Initially, data systems representing student and unit-level public education data were organized around state, district, and institution reporting requirements. As the cost of collecting, storing, managing, and analyzing data decreased, interest in expanding the type and granularity of available data increased. Simultaneously, public education administrators, policy makers, and researchers began to expect and demand more immediate access to an expanded array of data variables. The interests of households and students added to the voices seeking well-organized and timely data and data outcomes. Not only did educators and their representatives seek information regarding the outcomes of public policy, households sought reliable inputs into their education choice decisions. The era of big data was upon us and stakeholders appetites and expectations with respect to public education data began to expand rapidly.
The development of state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) arose as a functional response to stakeholder and public expectations. The data maintained by state offices of primary and secondary education, when linked to higher education and workforce data for the same individuals, represented a yet richer repository from which policy analysts, researchers, educators and households may be expected to cultivate interesting and useful analysis in support of education decisions and meet increasingly demanding federal, state and local reporting requirements.
Most public education policy analysts and researchers represent contributing stakeholders and have access to their particular state’s SLDS as a function of the agreements outlined in the SLDS’s governance structure. These individuals, often employed by state governments, prepare reports and articles made available to stakeholders, partners and the public. Additionally, some SLDSs welcome outside researcher access to individual and unit-level data under strict security protocols, always considerate of federal and state student privacy statutes such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)4, Utah’s5 Student Data Privacy statute6 and Kansas7 public education’s Student Online Personal Protection Act8. Access is granted only to those who also agree to data access requirements of the SLDSs governance unit and the reporting of data is often subject to stakeholder review prior to publication.
Most SLDS managers have created public facing portals providing some level of information about their respective SLDS and its publicly available data. These public portals, sometimes known as dashboards, allow interested parties to obtain a high-level overview of the SLDS, the entity that manages the system, the partners that provide data to the system, and the type of data accessible through the portal. Not all portals are made equal, in many cases states that created the highest functioning SLDSs to date also created the most robust and comprehensive public portals. States such as Washington9, Kentucky10, and Minnesota11 offer interesting examples, providing SLDSs fully linking student data records across the education and workforce spectrum. These portals are distinguished by their easy-to-navigate user interfaces and the thorough explanation of data available to interested parties through the dashboard. Users with limited knowledge of SLDSs are provided ample information about the underlying mechanics and architecture of the data system, the relationships formed between the various SLDS partners to create the system, and the ultimate motivation behind the construction and operation of the system.
Well-maintained portals also tend to display any internal publications or research efforts conducted using their state’s SLDS data. These publications are intended to show the types of insights discoverable through analysis of SLDS data, as well as the utility these discoveries offer to the state’s education system. States such as Maryland12, Kansas13, and Mississippi14 list numerous publications on their public portals, representing examinations of education outcomes in areas including early learning, K-12, higher education and workforce hiring outcomes. Many of these research efforts are conducted by researchers or data analysts employed by state education departments, however, some efforts are created by outside researchers with interests in certain education policies or initiatives. In these situations, outside researchers enter into binding agreements with SLDS managers and partners to conduct their work. Before this partnership may take place, researchers must submit data requests to the SLDS manager verifying their qualifications and explaining the purpose of their intended study.
Many states’ public portals, including those for Illinois15, Virginia16, and Utah17, provide outside researchers access to data request templates to assist in this process. When an outsider researcher’s data request is accepted by the SLDS manager and partners, the researcher and each of the SLDS partners involved in the research effort normally must all sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) together before any data may be accessed by the researcher. This process may take weeks or months to complete, depending on the level of interest displayed by all parties, the prior legal precedence established by the SLDS manager and partners, and the type of data requested by the researcher.
Many SLDS portals fail to provide these types of utilities to external parties interested in the data system. Some public portals do not receive regular updates from SLDS managers, remaining unchanged for years and offer no insight into new developments occurring to the SLDS or its governance structure. Other portals contain little to no access to data contained within a SLDS, not even aggregated data that presents no privacy risks to the SLDS managers. In select cases, aggregate data is provided through a portal but without guidance or instructions to the viewer, making it difficult for viewers to fully utilize or realize the capabilities of the portal and the aggregated data. States such as Arizona18, California19 and Idaho20 provide portals that exhibit some or all of these characteristics. Additionally, some public portals lack thorough explanations about the level of access provided to outside researchers as well as the means by which outside researchers can attempt to request access to SLDS data. This lack of information to outside researchers can be caused by several different factors. Some states, such as Missouri, have not created legal precedence for research partnerships between education departments and outside researchers. Other states’ SDLS dashboards, such as North Carolina21, are still in the development stages of building their SLDSs and are unable to offer research opportunities to outside researchers. Either case prevents the formation of relationships between outside researchers and SLDS managers and partners.
4 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html
6 Utah Student Data Privacy Act, HB 358 2016; https://le.utah.gov/~2016/bills/static/HB0358.html
8 Kansas Student Online Protection Act (2016), http://slds.rhaskell.org/documents/2017/07/kansas-student-online-protection-act-2016.pdf
10 Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics, https://kcews.ky.gov/?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
15 Illinois State Board of Education; https://www.isbe.net/Pages/ISBE-Education-Data-Systems.aspx
16 Virginia Longitudinal Data Systems dashboard; http://research.schev.edu/apps/info/Articles.The-Virginia-Longitudinal-Data-System.ashx
17 Utah Data Alliance dashboard; http://www.utahdataalliance.org/dashboards/gpa.shtml
21 North Carolina Common Follow Up System, Department of Commerce; https://www.nccommerce.com/lead/research-publications/common-follow-up-system