States Embrace Student-Data Tracking, With Prodding From White House

Alexis C. Glenn, UPI, Newscom

Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary, has expressed the hope that databases will one day track students from preschool through college to their careers.
January 03, 2010

The Bush administration spent years, without much success, trying to win support for a national database to track the academic progress of individual college students. The Obama administration may now be making progress by emphasizing action at the state level.

At least 31 states are operating student databases with at least some college participation, up from just 12 in 2005, according to a November survey by the Data Quality Campaign, an association of state-government officials and education-policy groups. Another survey, scheduled to be released early this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers organization, counts at least 45 states keeping some individual records on college students.

"It is clear that this agenda is moving forward, despite opposition from the private colleges," says Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which specializes in data-driven consulting. "The accountability push is such that these numbers are just simply going to be produced, whether anyone likes it or not."

Both the Obama and Bush administrations have supported the creation of databases containing records of individual students, contending that such "unit record" information allows detailed examinations of cause-and-effect in teaching and education policy. Opponents led by private colleges have argued that existing practices, in which institutions provide the government with course completion and grade data only for large groups of students, gives educators and policy makers sufficient information without jeopardizing students' privacy rights.

Experiences at the state level suggest that individual student data can be handled without privacy violations, said Muriel A. Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Her group hopes that better student-record databases will allow comparisons of public and private colleges that are based on facts rather than reputations. Federal data in areas such as job placement and graduation rates can fail to reflect colleges' full records by not counting many students who move or attend multiple institutions, Ms. Howard said.

The states, however, may not be building data systems that allow for full comparisons, as most states that have persuaded private colleges to participate in their student-record systems have won that cooperation on only a limited basis.

Douglas C. Bennett, president of Earlham College, says the level of personal intrusion that the widespread collection of student data would require is not justified by any improvements in educational practices that could result. For exploring essential questions of education policy, he argues, traditional survey methods are "cheaper and more respectful of privacy."

From Preschool to Career

The federal government already requires colleges to submit extensive annual reports on their students, including overall figures on enrollment, graduation, and finances. But the Bush administration proposed that the government collect such data on each individual student to more precisely measure colleges' performance, including by taking into account the success and failures of the growing number of students who attend multiple institutions.

The Obama administration generally shares the sentiment and is pressing for better data. "Hopefully, some day we can track children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in June at the annual conference of the Institute of Education Sciences.

Mr. Duncan, though, has shied away from advocating a federal system that keeps data on individual students. In an interview with The Chronicle last year, he said the department would support states and colleges that adopt measures of student learning but would not require the adoption of specific standards nationwide.

The states make logical allies for Mr. Duncan because many of them have collected data on individual students for years, starting at the elementary- and secondary-education level. Many states are now adding records on individual performance from colleges and businesses, creating sophisticated information systems that state officials regard as providing numerous educational advantages.

In Florida, one of the earliest adopters of student-record systems, the data drive decisions on such matters as tuition and curriculum "almost on a daily basis," says Ramon Padilla Jr., assistant vice chancellor for information-resource management at the state universities' Board of Governors.

Florida is also one of several states that use data from student performance in their elementary and secondary schools to identify needed improvements in their teacher colleges, right down to a specific institution or course.

Congress has sought a middle ground in the controversy over student databases. When renewing the Higher Education Act in July 2008, lawmakers specifically banned the Education Department from creating any nationwide unit-record system to track individual college students. Yet Congress has approved money for states to build their own systems, including $250-million in last year's economic-stimulus measure, an amount several times greater than what lawmakers had provided in recent years.

'Agenda Moving Forward'

The Obama administration has been aggressive in reaching out to states with that money, says Hans P. L'Orange, vice president for research and information resources at the State Higher Education Executive Officers group. The administration's work with the states has involved top officials from both the Education and Labor Departments, since tying employment data to graduates is seen as a crucial element of measuring the success of a college, he says.

Mr. Ewell's consulting group counts 42 states that now collect at least some individual records on college students. About half of those states also include data on postcollege employment. About a dozen states include at least some data from private colleges, tying compliance with information requests to students' eligibility for state financial aid, he says.

Still, it's not clear how effective the state-by-state method of building student-record systems will be for researchers, policy makers, or prospective students hoping for more-reliable methods of comparing colleges. That's because state-based systems remain limited by the large numbers of people who cross state lines for college or jobs, the difficulty of coordinating student information among states, and the persistent opposition of private colleges.

An example of the technical difficulties that states could face in trying to link student records may lie in their efforts to link driver's-license databases, as part of a program coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security. That's a far less complicated task than linking the many elements of student and job records, yet the attempt has already taken more than seven years, says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

States Avoid Confrontations

Among the few states that have some private-college data in their systems, state officials have routinely accepted subsets of student information rather than insisting upon the full levels of disclosure they require of their public colleges.

Florida has won limited cooperation from its private colleges by promising that it won't release any data without their permission, says Jeff Sellers, acting deputy commissioner for accountability, research, and measurement at the state's Department of Education. "We view it more as a partnership," he says.

Oklahoma doesn't require information from its private colleges to be verified and also excludes those data from most of its public reports. "We try to keep the burden down," says Michael Yeager, director of research and analysis at the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

Both supporters and opponents of student-record databases have acknowledged that the state-by-state method—with varying standards for collecting, sharing, and protecting data—might be even riskier and less secure than a national system on privacy grounds. "Yes, it has severe defects," says Mr. Ewell, of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

The complications are further magnified by the fact that states initially designed their student-data systems for their elementary and secondary schools, he notes. In too many cases, he says, decisions on what data to collect from colleges are being dictated by the technical possibilities rather than by assessments of need.

"The people who are at the table tend to be the technical folks who want to build stuff," he says. "There isn't time to stop and think of what the stuff ought to look like."

The federal government's encouragement of such state-based efforts is dangerous and happening "without any public debate," says Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University who has warned that students face severe privacy and security risks.

Mr. Reidenberg, director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham, served until last year on the Board of Education in Millburn, N.J. He says his former colleagues in the school system find no use for their state's student database and can't figure out how to feed their own records into it.

Existing National Database

But the refusal of many private colleges to cooperate with efforts to collect student information, on the grounds that they're protecting student privacy, looks disingenuous, Mr. Ewell says, given that nearly all American colleges already share individual student data with the National Student Clearinghouse. Loan companies formed the private, nonprofit company to help them verify the enrollment status of applicants. It now uses its records to serve various companies wanting to verify the college credentials of job applicants.

The colleges cooperate with the clearinghouse because its database helps them increase their published graduation rates by locating former students who completed their studies at other institutions, Mr. Ewell says. "Private colleges are all in favor of data. They just don't want anybody but them to know."

A spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Tony Pals, says he cannot offer on-the-record comment from his group on the matter of student-record databases.

Congress, meanwhile, is considering another show of support for the Obama administration's approach. An early draft of legislation pending in the Senate to overhaul the federal government's student-loan system would add $500-million to the data-collection effort, with emphasis on encouraging groups of states to link their systems.

"Privacy concerns are absolutely paramount," Mr. Duncan said in a recent interview. At the same time, the education secretary told The Chronicle, good student data systems are critical to "understanding what's working and what's not" in the nation's schools and colleges.