NYC public schools adopt student data trackers

About 30 states have early warning systems to tell if kids are falling behind. But some advocates worry that students' data can be used against them.

Congress has introduced several bills to ensure that students’ personal information is protected — but that hasn’t stopped some districts like New York City public schools from harnessing the data to track academic performance.

With more data at their fingertips than ever before, many teachers, administrators and parents have become wary of an intensified testing culture and the prospect of personal details falling into the wrong hands — say, a third-party advertiser. But other districts have embraced the power of data, creating early warning systems to make sure students aren’t slipping under the radar.

New York City has become the latest district to adopt new data tracking tools to help pinpoint interventions for kids who may be falling behind their peers.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña on Thursday announced a School Performance Data Explorer, which monitors students’ metrics by
grade level and “subgroups” like black or Hispanic, English language learner, and students with special needs.


She also unveiled a Progress to Graduation Tracker, which identifies high school students who are on or off target for college, and tracks their attendance, credit status and exam status.

Fariña said the cutting-edge data tools will give teachers and principals “time to focus on instruction instead of having to collect and analyze data themselves and … [ensure] they have high-quality data that can inform their instruction and help them meet the needs of every student.”

The trackers were created by the NYC Department of Education for $70,000, and follow in the footsteps of early warning systems that Chicago Public Schools and districts in Massachusetts already have in place.

As of last year, 30 states have some sort of student performance tracker — up from 18 states in 2011, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group. But experts worry the bills floating around Congress that aim to strengthen student data privacy would hinder states’ abilities to continue tracking achievement rates.

In an amendment to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act introduced last week by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., student data used in state tracker programs would have to be “aggregated, anonymized and de-identified,” and would require parental consent, a hurdle for administrators, critics say.


“These are the kinds of initiatives that can move backwards if we don’t get privacy right,” Paige Kowalski, vice president of policy and advocacy for Data Quality Campaign, said of the data trackers. “The idea is that you’re using individual data and certain indicators that we know predict being on track towards a certain goal. Then you can map it back to all student data in your system and identify the critical indicators that tell us you’re going to make it and the appropriate interventions that are effective in getting kids back on track.”

Kowalski added that coursework, attendance and behavior are the most predictive markers of staying on track.

“You don’t want to look back in June and say there were problems because a student had 15 absences,” she said. “You can have a conversation as early as November or December that they’re going to be chronically absent.”

But others fear the trackers could be used against students in middle and high school screening processes.

“The same data trackers that are supposed to help schools keep students on track can be used to identify kids to either exclude them from admission or push them out of school,” said Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “It could be used to screen kids who are behind or push those out who don’t have proper credit accumulation. You have to be really cautious and see exactly how the data is being used.”


New York City principals hope that linking SAT, ACT and City University of New York assessment data along with other information the schools already collect will help prevent kids from falling through the cracks.

Courtney Winkfield, principal of the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, said the trackers would be a “game-changer.”

“With this centralized and high-quality information, we’ll be able to make smarter decisions, communicate better with families and help students achieve,” Winkfield said.

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