If Only People Knew How Good Their State Data Systems Are

After years of investment in state education data systems, states collect more data on education than they ever have. Yet many face a common barrier to making those data useful: Typically, few people besides specialists in state education agencies know what data those systems contain.
Our 50-State Comparison: Arts Education Data Collection and Reporting brings some hidden assets of state data systems out of the shadows. It assesses the capacity of each state and the District of Columbia to aggregate and report on arts education data their data systems already contain. We conclude that most states collect data on enrollments in arts courses and access to arts teachers, for example, but fewer report on the data publicly.
Armed with this knowledge, arts education stakeholders can have better informed conversations with state leaders about plans for reporting on key metrics like access to arts classes, participation in those classes, or the qualifications of arts teachers. Better information on such metrics equips people to identify challenges and address them.
An important lesson emerged from our work on the 50-State Comparison: Even for experts like us, it’s no easy task to figure out what data states collect. To understand the arts education data landscape in states, we had to read through hundreds of documents strewn across state agency websites — state education report cards, official memoranda, data dictionaries and data entry manuals, to name a few examples.
Faced with such a daunting task, how can state legislators, education advocates or parents determine whether a state collects the information they need to support better schools? How can data influence policy or practice if few people know those data exist?
Some states offer brief accounts of what their data systems contain. For example, Georgia’s description of its data systems gets right to the point: “It provides districts, schools, and teachers with access to historical data, including Assessments, Attendance, Enrollment, Courses, and Grades beginning with the 2006-2007 school year.” This account isn’t exhaustive, but it offers a starting point for education stakeholders — and not just districts, schools and teachers — interested in mining the data for insights.
Even a short roadmap of a state data system can help education stakeholders understand just what a powerful tool that system can be. It’s only a starting point, but it shows us where to look for the information we need to improve educational opportunities for students.

Claus oversees efforts to improve statewide longitudinal data systems and provide state-by-state data on STEM education. He has held senior positions in education policy and research for more than 17 years and has spent much of that time helping diverse stakeholders find consensus on important education issues. Claus is dedicated to ensuring that state leaders have the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions affecting young people.

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