08/04/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Education Data Use Has Come a Long Way and Needs to Go Further

Education data are in the spotlight like never before. More people than ever are talking about data's power to transform systems and help students achieve. Some people, including parents, are also expressing legitimate concerns about how states and districts are safeguarding data and ensuring they're used appropriately. These conversations are important and must be given serious consideration. But it's also important to pause and look at how data is changing what is possible in education.

We're not talking the same way about data we did when the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) began in 2005. The conversation has shifted from building systems and collecting data to actually using this valuable information to help students. It bears remembering all the hard work and commitment from policymakers and advocates that brought us to this moment. We take for granted that now we're talking about how best to use this wealth of information, when only a few years ago that information didn't exist.

There's a powerful example that speaks to this incredible progress. When DQC first began surveying states on their capacity around education data in 2005, only 14 had the ability to calculate the National Governors Association's (NGA) adjusted cohort graduation rate. That's the measure of high school success that was defined by the Graduation Counts Compact, which all 50 governors signed that year. (To calculate it, states needed to have a statewide student identifier, student-level enrollment data, and student-level graduation and dropout data.) Now all states can collect and act on this information to improve outcomes for students

It's hard to overstate this accomplishment. These were governors of opposing parties coming together in agreement over a way to calculate an important accountability indicator for school report cards, one often used to judge school quality. While they were settling on a common data collection and calculation, what they were really agreeing to was being assessed by the same metric and compared to one other on a level playing field. That's huge.

My staff always teases me about my tortured metaphors, but please indulge me for a moment. In 2005 many policymakers thought of data like a faucet. Need more data? Simply turn the handle farther to the left and more will come out! Not so. Instead, most states had to overhaul their entire plumbing--er, data--systems to get the information required to solve problems. It's never been about the volume of data; it's about getting the right information in the right format to answer the questions we have.

The metaphor extends to the graduation rate example. The adjusted cohort grad rate is considered a more accurate calculations than past methods because it is based on individual student data, rather than aggregate counts of students and diplomas. Before the common grad rate, states each had their own calculations that often weren't capturing important information, such as when students left the state. These calculations were often hard to understand and did not allow for any comparison across states -- or for calculating a national graduation rate. How well was the US preparing its students for college and career? Before, our answer was largely estimation and guesswork.

The bottom line is that data users (like the person who turns the faucet and wants hot water at bath time) shouldn't have to worry about the system that brings them the info they needed at the right time in the right way. But policymakers had to understand the need to prioritize this least interesting of policy topics--data infrastructure--so that the proper systems could be built. That all states now have these data systems is a testament to the universal recognition that longitudinal data--data that follow students over time--are powerful. In 2014 every state has a rich system, and that's because of the hard work of state policymakers and other advocates for better education. And their commitment is starting to see dividends. For the first time this year we have a national reporting of high school completion based on the NGA compact.

Now more and more parents and educators are coming to the conclusion that of course we need data to provide greater transparency, inform richer accountability, fuel better decision making. With the systems in place, we must prioritize crucial questions, like how to ensure parents, teachers, and policymakers have access to this valuable information and know how to use it.

But while we are celebrating our highest national graduation rate ever (80 percent) the question becomes: Now what? What are educators, administrators, and state policymakers doing with this information? What changes to policies, programs, and resource allocation are they making to support that 20 percent that didn't make it across the graduation stage? Is this information being used to its best potential to empower students, families, and teachers? Do we have the proper training and safeguards in place to ensure that data are used appropriately and kept private, secure, and confidential? Are we encouraging a culture of trust around data use, one that provides data to educators as a powerful tool that won't be used to beat them up?

The education community should be proud of the remarkable progress made in just a few years to harness the power of data to improve student achievement. All of this was made possible by dedicated policymakers at the local, state, and national levels. But this is no time to rest on laurels. How we answer the questions above will determine whether all the effort was worth it--and whether we can effectively use data to ensure a world-class education for every American.