Digging Deeper

Six New Hampshire school districts hope a universal database to track student performance will improve education.

by / December 2, 2004
The New Hampshire Department of Education is building a universal student database that will match demographic information with standardized test scores to track students' individual performance and number of dropouts over time.

All students are assigned confidential identification numbers, and will keep those numbers throughout their years in New Hampshire schools.

Six districts -- Concord, Oyster River, Manchester, Nashua, Rochester and Contoocook Valley -- are involved in the pilot. The remaining districts are expected to join next year. The database, however, will not be accessible for another two to three years.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Nick Donohue said the department recognized the need for the system years ago and decided to go forward with it more than a year ago.

"We need to track students to shore up data about dropouts and know better how we are doing. Average is inadequate, disaggregated groups is better, but individual gains are what we are trying to discern," he said.

Donohue said the database will help student performance through better tracking of pupil trends, and by obtaining deeper data about specific skill and knowledge attainment.

Other states said looking at the individual student-level data submitted by school districts should significantly improve data accuracy and quality, said Michael Schwartz, the department's IT consultant.

Disappearing Act
The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies reported in February 2004 that the state loses track of 1,000 of its 200,000 students each year. Since the new database will use a single identification number to track a student throughout his or her years in any New Hampshire school, counting dropouts will be easier.

Should a student leave New Hampshire and enroll in school in another state, Schwartz said the department will follow up to find out why the student disappeared from the New Hampshire system.

"If it's determined they've moved out of state, then we will have an exit status for that ID that indicates the individual has moved out of state," he said. "If the person re-enters a year later, six months later or three years later, then the school sends another submission to us indicating that student is now re-enrolled in a school in New Hampshire."

The universal database tracks performance, race, sex, English proficiency and disability, all of which will enable more detailed analysis of a student's history -- and hopefully lower the dropout rate by improving education.

"This whole initiative is focused on that long-term goal of how we can get the information back into the hands of teachers and administrators so they can improve education for each student," Schwartz said. "Teachers can go in and look at their sixth-grade class, and understand how those students did in their class performance or assessment tests in prior years, and their attendance rates."

The system alerts teachers to what they should consider in helping set the curriculum and improving those students' results. For example, teachers could see students having difficulty with geometry or other mathematical concepts, and use that information to better tailor and target the education.

Because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, New Hampshire will begin testing children more often, which the database will record. This will help schools pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses.

In-House Operation
The Department of Education will set up the system so schools can submit data directly to the district, and then exchange the data among themselves, Schwartz said.

"First the school district gives us some demographic information -- name and date of birth, for example -- we can send back the unique student ID, and then submissions during the year where they'll send the unique student ID with a variety of information, whether it's about who's enrolled in their school, how many days people attended school or results of assessment tests."

The state's "random number generator" will assign identification numbers when a school district enters a student's name, sex and birth date, and then immediately erase the personal information. This way only students' home districts can identify them by their unique numbers.

The first steps in creating the system -- estimated to cost approximately $200,000, which is covered by federal grants -- are being done in-house, but Schwartz said when they reach the need for data warehousing and specialized tools to access the information, a vendor may be brought in. That, however, won't happen for another few years.

Database Outlook
Schwartz said the potential development of reporting tools, which would allow the department to more effectively use the data, may increase the cost of the database because those tools aren't included in the original scope of work.

But even without the additional tools, the Department of Education can still do a lot that doesn't require additional funding, Schwartz said.

"There are a lot of things we're able to leverage in terms of experience and tools that other states have developed, which allows us to do a lot with very little funds," he said. "We've already talked to several other states about how to decide if we need one of the algorithms to prevent duplicates of student IDs."

Schwartz said he also talked to other states about how to set up submissions downloaded from school districts. "Other states already developed that and have done that work," Schwartz said. "There are also other national efforts in terms of getting information to parents and teachers that we'll leverage."

Peeping Parents
Some individuals have privacy concerns regarding the database, Donohue said, and though he doesn't share this concern, he understands it.

"We are taking significant steps -- random number assignments -- to make sure information is confidential," he said.

The database will be accessible online to parents, teachers and anyone else interested in the information, but the assignments of random numbers to students and blocking access to names or numbers protects privacy, Schwartz said.

"That link won't exist in our database, and the number won't be visible to individuals," he said. "What will be visible to students and teachers, parents, administrators and department folks is the aggregate information. Everything's broken out in different areas. So tell me the number of students by race for each school, or tell me how the students in this school performed on the assessment tests."

When an individual looking at the data on the Web site requests specific information, the data won't be presented at an individual level -- it'll be presented rolled up at an aggregate level, Schwartz said.

"If the number of people in a certain group they're trying to aggregate falls under some threshold, the data won't be displayable," he continued. "So for instance, if you're trying to say, 'What are the assessment results by race?' and it turns out there's only one Native American in the school, then we're not going to present the assessment results because you could then identify who that student is."
Jessica Jones Managing Editor