President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) grant program would hinder states’ progress in building and improving systems that track students’ educational journeys from early childhood through transition into the workforce, data experts say.
The Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal would cut the entire $32 million currently allocated to the program, which also provides state education agencies with resources and technical assistance. The administration justifies the cut by saying that the program has “already successfully completed its mission” and that 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories have already received grants to help them build these systems.
“As States shift from establishing data systems to actually using the data, there is no longer any need for a large federal investment,” according to the budget document.
But Felice J. Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association, said that the cut would have “devastating effects” and is in conflict with federal requirements that states make budget decisions based on evidence.
“SLDS continues to be an enormously valuable and useful tool for state policymakers and practitioners,” he said in a statement last week. “Rather than having fulfilled and outlived its original purpose, states continue to discover the tremendous value of data to improving educational outcomes.”
The federal grants were the “single biggest driver” in states’ ability to create more sophisticated data systems over the past 10 years, says Rachel Anderson, the associate director of federal policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a nonprofit organization focusing on education data policy.
In its "Show Me the Data" report, released in December, DQC noted that many states have improved their education report cards by providing more timely and useful data that includes not only test scores but also information on school climate, teacher collaboration and family engagement.
"When they have the funding and support for innovation, they innovate,” Anderson said.
She added that the most recent round of grants, awarded in 2016, focused not just on building data systems, but on using the data to answer a wide variety of questions, such as which students are struggling, which ones might qualify for scholarships and where policymakers should direct education funding.
Bridging data systems
Connecting K-12 data systems to those of early childhood and the higher education sector is one example of how states are working to have better information on the learning experiences that children enter school with, and how successful they are after they graduate. While states and districts have access to the National Student Clearinghouse to track their graduates, Anderson said it’s also valuable for state agencies to “own their own data.”
As states look for ways to meet future workforce needs, education leaders and policymakers are looking for more ways to these connections. The Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics, for example, links student performance data to later employment information, enabling “policymakers to address the strengths and weaknesses of the educational pipeline and our programs like never before,” according to the agency’s website.
A bill passed in 2014 builds on the earlier work of the center to gather information on where those who graduate from the state’s postsecondary institutions go to work and how much they earn. The data will be made available to the public and to high school counselors to inform students’ decisions about postsecondary options.
At the early-childhood level — a complex mix of public, private and home-based programs — Pennsylvania’s Enterprise to Link Information for Children Across Networks, or PELICAN, is a collaboration between the state’s Department of Human Services and the Office of Child Development and Early Learning. The system, called the Early Learning Network, creates unique identifiers for both children and early-childhood education professionals, allowing users to view information on child enrollment, learning outcomes, and staff members’ qualifications.
“These reports provide analyses of how children are progressing in different early childhood settings and can be linked to school outcome data in kindergarten through 3rd grade to understand trends over time,” according to a DQC report.
Anderson noted that smaller districts without their own internal data experts rely on statewide data systems to help them make decisions about programs and track progress from year to year.
In testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2016, Robert Swiggum, the deputy superintendent of technology services for the Georgia Department of Education, said that before the state built a longitudinal data system with the support of a federal grant, only 8% of the state’s districts could afford a system that could safely house multiple years of data. Most would submit the information they needed to the state for annual reporting purposes and then delete everything, and a few would even lock up paper records.
“Today, in Georgia, with the click of a button, a teacher can now analyze data on achievement, attendance and enrollment for every kid in their classroom that year. With another click of a button, they can drill down to see this information for a student over the past six years,” he said. “A state-supported system supports equity across Georgia, allowing districts without the capacity or funding to support a large-scale technology investment access to the benefits of a robust data system.”
In partnership with Hope Street Group, a nonprofit organization, DQC also recently held focus groups in Tennessee to gather input from teachers on how they use data. Their comments focused on how they use data to apply for grants, predict the challenges their students might have and communicate with parents and policymakers.
“I think, as we get data,” one teacher said, “we can influence those leaders in the community to invest more in our public school system by knowing that it is progressing and that we are doing better.”