published Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Tennessee gets Ivy League aid to mine education data

The Tennessee Department of Education hopes to be more equipped to provide school districts with better and faster analysis of test scores and other data, thanks to a dose of the Ivy League.

Two department staffers were chosen for a two-year fellowship at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. In addition to providing extra training for the employees, the center temporarily will give the Department of Education two experts to help with its data systems.

Through the two-year effort, called the Strategic Data Project, state leaders will incorporate ways to analyze and interpret data, as well as make better data-driven policy decisions, officials said. The project also should help in getting information, such as teacher effectiveness and state test scores, back to local school districts more quickly.

"This is one of those quiet, not-so-sexy efforts that we're doing that will actually make a big difference in outcomes down the road," said Erin O'Hara, the department's assistant commissioner for data and communications.

O'Hara said the state has one of the largest collections of data but hasn't always been good at using it.

"Frankly, we just have not had, over the past couple years, a robust internal research department," she said.

The amount of available data can sometimes be overwhelming, said Emily Robertson, a performance adviser with the Department of Education who was chosen as one of the two Harvard fellows.

"I think everyone is really excited to use data," she said. "But the flip side of the coin is we have so much data that it's hard to know where to start and what to focus on."

Research specialist Diane Perhac, also selected as a Harvard fellow, said some school districts, especially smaller ones, aren't able to analyze available data for trends and correlation, making it harder to target a certain area or group of students.

In the case of student test scores, districts receive raw scores and averages, but not much analysis beyond that, she said.

"Most definitely, the districts do struggle on a daily basis with our data," she said. "There's not a lot of statistical analysis attached to the information districts get."

The Harvard fellowship program should change that, letting inside and outside experts provide the department and districts with analyzed, connected data, Perhac said.

Most of the research will center on student achievement, she said.

Some goals the department could accomplish through the fellowship program include:

* The implementation of an early warning system that would use attendance and course completion rates to identify students who are at risk of not graduating.

* A method of examining what factors make a difference in high- and low-performing schools with high poverty concentrations.

* Tracking the impact of feeder elementary and middle schools to individual high schools.

Education officials said they won't be crunching numbers for data's sake and it's all meant to help state and district officials make decisions to help students.

"All of this work in the end is to translate into results for kids," Robertson said. "Whatever we can analyze and study and hand off to others and help guide their work will really show results in schools."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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