Making Strides with Educational Data


PennsylvaniaThe Pennsylvania Department ofEducation is creating a statewideinformation system to supportdistrict planning and studentachievement.

We live in a data-driven world.Marathon runners, for example,glance at their watcheshundreds of times over a 26-mile course toestablish and maintain a suitable pace.They also continually collect data as theyrun, assessing the temperature to determineif they need to remove a sweatshirt,and gauging the terrain to tailor theirefforts to the hills,wind, and surface. Mostimportantly, all runners have a wealth ofqualitative data to share about the steepestascents on every course, the camaraderieand challenge of every race, even thecheering fans lining the courses.

In education, however, we do notbelieve that assessing our students yearlywith statewide tests provides enough datafor us to determine whether or not they areachieving—just as knowing only amarathon runner’s finish time would notconvey enough information to understandand predict his current or future success.These test results are also inadequate toprovide all of the information necessary toascertain if we are educating all of ourstudents well, or helping them succeed.Only a systemic approach to informationwill provide the appropriate solution.

Drowning in data. On the other hand,sometimes it feels like we are drowning indata because we cannot pay attention to allof the data available to us. The assessmentand reporting provisions of the No ChildLeft Behind Act (NCLB), coupled with thelaw’s accountability provisions, haveexpanded the need for data collection,analysis, and reporting. Thus, the challengefor education in these first decades ofthe 21st century is to get beyond the profusionof data to knowledge, as well as focuson the indicator data most critical to ourchallenge of educating students.

Creating a Culture of Teaching and Learning

The Pennsylvania Department ofEducation (PDE) is working with localeducation agencies throughout theCommonwealth to create a culture ofteaching and learning in every school that isstudent-centered, data-informed, personalized,and results-focused. Each of theseelements must be supported seamlessly bysystems, resources, technology, and sharedleadership organized around and insupport of student learning.

Transparent access to data. To meetthe challenge, Pennsylvania is working onmultiple systems to build more transparentaccess to data that leads to the developmentand exchange of meaningful information.Shared leadership based on common goalsand communities of practice iscontributing to the development of anenterprise-wide security framework andWeb portal infrastructure. This portal willsupport the architecture for a statewidestudent information management system(SIMS), a comprehensive strategic planningtool and reporting system, and thePennsylvania Educational Portal.

Focusing on indicator data. To helpguarantee access to quality data andits meaningful interpretation, thePDE is developing a Data Dictionary ofstandard data elements and definitions tostreamline and standardize data. A PDEData Council representing most bureaus and divisions, data collectors,and programstaff came together to establish a standardset of definitions based on National Centerfor Education Statistics (NCES) standardsand the data initiatives of the Data Council.The result has been a reduction of dataelements from 4,500 to 400, which representsthe first steps in our commitment tofocus on indicator data.

“Our work to establish systemic enterprise-wide leadership,systems, and resources will provide the tools through whichwe can help all of Pennsylvania’s students succeed.”

Development of an Academic Infrastructure

The SIMS. The Pennsylvania InformationManagement System (PIMS) is a statewidelongitudinal SIMS being developed to letPennsylvania’s 700 local education agenciesmaintain their current local studentinformation systems and input record leveldata into Web-based systems, whilemaintaining the security and privacy ofstudent data. The PIMS will relieve schooldistricts from having to reconstruct orrebuild information in order to makestatewide comparisons or follow individualacademic progress over time andacross districts. It will also facilitate anincreased rate of feedback to the districtsfrom the time of assessment.

Faster feedback and better quality ofinformation at the district level can be themeans to create a rapid implementationmodel of instructional design wherecontinuous monitoring and assessmentprovide direction for classroom instruction.Data from general performancemeasures, diagnostic assessments, orannual assessments can be gathered,analyzed, authenticated, and interpretedin real time to describe learning trajectoriesfor individuals, groups, grades, andschools. Decisions related to curriculumdesign and content procurement can thenbe linked to assessed needs and plannedimplementation.

Systemic planning and reporting.PDE and the Schools InteroperabilityFramework Association (SIF) have created apartnership and share a common vision ofenabling schools to better utilize data bycreating interoperability between datasystems at all levels of education. The PDEhas been a pioneer in the development of theSIF movement, concluding three first-in the-nation pilots using SIF vertical reportingconcepts, as well as mapping PDEreports and data elements to NCESelements. This includes developing a“crosswalk” that will serve as a key informationaltool that can be shared nationwide.In addition, PDE’s Metadata Facilityis a browser-based tool for organizing,navigating, comparing, and managingeducational standards, data, reports, andprocesses, giving the Commonwealth arobust and flexible structure.

Another system benefiting from thedevelopment of the Data Dictionary andthe design of a security framework is eSP,Pennsylvania’s comprehensive strategicplanning tool. This Web-based tool iscustomized to integrate Pennsylvania’smultiple, disparate planning processesinto one . The eSP tool provides online planreview and amendment, an authenticatedapproval process, and individual compliancereporting. The plans become livingdocuments populated with the requireddata to support the sustained implementationof systemic planning. The first wave ofPennsylvania schools will begin using theeSP tool this fall.

One-stop portal. The final resourcewe are developing is the PennsylvaniaEducational Portal, which will giveteachers, administrators, students, andparents access to content-rich informationportlets and communications resources—a comprehensive one-stop shop source forK-12 and higher education, workforcedevelopment, and lifelong learning. Theportal will act like an intranet on theemerging statewide broadband system,linking all local educational agencies toeach other and to the PDE. Because of this,we are better able to share evidence-basedmodel practices, tools, and resources,instead of reinventing practices in this eraof limited time, budgets,and personnel.

Together, these components of ouracademic infrastructure will enable themany education stakeholders throughoutPennsylvania to access timely, high quality,and relevant information tosupport student learning. Our work toestablish systemic enterprise-wide leadership,systems, and resources will providethe tools through which we can help all ofPennsylvania’s students succeed.

With the proper planning,training,andsupport, using information in educationcan be a great journey— just like running amarathon. It is the continuous assessmentand timely, high-quality indicator dataalong the way that will keep us on the rightpath, at the right speed to the right goal:student learning.

Michael Golden is the deputy secretary ofeducation for the Pennsylvania Departmentof Education (

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.