Educating Florida

As state education CIOs grapple with building statewide data tracking systems for students, one state has succeeded.

by / October 19, 2007

Florida is a pioneer in data collection, especially in tracking students through their academic careers. The Sunshine State deployed the most comprehensive data warehouse and student database in the country. Florida was the first, and is currently the only, state in the nation to be recognized by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) for meeting the 10 elements necessary to build a longitudinal data system - a key indicator for meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which became a federal law in 2002.

"Florida has one of the oldest systems, and they've done an incredible job of staying on top of technology and working with state legislators to make them understand the impact and value of data so they can actually support systems and use data in decisions," said Nancy Smith, deputy director of the DQC, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the collection and use of data in education to improve student achievement.


Going Longitudinal
The DQC's goal is to help every state institute a longitudinal data system by 2009 and change data use in education. Although not required by federal law, longitudinal data systems can track student information from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary schools, giving states the ability - technologically - to meet federal data requirements.

"The federal government never tells a state and there's nothing explicitly in NCLB that says states need this longitudinal data system, but to meet their reporting requirements, you really pretty much have to," Smith said. "NCLB was definitely the impetus for a lot of states to move forward with building these student-level longitudinal data systems." 

Not only do longitudinal data systems help bring states into compliance with the NCLB, these data systems can improve student achievement by informing and improving public education. Longitudinal data systems allow states and school districts to follow students' academic progress throughout their academic career, determine the effectiveness of specific schools and programs, identify high-performing schools so that educators and the public can learn from best practices, evaluate the effect of teacher preparation and training programs on student achievement, and focus school systems to a higher percentage of students to succeed in rigorous high-school courses, college and the work force, according to the DQC.

Florida has had a long history of data collection, with the Florida Legislature supportive of implementing and enhancing statewide student longitudinal data systems. Currently every legislative budget in Florida requires a certain portion of funding allocated to school districts to be used for data and information services.

Florida began collecting student-level data in 1986 through the Florida Information Resource Network. The network allowed the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) to compare student data with aggregate data collected in summary reports. In 1988, the state began managing transcripts using a computer system that, by 2001, contained more than 900,000 electronic transcripts. By 1994, Florida was using the most progressive, comprehensive and efficient systems for transferring student records in the nation, according to the DQC. 

In 1998, Florida implemented the A+ Plan, which established comprehensive school assessments and demanded new levels of accountability. Under the plan, schools receive grades from A to F, which are sent home to parents, published as "report cards" on the FDOE Web site and publicized in the media.

When the plan was first implemented, the FDOE realized it would need to increase what had already been prolific data collection and management of that data. The FDOE soon garnered funding to build a data warehouse that would unify all state school level data in three years.

In 2003, the Florida K-20 educational data warehouse (EDW) was deployed as a single repository of integrated data from 26 state-level source systems. The system links data by Social Security numbers, and tracks the individual progression of students and teachers throughout their academic careers, including demographics, enrollment, course completion, assessment results, financial aid and employment.


ARMed for Organization
The Florida EDW is managed and maintained by the Division of Accountability, Research and Measurement (ARM), a "PK-20" umbrella organization covering the management of school processes and information resources from pre-kindergarten to postsecondary schools.

"(ARM), from an organizational standpoint, does a lot to coordinate things like definitions, business rules about how we coordinate data over time, how we look at things even on an annual basis, and really gives us the ability to do some things that in most states run into organizational barriers," said Jay Pfeiffer, ARM's deputy commissioner.

ARM collects and analyzes data for five organizational areas:

  • The PK-12 student and staff database, which includes identifiable student and staff data for the Florida public school system, such as demographic information, socio-economic information, and a course code information and directory.
  • The adult career and technical education and community college data system, which maintains the same information as the PK-12 database but for higher-level education data. These two units work with school districts, community colleges, vocational tech centers and various adult education venues to collect, process, edit and handle student data several times a year when data is collected.
  • The FDOE's Assessment and School Performance entity oversees the statewide school testing programs, and tracks test scores for federal and state compliance.
  • The Florida Education and Training Placement Information program tracks students' post-school progress in Florida, including university placement, employment, incarceration and welfare statistics. The data is used not only for educational purposes, but also for state social programs. "We actually follow up on everybody who comes out of the Florida educational system, whether they drop out of high school, whether they graduate from a university with a Ph.D.; we know what happens to people in terms of getting employment and what their earnings look like," Pfeiffer said.
  • The EDW gathers data from student identification numbers, which are individual Social Security numbers.

An important impetus for developing the EDW was the desire to consolidate state and federal reporting for Florida schools, rather than having multiple schools issue reports from multiple disparate reporting systems, Pfeiffer explained.

"We basically built our data systems around the idea that not only does it provide auditable resources for funding," he said, "but it also provides a means for Florida to do reporting for No Child Left Behind, the Carl Perkins Act and the Higher Education Act."

As the EDW became a reliable source of data integration and reporting, ARM began to notice how a data warehouse can track students' progress from education to professional careers. Tracking student performance from high school through college can assist high schools in building their curriculum to prepare students for college and the work force, and is one of the 10 requirements essential to building a longitudinal data system by the DQC.

"There began to be a pretty natural question about what happens to people over time, what kinds of things lead to student successes, what are the employment results, what are the characteristics of the educational system that make that happen, what are the best practices from a programmatic standpoint by looking at data longitudinally," Pfeiffer said.

The chief technology officer of the FDOE, Ron Lauver, played a supportive role in the technological process of Florida's data systems. He helped Florida build its longitudinal systems, including the EDW, from the ground up, choosing to use pre-existing technological foundations to build a system tailored to the state, he said.

"The approach Florida took was really important," Lauver said. "We had to do the development here, it wasn't something we could purchase, especially since we were out in front of the pack. There's nobody out there with anything, and if there is chances are things will be done substantially different."


Innovation Goes On
Florida continues its forward push for innovative educational data systems. Sunshine Connections is a five-year partnership with Microsoft to provide a Web-based portal to resources for educators, including interactive classroom management tools, student performance data, collaboration and communications with other teachers. Florida also recently implemented Choices, which offers student educational planning and goals.

It's very important to track data at the student level and share the information within the state and ideally across the state, Smith said, adding that the DQC believes that information resources can change the culture and value of education.

Although Florida might be ahead of the educational curve in many instances, education officials realize more work lies ahead.

"When you build these systems, you don't get to kick your feet back and say, 'Well, we built it, and we're done' when you've actually got something in place," Pfeiffer said. "It's constant. It never ends. The technology issues you have do deal with - assuring elected officials that what you have is for public benefit, trying to get the rust off the old techniques and technologies, and dealing with issues concerning the confidentiality of data - are daily concerns. These are not things that go away."



Chandler Harris Contributing Writer