The COVID-19 pandemic upended education in numerous ways, making clear that issues ranging from daily attendance to college-going rates are deeply impacted by public health and economic factors. Many interest holders, including school administrators, policymakers, and community organizations, are seeking access to holistic information that could reduce barriers to educational attainment and illuminate widening equity gaps. This push for data corresponds with advances in technology that make it possible to share, combine, and store information in ways that are faster, more flexible, and secure. As a result, some states are now contemplating how to modernize their longitudinal data systems.
On the surface, modernization sounds like a tech project. But that is putting the cart before the horse. When data system modernization is understood to be a process of harnessing information for a range of actions—such as evaluating policy, improving practice, and addressing equity gaps—it shifts the emphasis and order of the work. Rather than having technology drive decisions, states can begin by engaging a broader range of people in articulating the purpose of linking data.
Establishing who will use data and the ways that data will be used—or “use cases,” as they are referred to in the IT world—is vital because state data systems were not designed to answer many of the questions being asked today. Early longitudinal data system funding focused on building capacity to track individual students through their K–12 journeys and then determine whether or where they went to college. These data systems were optimized to answer accountability questions. As a result, data access was generally constrained to state agencies and a limited number of researchers.
This format does not serve practitioners and families as well. They are more likely to use one or more of the following:
- information that has already been compiled to answer basic questions, such as information on the percentage of high school students who go on to college from a given high school, which may inform a decision about where to move
- trends in outcomes for specific student groups, such as where outcomes are improving for justice-impacted youths, which can inform planning in a school district
- granular information about an individual, such as access to transcript information needed to complete college and financial aid applications
Use cases like these can be addressed by the types of information that are compiled in state data systems. However, making this information more broadly available and including additional data sources that contextualize educational attainment will require actions such as expanding legal frameworks, updating access protocols, and aligning data definitions that vary between funding streams. Taken in the abstract, these tasks sound daunting and rarely rise to the top of agency priority lists.
However, when a state has a clearly articulated purpose for how data will be used, tasks become both clearer and more desirable. This is particularly true when those use cases have been co-designed with the intended audiences to provide actionable information. After all, more parties may be willing to get to yes if the result is better services for youths in foster care or automatic provision of free and reduced-priced meals to eligible students.
WestEd has several resources that clarify how to design a user-centered state data system. Our Center for Economic Mobility has created an easy-to-navigate website that provides resources to help you create a customized planning roadmap, such as sample meeting agendas, user personas, governance structures, content for legal agreements, and tips for evaluating technical solutions.
In addition, WestEd’s Data Integration Support Center helps public agencies navigate the complexities of state and federal privacy and security regulations for intersegmental data systems. This includes technical assistance on privacy, system security, governance, legal issues, and legislative analyses.
You can also read this brief by the Data Quality Campaign about a user-centered design process that WestEd led for California’s Cradle-to-Career Data System.