fiscal, student, teacher, or school data. This still holds true in many education data systems today. In addition, not all of the databases are necessarily housed or managed by the same department in the state education agency (SEA) or even within the agency itself. These separate databases are full of useful information, but many challenges exist to link the data. Linking the data is essential if we want to answer current education policy questions, as well as meet state and federal standards.

As the type of SEA data and data management have changed, so has our use for the data. Not only are boards of education, legislatures, and funding sources requesting quality data-based answers to important policy questions, but school personnel, courts, and the general public are relying on data more in their decision making. Some of this upsurge in data use reflects federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation related to measuring adequate yearly progress, choosing academic programs, setting student improvement goals, and keeping parents informed. For example, states are providing publicly available report cards that include data on school and district accountability and limited fiscal and/or staff resources.

School finance lawsuits have also necessitated increased use of state data. Nationally, 45 states, including all in our region, have been, or are currently, engaged in court cases. The courts have asked pointed questions that require data-based answers. One pervasive question is, What resources, fiscal and staffing, are needed to improve performance in all students? This question, as well as questions on how to effectively allocate those resources, would be best answered with SEA data that links individual student data to staff, school, district, fiscal, and assessment data.

A man at a crossroads sees a signpost with two arrows pointing in opposite directions.


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Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 18, December 2005, Enhancing Data Use and Quality to Shape Education Policy