Building a Data Infrastructure that Supports Students

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Data infrastructure

Building a Data Infrastructure that Supports Students

Author Austin Hepburn, Research and Policy Intern, Data Foundation

The nation is preparing to send its children back to school this fall, but there will be many questions about the  on-going impacts the pandemic has on our children, both in the short and long term. While there are a great many strengths of our country’s educational infrastructure, the data infrastructure applied to improving learning and the workforce continues to face substantial gaps. In order to understand, adapt to, and mitigate the impact of the pandemic, we must ensure that there is a robust data infrastructure. One way to ensure there is timely useful data about our learners and workers is to provide significant and sustained funding for the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems  (SLDS). 

SLDS is a Federal government program that allows and provides access to historical data on public-school enrolled students and teachers starting from the 2006-2007 school year. The SLDS system was designed to improve data-driven decisions impacting student learning and education. It focuses on the connection among PreK, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce education data. School districts, public schools, and teachers can access the data system via their district’s Student Information Systems (SIS). It is accessible through a free application that is available to eligible state grant recipients, such as school districts, schools, and teachers. This data includes assessment scores, daily attendance, enrollment, courses, and grades. In its most advantageous state, it enables grantees to link individual level data from Pre-K to the labor market.

The SLDS plays a significant role in creating data-driven policies. While the information is collected and stored, the grant program also provides more accessible data in order to get a better understanding of a policy’s impact on student learning. Moreover, it encourages policy efficiency and equity by quantifying educational measurements over time. Data-driven systems such as SLDS provide transparency about which policies affect students and the significance of their impact.

The SLDS has meaningful benefits, although there are also challenges when implementing a data-driven program. States have been able to put this data to work to better support students on pathways to the workforce. Currently, every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico has an SLDS that connects data between some data systems, but few can connect early education, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce. This makes it challenging to study and evaluate programs intended to improve outcomes in college and the workforce. As states and federal programs strive to boost education attainment and close the skill gaps in the workforce, it is vital that our country has the ability to produce rigorous analyses based on high-quality data.

New, sustained investment in SLDS data can provide the important information to answer the critical questions policymakers, educators, as well as parents and students. This will require a significant, multi-year investment of $1 billion. This funding should focus on modernizing SLDS data systems to build more interoperable and accessible data platforms with privacy-preserving technology as well as building capacity to use SLDS data through state research-practice partnerships that bring both real-time learning and longitudinal data, as well as diversify representation of practitioners. Finally, funding should be directed to ensuring robust governance and accountability structures are put into place to ensure these systems transparently address the real priorities, needs and community expectations. 

Not only is this funding necessary to improve the data infrastructure to meet the needs of learners and workers, it is necessary to make this a sustained funding level, so that these systems have the resources to evolve to meet ever changing research needs and privacy protection. 

Sustained and continued financial investment in the SLDS program would help ensure data-driven success and proper-use of the data. An increase in funding will help provide the much needed update to the data infrastructure necessary to advance evidence based policymaking, and modernize privacy protection. Providing this funding for SLDS is smart investment that ensures we will have the evidence and data to provide the best outcomes for our students.