HELENA – At Anaconda High School, students with a smart phone or computer can tap into the school’s data system to check their attendance, assignments and grades – and often do.
“About 60 percent to 70 percent of our students do that on a continual basis,” says Principal Paul Furthmyre. “Trying to get high school students to take some ownership of their education is very difficult, but now, with this tool, they are checking it daily.”
Anaconda’s system can communicate with parents, too, texting them when their child misses an assignment.
It’s all part of the expanding use of electronic data kept on students at Montana’s public schools, such as enrollment and demographic data, grades, discipline and test scores.
Data on public school students are collected primarily by local districts, which also decide how to design and purchase their own data systems – although the state does require some of that information to be reported, for storage in its own statewide student data bank.
Some have raised concerns about the privacy of such data, how they are used and who can see them.
The criticism comes mostly from opponents of the new Common Core academic standards, saying Common Core means an expansion of data collection that will be more widely distributed to the federal government and other sources.
Montana school officials flatly reject these claims, saying the only change in data collection under Common Core will be replacing the results of current standardized student-assessment tests with results from testing aligned with the new standards.
“Linking all this so-called `data harvesting’ to the Common Core is huge misnomer,” says Mark Brajcich, the superintendent at Red Lodge schools.
Schools have been collecting and logging student data electronically for years, school officials say, and it’s largely the same information they had kept on paper.
“What’s happened over time, we’ve evolved from paper to digital student records,” says Brenda Koch, K-12 executive director for Billings schools. “It’s exactly what we used to keep in paper versions; it’s now digital.”
School districts across Montana use a variety of electronic systems to store student data, usually purchased from a private company and tweaked to however the district chooses to design it.
Students and their parents often have electronic access to their own specific data in the school’s system, on the Internet.
“We mail them a log-in user name and password,” says Scott Kinney, superintendent of schools at Superior. “It’s like you would do online banking.”
School officials say access to the overall data is tightly controlled. Top administrators can see most of it, but most teachers can see data only for students in their classes.
The state Office of Public Instruction (OPI) requires schools to submit certain student data, which it then enters into its own statewide data base. A student’s grades are not part of that information and the state does not have access to individual districts’ data base.
“We pull that (required) info down and put it in a file and send it to the state,” says Allan Sipes, superintendent of schools in Columbus. “The state doesn’t get to go into our information and look around, and neither does anyone else.”
OPI maintains a data base called Achievement in Montana (AIM), which holds a vast array of information on students and schools, as reported by the districts – everything from a students’ race to their participation in programs like the Job Corps or Career Technical Education.
While OPI doesn’t see student’s grades, it does receive, store and track the results of standardized assessment tests, which virtually all students take periodically for math, science and reading. These test results also are distributed to the student and the school.
Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for state Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau, says the testing data are used to report schools’ progress toward students’ proficiency in math, science and reading, under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The public can see some of these aggregate data on OPI’s website called GEMS (http://gems.opi.mt.gov), which has plenty of information of Montana schools, including how their students, as a group, performed on standardized tests.
The state reports other data to the U.S. Department of Education, such as information on federal programs like Title I, which is federal education aid for the poor. But all data sent to the feds are aggregate data, Quinlan says, and the feds get no data on individual students.
Back at the school district level, administrators and teachers use the testing data to evaluate how kids are doing in a given subject area and identify where instruction needs to be improved.
“Any administrator will tell you that data-driven decisions are the best,” says Kinney, the Superior superintendent. “You’re able to say, `This is what we’ve been doing in math for X number of years, and these are the gains we’re making every single year.’
At Anaconda, Furthmyre says his teachers use the testing results and other data to tailor instruction for the individual child, who may be behind or ahead in specific areas.
“Instead of taking two months to figure out the weaknesses of the kid, (teachers) know it right away,” he says.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, chief sponsor of the 2013 school-funding bill that included some new money that school districts can use to beef up their data systems, says that’s just what he had in mind when including that component in the bill.
“We know what works in education,” he says. “The more individualized the experience can be, the better you can design (the teaching) for that student, the better off you are.”