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Florida District Uses Data to Boost Grades, Graduation Rates

With help from a data analytics company, Duval County Public Schools used metrics like attendance, discipline reports and test scores to flag at-risk students and increase graduation rates by over 25 percent in 10 years.

A person typing on a laptop with graphs on its screen.
As K-12 school districts across the U.S. work to close achievement gaps that came with the shifts to and from remote learning during COVID-19, administrators in Florida’s Duval County Public Schools have looked to data to help keep students on track to graduate.

According to data from the district, the system made up of about 130,000 students recorded its 11th straight year of graduation increases, despite more than half of its students being “economically disadvantaged” and 18 percent of them having disabilities.

In 2011, Duval school officials partnered with analytics software company SAS to create a customized system to track student performance. The result gave administrators and teachers access to a visual dashboard showing granular information on metrics such as attendance, discipline reports and test scores, among other indicators.

Using this data, district educators have been able to identify students in need of academic guidance, tutoring, dropout prevention support services or accelerated credit programs. Officials can also use the data to inform policy decisions.

Since the launch of the partnership, Duval County school officials say graduation rates have continually increased nearly 27 percent, from 63.3 percent in 2011 to 90.2 percent in 2020. The school system now boasts a graduation rate that’s 0.2 percent higher than the state average, according to the district.

Saul Bloom, director of research for the Graduation Rate Initiatives Team (GRIT), said his staff uses the data to work with graduation coaches and counselors throughout the district to find students in need of academic support and counseling, as well as to examine instructional policies and practices to improve performance outcomes.

The digital data system uses a high school graduation tracker, at-risk graduation tracker and early warning systems dashboard, giving educators access to current student data and predictive trend-based analytics to guide teachers, principals and superintendents on how to best close achievement gaps.

“What started as building a data warehouse has become a very extensive visual analytics platform that provides limitless data points to all of our [users] from school counselors up to the superintendent to make data-informed decisions quickly on a daily basis,” he said.

Bloom said identifying students in need of targeted intervention used to be like finding a needle in a haystack.

“Any student with at least one [at-risk] indicator is on the at-risk report,” he noted. “We work with the schools to clean those lists up and get the reports ideally down to no one and to graduates at the end of the year.”

Bloom said much of his staff’s recent focus has been on attendance and participation as students made their way back to brick-and-mortar schools during the 2020-21 school year.

“We’re like bounty hunters,” he said. “We would find students, locate them and re-engage them in education. This year, we found we had to shift to engaging students who are actively at school doing nothing. We had a large group of students who just disengaged and almost disappeared.”

SAS education consultant Melody Schopp, a former educator who previously served as South Dakota’s education secretary, said school data tools such as these play a crucial role in ensuring student success.

“I relied on hunches and assumptions,” she said, reflecting on her years as an educator in South Dakota.

“They’re actually taking course-correcting strategies, and they can make policy changes,” she continued. “SAS brings the data together and the data analytics can identify those trends, allowing them to take action.”

Bloom said schools shouldn’t rely on state test scores that can take months to reach districts to identify areas of improvement and at-risk pupils. In the case of the COVID-19 era, many schools had to put state testing on hold entirely.

“Our last official state data was in 2018-19. That’s pretty much autopsy data at this point,” he said, adding that officials are yet to gauge the full scope of learning loss during the pandemic.

In addition to customized data tools like Duval’s, SAS offers an Education Visualization and Analytics Solution (EVAAS) to state education officials in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., as well as local districts in Texas, Indiana and Arkansas.

According to SAS’s website, the system builds upon the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System methodology developed in the 1980s by researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Schopp said the SAS EVAAS now measures data for 15 million students and boasts 500,000 teacher accounts.

“EVAAS has been highly successful across the country in helping to determine and show how students grow from one year to another,” she said.

Schopp hopes data analytics systems such as these will assist efforts to measure and address learning loss, a growing concern among many K-12 educators since the spring of 2020.

“We’re doing some deep analysis into making the determination about students who learn remotely or in a hybrid situation [to see] the impact of that,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.