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2012 January 23 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : NC Boosts Student Tracking from Cradle to College

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina is moving toward a digital record-keeping system of academic histories of students beginning in infancy for some children and lasting until they enter the workforce.

About $9 million of the $70 million Race to the Top grant the U.S. Education Department recently awarded North Carolina will be used to expand to younger children the ability to track their progress, something an existing 2-year-old database already does with more than 1.5 million public school students between kindergarten and 12th grade. Teachers also are recorded with unique ID numbers so their performance can be tracked. Four-year-olds enrolled in a state pre-kindergarten program were tracked previously.

State education officials applied for a $4 million grant that would increase the ability to track student performance into their university or community college career, and even follow what happens when they enter the workforce.

The goal in tracking student learning from their early years to graduation and beyond is to produce hard data about what works in public education, what doesn’t and why.

It’s part of a national trend that shaping efficient and effective schools depends on “good data instead of anecdotes and feelings and political decisions,” said Adam Levinson, the state education department official in charge of its Race to the Top grant programs.

“This has implications for investment decisions, like where would the state put money to get the best bang for the buck for children?” Levinson said. “Or if we looked at community colleges on up, what are the best investments for young adults or adults who come back to school?”

Soon, children whose families receive subsidized child care, who get government help to cope with a disability, or join a state-financed pre-kindergarten program will be issued an identification number that makes it possible for their digital records to stay updated through their academic career.

“It will help us to be able to follow a student from the time they enter services,” state schools superintendent June Atkinson said. “And then we have a system that we continue to follow the student. So we really can see the benefits or the impact of early childhood education, or early learning.”

All states have established databases that identify each student and track their performance on tests, graduation and dropouts, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a national advocacy group that supports student-tracking efforts and is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

North Carolina is one of 11 that can follow children from before they reach school age into their college and employment careers, the group said. Such tracking should help educators and policymakers to see trends that point to classroom success and shortcomings, Data Quality Campaign executive director Aimee Guidera said.

“That feedback is incredibly important not just for accountability purposes but really important for continuous improvement,’’ Guidera said. ``It provides real-life accountability and information back to (school) systems so they can use the information to better prepare their graduates for the requirements of post-graduate education and the workplace, not for data to sit on a spreadsheet somewhere.’’

For example, North Carolina already is one of a half-dozen states that shares teacher performance data, based on student achievement, with the institutions from which they graduated, the group says.

Other uses might include establishing whether children enrolled in state-supported pre-kindergarten programs read as well or better than their peers once they reach third grade. How many who start in pre-K graduate from college? What’s the best sequence of high school courses to boost the chances of success? Which children are graduating from college and actually getting a job?

Besides tracking trends in the great mass of the state’s public school population, online capabilities allow parents to track their children throughout the year. A system called NC WISE allows parents with an online password to track the homework missing, credits earned, standardized test results, and days absent. The service, which the Data Quality campaign says is now provided by only a handful of other states, is popular with parents and PTAs.

An enhanced application called Parent Assistant now available in a handful of the state’s 115 school districts allows parents to access their child’s performance data down to individual assignments.

“If your child struggles in science, you usually know what the assignments are,” said Laura Elliott, 44, of the town of Harmony and the mother of two sons in middle school and high school. “You’re not waiting for the report card to come out to be surprised.”

Federal law prohibits the release of an individual student records without parental consent but exceptions are made for researchers doing studies or evaluating programs who sign confidentiality agreements. Levinson said the identification numbers issued to each child for their academic career also moves away from Social Security numbers, a key to online and financial security.

While Levinson agrees that parents who learn for the first time about the state’s capability to track students for decades might worry about data security, North Carolina PTA executive director Debra Horton says privacy concerns haven’t much worried parents.

“We haven’t heard any huge outcry from our members about using these systems. If anything it’s been very supportive,” Horton said.

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