Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 4:30 PM on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

State, ISER seek better student data to improve public policy

By Jonathan Grass
Morris News Service - Alaska

The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education is teaming up with the Institute of Social and Economic Research to learn more about students. Specifically, to keep learning about them once they get to college.

The commission and ISER, along with the labor and education departments, have applied for a $4 million grant from the National Center for Education Statistics to build a longitudinal database to track student data from preschool through college. The groups say better student tracking is crucial and could prove invaluable in shaping student pathways and improving public policy.

If the grant comes through, the entities will collaborate on establishing a database to keep track of student data continuously throughout students' educational careers. The idea is to gather information about where students are from, what they study and how they progress through secondary school and then continue researching as they go through college.

"It would able us to identify what programs are most successful in assisting students to achieve success throughout their school and into their career lives and enable us to target resources at those programs that are most likely to make a difference," said Stephanie Butler, director of program operations at the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

There also could be potential to examine demand for students concerning their secondary background.

"The big thing that we want to be able to do is answer the question what's happening to our students. Are they succeeding? Where are they going?" said Diane Hirshberg, associate professor of education policy with ISER.

Butler said tracking data through the course of their educational career also can answer questions about return on investment for interventions for student financial aide and if those students are more or less likely to go to college. Another example is do particular school programs encourage students to stay in the state or leave.

Butler said the answers to questions like this can really inform state policy decisions. And the answers may be linked to courses or schools kids were in years earlier.

The grant would be for three years. The entities involved expect to hear an answer by late spring and could have the database started by the summer if approved.

The idea for this longitudinal database has been around for several years. Butler said the Labor Department has done a lot of work in this area. She said the newly released Alaska Performance Scholarship outcomes report functions as a proof of concept on what type of information could be provided to the administration and legislators with such a system.

"It also represents a wonderful and money-saving collaboration between multiple state agencies," Butler said.

Alaska currently has a similar database for K-12 students. However, it does not extend past that point, meaning student activity in college and in the workforce cannot be measured in correlation with what they did in secondary school or, for that matter, to se if there is any correlation.

The current data tracks where students are enrolled, courses and standardized test scores, as well as data required for federal reporting. This includes information about the schools, such as Adequate Yearly Progress and graduation rates

Hirshberg said the difficulty lies in linking up to different systems and understanding where students are and how they're doing. She said this is a big step toward being able to fully answer the question of how the state and various educational systems are succeeding in preparing K-12 students and what happens to them once they get that high school diploma.

The database also doesn't work easily with any post-secondary information. For example, student identifiers in the public school system don't carry into higher education. Hirshberg said researchers would like to find out if students from certain areas gravitate toward particular UA campuses, pursue education outside the UA system or immediately enter the workforce. While students do have Social Security numbers, she said the system prefers not to use these, in an effort to protect confidentiality.

"So it's really an opportunity for us to understand how we're doing and perhaps better plan our programs, better evaluate the effectiveness and better serve students in Alaska," Hirshberg said.

The new system would link post-secondary to this data and track it across different systems. It's intended to evaluate individual student growth and movement, as well as through different career and educational programs around the state. Hirshberg said the additional resources also would allow ISER to study the existing K-12 data more, which Hirshberg said is necessary, especially in terms of exploring if there is a link between student mobility and student success since moving around to schools in various parts of the state is not uncommon in Alaska.

"I think that unified database is going to allow for a lot more understanding for how students progress around the state," she said.

Butler said the hope is to someday extend the database into the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to measure students trained in Alaska against those who stay here for their careers.

Butler said the grant will really speed things up in linking the data while ensuring all of the protections are in place to protect student identities. Hirshberg said it will take agreement and active collaboration from all parties to make this work.

Jonathan Grass is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.