Building a Teacher-Friendly Education Data System in Arkansas

In 2011, the Data Quality Campaign ranked Arkansas high among states in progress toward putting data to work to improve education policy. While we were undeniably proud to earn that recognition, we also recognized that we needed to continue pushing. Specifically, we need to ensure that all our hard work met the ultimate goal:  Providing teachers with data in a useful and actionable way.

To be more precise, we don’t want our teachers to have to dig relevant education data or labor over putting the pieces together; we want it presented to them in a way that’s immediately useful in the classroom setting. The Ed-Fi solution provides us the opportunity to do that – and to accomplish our goals quickly and efficiently, while minimizing cost by utilizing our state’s existing data systems and information technology architecture.

Arkansas’ current data landscape: A Mix of Disconnected Education Data Tools

The state of our back-end data landscape is one that will be familiar to many in the education IT sector: It includes several state-operated education data systems – including Student Management and Financial Management Systems, Statewide Information System, a statewide electronic transcript system and the Arkansas Educator Licensure System to just name a few. These various systems capture student and educator information, and provide reports at the state, district and school levels. They are (with the requisite permissions in place) accessible to educators, researchers and the general public.

What they lack however, is a fully inclusive, central hub of information with the ability to provide data in a format tailored to the specific needs of teachers. Disconnected data are of limited value to a teacher. However, if a tool connects disparate data streams in a format that makes it clear how it maps to educators’ concerns, it immediately becomes instrumental in driving the instructional process.  For example, if a teacher can see how attendance data is affecting a student’s progress or can determine the trends that develop in grading throughout a reporting period, the information becomes valuable, and providing that value is our ultimate goal.

Understanding Educators; Selecting a Solution

One thing we feel we’ve done right in our state’s data initiatives is stakeholder engagements: In 2012, we surveyed administrators and teachers across our state to understand the biggest barriers to data usage. System complexity and limited time emerged as the top two issues.

To address these needs, the department of education evaluated several different solutions, but ultimately, the choice was obvious. Among the options we assessed, the Ed-Fi solution was unique in that it had the specific goal of improving student outcomes by providing educators with actionable information. Moreover,  it was able to make use of the many data system investments the state had already made without forcing us to start over or re-architect our systems to meet specific vendor requirements.

Implementing the Tool; Mapping the Details; Making Progress

We licensed the Ed-Fi solution in September. We’re now quickly moving forward with implementation on two fronts:

  1. First, we’re working to extend our Statewide Information System so that it makes full use of the power of the Ed-Fi data standard.  For instance, although we already collect data nightly, it lacks some valuable detail that can help educators better address issues as they happen. Some examples: our educators want dashboards that display local discipline codes (not just those reported to the state); they also want grades by marking period (6 or 9 weeks instead of semester only,) and access to local assessment data (target and interim assessments) in addition to state assessments.  Finally, they want attendance by class period, not just quarter.
  2. Second, we’re in the process of data mapping Arkansas’s existing systems to the Ed-Fi data dictionary – which is already mapped to Common Education Data Standards – to ensure the flexibility we need to meet evolving federal reporting requirements and to implement new tools without complex reprogramming efforts (CEDS.)

By the end of 2013, 142 of the state’s 258 districts will have access to rich, timely, high-quality and actionable data via the Ed-Fi dashboards. By August 2014, every school district in Arkansas will be on board.

As we move through the process, we’re taking care to maintain the open lines of communication that will help us ensure our ultimate goal: adoption and use by teachers. Currently, educators from over 70 districts serve on the Arkansas Ed-Fi Advisory Council to stay informed of the ongoing progress on the Ed-Fi solution and to provide ongoing feedback about the dashboards. The Ed-Fi solution will allow us to put those insights into action, and to ensure we’re doing more than preparing our data systems to accommodate future advances. It will help ensure we’re enabling Arkansas teachers to prepare students for their future.

Cody Decker is the division leader for research and technology at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE.)  He oversees the data warehouse and business intelligence, electronic transcript, programming, reporting, data quality and related IT initiatives at the ADE in support of Arkansas’ public schools.