Aug 15, 2014

1) Is personal student data important in education?

We are collecting more student data than ever before. Information like academic performance, attendance trends, behavioral history, and the personal history of each student is readily available. When utilized by an education professional that possesses a deep knowledge of pedagogy, academic content and standards, and experience and judgment, the information the data provide becomes essential in personalizing a student’s education, thus aiding in achieving a better outcome for that student.

However, any collection of personal information, especially that of children, brings up significant concerns, and rightfully so. Later in this piece we will explore how to protect this data as well as provide transparency about how it is being used, but first we are going to look at why the use personal student data is so important in education.

The Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy organization, works to promote the use of educational data to drive decisions that will result in higher levels of student achievement. According to Aimee Guidera, the founder and executive director, a major goal is to change the culture and conversation on data use: she emphasizes that the purpose of collecting data is not just to possess data, but to use that data to drive decisions, inform actions, and change outcomes.1

Student data become imperative to educational policy makers when they are attempting to determine what works and at what price. School districts cannot afford to throw time, money, and energy into implementing numerous programs, many which might end up being ineffective or even harmful. Beyond this, and perhaps more importantly, access to personal student data is necessary for educators, and it is important that they receive this data in a timely and effective manner. Personal data enable educators to teach students at an individual level, rather than as a cohort of kids. A child’s education can become greatly enriched when they are able to explore autonomously and foster their individual interests. Personal student data allows learning be tailored to make sure that every student has the tools they need to thrive.1

Says Aimee Guidera, “We can’t afford not to use data well, because if we don’t change how we use data, we will never reach our goal of having every American child graduate from high school and graduate ready for the knowledge economy.”

The use of student data gives crucial information to another important and influential party in a student’s academic career: parents. When they have access to their child’s data, know exactly where and why their child is struggling, can determine concrete steps to take to bring about positive change, and then measure the results, parents become a powerful partner in their child’s academic success. Additionally, personal data can provide information about a student’s strengths and interests, so parents and educators may encourage growth and offer support in these areas. In order to make the best choices for their kid, parents need to have access to all the information available, and all too often this does not happen. By sharing data with parents and including them as partners, educators can ensure a strong support system is being built around the student and the student will have the resources they need to flourish both in the classroom and out.1

2) What power does personal data have?

An infographic (see below in Resources)released by the Data Quality Campaign provides a comprehensive visual of the power that personal data can have.

DQC Infographic JPG

The flowchart begins with a cartoon teacher asking herself four questions that will inform her practice and allow her to engage with her students on a more deeply personal level: “Who are my students, what is their history, how do I prepare them?” These questions guide her as she reviews the data for each of her students. Her teaching practice becomes more informed and deliberate, and she is able to get measurable goals for individual students. The knowledge she has gained from her data and used to answer her guiding questions is used to support her instruction and shape her interactions with her students.2

The use of data to improve a student’s academic career becomes even more powerful when additional parties, such as parents, coaches, and counselors are pulled in. These forces in the student’s life now have a clear understanding of what the student’s strengths and needs, and they can begin to brainstorm what unique tools they possess to help and support the student. Finally, including the student in the process can yield significant outcomes. When a student is able to see where they are falling behind, understand why, and then receive tools and strategies to remedy this, they themselves become a force in driving their achievement, and they begin to understand how they can control these elements that before seemed insurmountable.

To use data to show a student that they are struggling not because they are not “smart,” but because of specific factors or misunderstandings, or because material is being presenting to them in a way that is not ideal, the student will not feel hopeless, but instead become empowered to take some control over their circumstances and understand that overcoming challenges and setbacks is possible. Students can also use their personal data to find their strengths and become more enriched in these areas.

3) What opportunities exist for student achievement if personal student data are properly harnessed and used?

With the amount of data available to educators, there is a myriad of ways that data can be put to use. Collaboration with co-workers and staff to analyze outcomes, share best practices, and learn new strategies is important to ensuring that data are being harnessed and used in ways that will have the greatest impact on student achievement. For more information on running data meetings and setting up professional learning communities, please see (insert link to our Data and PLC Meeting article).

Teaching students to set actionable, measurable goals is another opportunity that exists for student achievement if data are properly harnessed and used. Setting goals is a beneficial habit for students to practice, because it breaks seemingly daunting tasks into achievable steps.

Helping students set goals is also important because it guides them to understand their level of responsibility in their own achievement, and to feel that they have a sense of control over their outcomes. By using a student’s personal data, the educator and the student can work together to set goals that make the most sense for the student on an individual level, will have a significant impact, and allow the student to feel acknowledged and supported.

As student ascend through school levels, their personal data will follow them, thus providing their new teacher with historical information as soon as (if not before) the student enters the classroom. Instead of reinventing the wheel and dedicating precious time and resources to gathering data on a student, the new educator will already have the understanding of how best to support the student and will be able to immediately continue with the strategies that boost the student’s academic success.

Though there are many opportunities for student achievement through the effective use of data, less than 2% of schools have the capacity and resources to convey this information to educators in a usable manner, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A growing discussion today is about how educators can access this information in a usable way without endangering the privacy of the students.3

4) How can personal data best be protected?

We have looked at how personal student data have limitless potential in helping students succeed, and we must remember that with this comes the enormous responsibility of protecting the data and respecting the privacy of the students.

According to the Roadmap to Safeguarding Student Data by the Data Quality Campaign, “safeguarding student data is not just a technical project done by one person within the state education agency (SEA). It must be an integral part of the SEA’s purposeful, planned, and transparent efforts to use data in support of student learning.”4

It becomes imperative for SEAs to create policies and practices that clearly govern data protection and use, and ensure that these are high-quality and well-maintained. By creating a privacy policy, SEAs will be able to create a culture of responsibility where those who work with data value its important and understand and practice the ethics and standards of data use. Such a culture will also promote communication and transparency in respect to student data, because the policies and practices will be clearly outlined.4

Roadmap to Safeguarding Student Data emphasizes that the three key areas SEAs should focus on in order to create and implement a high-quality data protection system are transparency, governance, and data protection procedures. Within these three areas, SEAs must clearly communicate both internally and with the public on privacy policies, procedures, and how data are collected and protected, design roles and responsibilities to ensure implementation and support of the policies, and make sure that the data are physically, technically, and legally safeguarded.4

Access the full report of Roadmap to Safeguarding Student Data in the reference section below.

5) What are the best practices to provide transparency about how student data are being used, and to ensure proper government of the data?

It is important to consider which people need to see what data and when, as well as how data should appear to them.

For example, Aimee Guidera of the Data Quality Campaign says that no collection of personal identifying information is needed at the federal level. While the government might use aggregate data to conduct large studies, “the federal government does not need to know how your kid did on the math test last week.”1

Practices become slightly different at the state level. While the state should only access a limited level of personal data, it is important for the state to be able to follow individual students over time in order to provide information and access to their parents and teachers. This also helps to give critical feedback to the district so they might improve their policies and practices. An example Guidera uses to drive this point is: “Why when you gave kids A’s in math, half the kids graduating need to take remediate math at the university down the street?”1

Most data should and will stay at the school level and be communicated to parents, educators, and students themselves. It remains essential that data be secure and that the school be transparent about what data are being collected and for what purpose, which is addressed in the previous section.1

It is important to engage in dialect about the privacy of student data, and it is also important to be aware of the current laws, policies, and practices. A good resource for this is Getting the Facts Straight about Education Data from the Data Quality Campaign (link available at the bottom of this article).


“With great power comes great responsibility.” This quote is overused but nevertheless applicable when talking about the use of personal student data. Data are needed for information, and information is needed to make impactful decisions. Data-driven decisions can help shape a student’s academic career in the most impactful way possible. Engaging in conversations about personal student data (how to both use and protect the data) becomes imperative as we work to ensure academic excellence for all students.


12013 National Summit on Education Reform - Strategy Session 12: Informed Decisions: Educators, Accountability, and Next-Gen Data Systems

2Ms. Bullen’s Data-Rich Year (Infographic)

3Education Weekly: Can States Make Student Data Useful for Schools?

4Roadmap to Safeguarding Student Data

Getting the Facts Straight about Education Data

By: Mary Conroy Almada

Topics: Teaching & Learning Policy & Accountability Data Analytics