The real education data story is day-by-day academic growth

Here’s an unlikely headline: “150,000 Flights Landed Safely Today!”* Here’s another one: “850,000 Colorado Students Benefit from Education Data and Academic Growth Analysis.” But the fact is that on almost any day both those statements are true.

Sadly, the media thrives on reporting extraordinary calamity, not day-to-day successes. And just as it relentlessly focuses on airplane accidents rather than successful landings, it likewise trumpets education scandals like the latest reported testing abnormalities from Denver Public Schools. The net effect of these reports is a chilling effect on people’s trust in education data in general.

And this mistrust, in turn, undermines the tremendous efforts underway nationwide to measure and improve school performance and academic growth using a new generation of tools and instructional practices that take advantage of the rich reservoir of student data that we’ve generated over the years.

Big data’s power to help teachers teach better and kids learn more

I don’t want to downplay the importance of ensuring the integrity of standardized test data. As with airplane accidents, we need to determine the root causes of any improprieties and implement measures to prevent repeat occurrences. But we shouldn’t let headline-grabbing incidents based on a relatively narrow aspect of education data (standardized tests) distract us from our larger mission: Improving children’s educational outcomes and teachers’ power to teach through enhanced performance measurement.

The fact is that achieving evidence-based outcomes depends on the collection and analysis of a range of data. Data, even a broad range, is certainly not a perfect indicator. But timely, relevant and actionable information can positively impact any instructional environment.

And when used strategically in collaboration with other observations, data is a powerful tool to help teachers guide improvements and highlight successes in the classroom. This same information in aggregate and longitudinal form meaningfully informs both education policy and practice.

We owe it to our students to keep striving towards the goal of finding new and better ways to launch our next generation of dreamers and leaders.

A new frontier: Longitudinal student data

As a sector, we’re only beginning to focus on the true power of longitudinal data systems that compile individual student data across the course of each student’s career. These systems are changing conversations about – and approaches to – academic performance in our state and across the country. For example:

  • Authorized access to individual student data is driving individualized instruction in the classroom, while providing detailed information about performance results to parents and guardians. The Colorado Department of Education’s SchoolView information portal and individual student Growth and Achievement Reports  are examples.
  • Teachers are gaining access to standards-aligned content and personalized student learning maps through projects like Denver Public Schools’ Digital Doors project and the free eNetColorado digital content repository.
  • Open-source toolsets and sharable applications are proliferating across a data-rich landscape to help teachers get information on time and on demand. For example, the award-winning Colorado Growth Model utilizes an open-source model and toolset that is being subscribed to by at least 18 other states.
  • And the free Ed-Fi toolset is helping several states, including Colorado, standardize and streamline the flow of timely education information.

In many ways, we’re in the pioneering stages of information-based instructional systems. As we scan the big data horizon, we might sometimes feel like the early aviators who first bravely took to the skies, and we’re bound to make a few mistakes along the way.  But in the true spirit of education, let’s stay the course and collectively refuse to let a few bumps knock us off track.  We are making wonderful progress. We owe it to our students to keep striving towards the goal of finding new and better ways to launch our next generation of dreamers and leaders.

(*Flight data is approximated from April 25, 2012. You can run your own airport operations report here:

Dan Domagala is the Chief Information Officer for the Colorado Department of Education. He is overseeing the development and construction of Data Pipeline, a statewide initiative to revamp Colorado’s education data infrastructure in order to reduce data redundancies, capture data more frequently, connect existing data systems, eliminate data silos, improve data quality and streamline the burdensome process of moving data from district to state.