What We Lose Without Education Data

National high school graduation hit a record high this year -- 81 percent -- and thousands of students who just received their high school diplomas wouldn't have done it without the use of data. We cannot afford to undermine this progress. Yet we see across the country efforts to curtail the effective use of data to support student achievement.

The infrastructure and use of data to support students has grown tremendously over the last decade. We now have tools that alert educators when students are at risk of falling off track. We have programs that identify opportunities for students, like scholarships, they may not be aware of otherwise. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for good data use. The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) has seen astonishing gains for students in the 10 years that it's been tracking the use of data in education.

Along with these gains, people have come to see that ensuring the protection of student information at every juncture is an absolute priority -- an essential component of effective data use, period. We are also realizing that we can't regulate all types or uses of education data the same way. We need to build trust that this data, no matter how it is collected, is being used safely to improve student outcomes.

Yet we must be wary of overly prohibitive legislative approaches that shut down the power of data altogether. While the possibilities of misuse of information by bad actors can be scary, we can't respond with an urge to flip off the switch. Suppressive data privacy policies can dismantle the powerful tools for learning that are already helping so many of our students succeed.

Here are just a few ways this data has been put to work to help students achieve their best -- and what we'd lose without it.

Getting Parents the Information They Need and Deserve

Publicly available information about schools puts power in the hands of parents and teachers to advocate for their children and their school. Are the students in your neighborhood school doing as well as those in other schools nearby? Does the school have advanced classes or college and career counselling? How are students faring after graduation? Very few schools have provided information about their students' outcomes in a useful way, but an increasing number of states, including Illinois, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, are working to help people access this information and providing training for parents to understand and use the data. Why would we go back to keeping the public in the dark about how their community schools are serving students?

Ensuring That Students, Especially Our Most Vulnerable Students, Don't Fall Off Track for Success

Chicago Public Schools has used data to determine key indicators that show when a student is off track to graduate. They turned these indicators into an "early warning system," allowing teachers and counselors to intervene earlier to get students back on the path to success, increasing the number of kids on track for graduation from 57 percent to 84 percent in five years.

Investing in What Works for Our Children

Without careful consideration, limits on student data collection can make critical research illegal or practically impossible. We can't afford to go back to the dark ages when education decisions were made by hunch or anecdote. We have more robust education data than ever, and through analysis researchers are able to turn this data into information that can be used to invest our scarce resources of time, energy, and money into what is proven to support children in their learning. This evidence is critical, as no sector is more important to the health and security of our nation than education

Washington State, for example, used data from its statewide longitudinal data system to determine key risk and preventative factors associated with homelessness in the year after aging out of foster care. They used these factors to design programs like the Passport for Foster Youth, which helps identify students in foster care who are eligible for scholarships.

None of these tools and programs would exist if we did not have reliable student data--tracked over time--that identifies the proven strategies and investments that will help us prepare every child to graduate ready for college and career. To make sure the positive developments in student achievement from data use continue, policymakers should keep the beam of good data use lighting the way forward toward better learning outcomes for every child.