Student records now a keystroke away

To do their jobs well, teachers have to know students’ strengths and weaknesses, how they learn best and whether they’ve failed a subject in the past.

For years that information has been recorded on paper and locked away in school vaults. It could take hours to pull the documents and and analyze them.

“Who has time to walk down to the vault for a hundred kids’ files and then make a … chart based on that?” said Robert Swiggum, the state education technology chief. That is why he went after an $8.9 million federal grant to build a database about students.

Now, five years after the state got the money, the system is done.

“I have 8 billion pieces of data sitting online right here,”Swiggum said, pointing to his computer screen in an Atlanta office tower. And he means to share it.

The information about students, including performance on state tests, absences, schools attended and teachers assigned, is linked to unique identification numbers that follow students from school to school throughout their educational careers in Georgia.

A team from Swiggum's office at the Georgia Department of Education has begun training all of the state's 120,000 teachers to use the system. In addition to student information, the State Longitudinal Data System offers quick access to educational content, including documents, tests and even interactive games — all tailored to the level of a particular student and linked to state standards.

More than half the teachers in Marietta accessed the system last semester. Jill Sims, the director of curriculum and instruction there, said they’re using the content to teach lessons, and are already asking for more.

“They’re happy to have the ability to look at standards and pull up lessons that are tied to them,” Sims said.

At Clarkston High in DeKalb County, social studies teacher Michael Martin used the state system to vet new students at the beginning of the school year.

“I have access to essentially every standardized test they’ve ever taken,” he said. “I have a pretty good idea of their ability when they come to me.”

The computerized data makes it easier to diagnose strengths and weaknesses on the fly, teachers said. It also makes it easier to group students by ability and teach at their level.

This is like the difference between managing money online, and keeping bank records in a shoe box under the bed, with the dust bunnies.

“It saves a lot more time,” said Darlene Herbert, an academic data coach in DeKalb. “The system is much more efficient.”

The state hopes to expand the teaching tools by getting teachers to upload their own material. Parents will ultimately be looped in, too. That’s already happened in Clarke County and a handful of other school districts.

Clarke Superintendent Philip Lanoue said parents can see information about their children on iPhones, and can assign extra homework from a “parent portal.” Eventually, every student will have an “electronic backpack” where everything they must do, and have done, is saved.

With the power of big data comes concerns about student privacy, which is supposed to be protected under federal law. These data systems exist in every state and too often are poorly protected, said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. The advocacy group sued unsuccessfully over new federal regulations that it saw as loosening privacy protections for student data.

“While state longitudinal data systems may provide benefits, what we have seen is there simply are not enough privacy protections and data safeguards in place,” said Barnes, who directs the organization’s Student Privacy Project.

Besides breaches, her group is concerned about accuracy and parent control. Misinformation — like an inaccurate report about a behavioral incident in first grade — could color perceptions of a student for the rest of his or her career, she said, so parents should have full knowledge of what’s being collected.

Agency spokesman Matt Cardoza said by email that parents would have to ask their school district to let them review the data. He said the state’s data system only connects to school district student information networks, which he said are all encrypted. The districts then control the data.

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