3 Crucial Tips about Student Data Usage

September 13, 2019

When people used to ask me what I did as Director of Technology, I used to jokingly simplify the job to the statement, “I move boxes.”

At that point, many days on the job consisted of ordering and receiving computers, network equipment, or other technology related items. There were unboxing, asset tagging, installation, and maintenance tasks that all centered around items in boxes of some sort.

Over the years, these responsibilities remained but a new area of responsibility appeared and then grew dramatically. Instead of moving boxes, I found myself moving data more and more.

These data moves depended upon connections and communications between both internal and external systems at times. I became embroiled in data relationships. As the number of these relationships grew, I found the start of a school year to be a series of quick “dates” as the data had to be integrated, adjusted, or updated in some new way for my district to use for the upcoming year. Get one relationship going and move on to the next one.

Yes, I understand that I became a data polygamist.

Over time, I realized, also, that these data relationships were like their real-world human counterparts and were impacted by the quality of at least three aspects of the relationship: consistency, accuracy, and trust.

Consistent Student Data

Like a good spouse or partner, school districts’ data needs to be consistent. Successful data integrations thrive on data points maintaining certain standards. For example, most every data request or export file specification requires the unique student identifier datapoint. Therefore, communicate early with district leadership on whether to use a state-issued identifier or perhaps one generated by the student information system.

Once the decision is made, use the same unique identifier across all systems, all integrations.

Discipline, and attendance codes should be standardized district-wide especially if the district wants to examine data through a data analytics application. For instance, the discipline code for “Inappropriate Language” should not be “IL” at elementary schools but “ILang” at secondary schools within the same educational institution. Data analytical systems would report the two amounts separately for what, in reality, is one district-wide discipline issue.

Accuracy is another important component in relationships.

Accurate Student Data

Remembering important anniversaries on time and knowing important details specific to the significant other are both rather common examples that signal that you value a partner or colleague. Likewise, data that is both reliable and valid provides better opportunities for impactful analysis and action.

Data entry errors like mistyping a grade level, not flagging a student in the correct subgroup, entering the wrong age, or recording the wrong assessment score can produce misleading data trends or totals when aggregated later for analysis. These errors can also impact instructional applications when the application’s prescriptive content hinges on entered data being accurate.

The necessity for data that is “clean” and accurate might seem to be a problem of the past. However, in my experience with both educational institutions and governmental statistics, the accuracy of data is still a prominent issue for data integration and analytics. Like many other aspects of business and education, training and professional development are key to fully communicate the importance of accurate data-entry and how errors create ripples that impact other systems used by educators and students.

Long term relationships with co-workers or friends often have flourished and been sustained because of high levels of loyalty and trust between the two parties. Similarly, sustained and successful data relationships depend upon clearly communicated principles of trust and secure processes.

Trust in Data Related Vendors

In recent years, data security and privacy has dominated much of the data-related conversations. Several prominent companies’ misuse or mishandling of personal data has not only eroded consumer trust but also has raised awareness of this topic.

"Data sharing agreements between vendors and educational institutions should be the cornerstone of data relationships."

Tenuous trust between two parties is not a desired situation especially when educational data is involved. Data sharing agreements between vendors and educational institutions should be the cornerstone of data relationships.

Before the purchase order is submitted, a data sharing agreement should be requested and reviewed by key leadership (not just the technology department) to examine how employees are vetted and data access levels assigned, vendor hardware and software data security procedures and policies, and how the data is handled if/when the data relationship is severed.

In addition to the data sharing agreement, data exchange details should also be explained. Obviously student data sent over regular email is a security nightmare but educators should also be mindful of SFTP details as well. Sending data to an outside party via SFTP is a common current method. However, student data sent via SFTP should also be deposited in individual, separate repositories not in a single account that houses multiple customer files at the same time.

If username and passwords are shared with the vendor, the vendor should clearly explain how those credentials are encrypted and stored like student data.

While maintaining and managing these aspects (consistency, accuracy, and security) of a multitude of data relationships can create challenges for the modern technology director, there are some benefits, or welcome by-products. As more and more data exchanges are implemented and occasionally slightly different datasets are used, institutional data has the opportunity to become more reliable and valid.

Also, administrators at central offices and individual schools are more likely to understand the effect of entering student information data haphazardly without some quality controls in place. They quickly realize that their benchmark assessment data, educational applications, and other digital tools are directly affected by local school data entry. Bad or untimely data entry produces a ripple effect into other systems affecting their school in a negative fashion.

As the district’s data improves in quality through usage, aggregated data becomes more meaningful and impactful. Administrators and teachers have better opportunities to adapt instructional and administrative activities to the needs of their students and communities. Quality and easily accessible student data enhances conversations and relationships between schools and parents.

District data relationships can not only mirror certain aspects of human relationships but they can also improve the most important human relationships in an educational environment: school personnel and students’ families.

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About the Author:

After 27+ years working for The University of Southern Mississippi, Forrest County School District, and then Hattiesburg Public School District, Dane now works with both the Development and the Operations teams within SchoolStatus to aide new customers with the technical aspects of their onboarding experience.

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