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K-12 Schools Trying New Roles, Protocols for Data Management

To get the most out of student performance metrics and recover from learning loss that occurred over the past year, education officials are rethinking data management with new positions and data standards.

Student with school book, data symbols and virtual display
For K-12 public schools, student performance metrics such as attendance rates and test scores are set to play a crucial role in forming strategies to address learning loss and achievement gaps made worse by last year’s COVID-19 school closures. Today, many school districts are building new protocols and creating new staff roles for data management, with these goals in mind.

In order to help schools leverage comprehensive data on student performance, the data-focused education nonprofit Ed-Fi Alliance has worked with several schools across the country in establishing new protocols and systems for data management. One example was the creation of an “analytics engineer” position at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, held by Saybah-Katrina Russ since November of last year.

Before taking the role, she said school leaders recognized that “there had to be a better way to streamline the data management process.” She said the school embarked to reformat student performance data to make it more comprehensive, allowing educators to focus mainly on improving student performance instead of on making data intelligible.

“We would find ourselves exporting data from dashboards, then bringing that data into Google sheets, and then having to rewrite formulas to analyze it,” said Russ, who holds the official title of director of data at Intrinsic. “We were just spending a lot of time getting the data in, versus looking at the data and gaining insights in order to (create an) action plan.”

Marcos Alcozer, a solutions architect at the Ed-Fi Alliance, said existing staff at many schools without an analytics engineer simply try improving their skills with Google Sheets, making the process of gathering and organizing data cumbersome. The problem is compounded by the fact that schools usually don’t have staff dedicated solely to data management and analysis.

To help, Intrinsic Schools in Chicago implemented the Ed-Fi data standard, which Alcozer said “cleans up” and formats what is gathered by the school, as well as an Ed-Fi operational data store and API system that “wraps up” the data to organize it, making the information readable and able to interface with other systems.

“We realized the more scalable solution would be to adopt better data infrastructure,” he said. “When you’re paying 12-plus different vendors and their platforms have data that looks different, that means using a common data standard so that the 12 land together and make sense."

Intrinsic Schools’ student performance metrics include GPAs, test scores, grades, attendance and participation. Intrinsic uses this data to identify curriculum areas where students need the most academic support or tutoring, as well as to fulfill state and federal reporting mandates.

“When the data changes in their system, it’s automatically triggered for their system to update the data,” Alcozer said. “We refresh all of our downstream reports every night, so we always say the data is up to date as of yesterday.”

According to Chicago Public Schools data, Intrinsic achieved a graduation rate of nearly 98 percent, which Russ said is partly thanks to the new data management system’s role in academic planning and addressing learning loss.

“We have some student-facing reports they can use to see how they’re doing, whether it’s GPA or test scores, and those reports get used at parent-teacher conferences. We’re able to look at different metrics throughout their assignments, and it will tell us if they’re on track,” she said. “The attendance data was helpful for engagement and calling families to figure out why a kid maybe showed up to an 8 a.m. class, but not a 12 p.m. class ... School leaders were able to use data in that way during the remote learning period.”

Alcozer said more and more K-12 schools across the country are taking a different approach to data management, in addition to establishing roles like Russ’ dedicated to “cleaning, transforming and preparing data for use in analytics.” He said these roles are emerging in small districts and charter schools, while schools with more funding tend to employ both an analyst and engineer position, or full data management teams.

Aside from hiring new positions, many schools are increasingly focused on modernizing and streamlining their data collection and management protocols.

Education officials in Wisconsin recently announced plans to standardize their migrant student data in order to determine who’s eligible for the Migrant Education Program starting in 2022, according to a news release from the state’s Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin has also modeled much of its current data management efforts on the Ed-Fi framework.

State education officials in Nebraska recently set out to modernize their data infrastructure to better match K-12 funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to schools’ needs, according to Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt. This year, he said, the state also worked with Ed-Fi to streamline and standardize statewide assessment data and student attendance information.

“By implementing the Ed-Fi data standard and connecting data across siloed systems, we can streamline the data collection aspects of day-to-day work and use that saved time and energy to analyze and use data information to support student growth,” he said in a public statement in June. “This will allow us to increase long-term capacity to prioritize and focus on acceleration of unfinished learning and the renewal of approaches to education in general.”
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.