When Students Disappear...


Feb 21, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Education Week on February 21, 2007.

The Need for a National System to Share Student Information

Fifty-three thousand students disappeared from Louisiana's public school system after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Another 10,000 enrolled temporarily after the storms and then departed. They did not return to the state's public schools for the remainder of the 2005-06 school year.

Which of these displaced students attended schools in other states or private schools? How much classroom time did they miss? How many of them never went back to school at all? How did the disaster affect their academic progress? These and other questions cannot be answered, because the United States lacks the information systems necessary to monitor the educational experiences of students who move across state lines.

This is a national problem that transcends the Gulf Coast region and the storms of 2005, although the Katrina and Rita disasters can help us think about how to prepare for future large-scale disasters. After those hurricanes, nearly every state in the union enrolled students displaced by the storms. A future event of that magnitude anywhere in the country would similarly force children to move long distances. But even during normal times there is a steady stream of students moving among schools, and the ability to monitor them is crucial to addressing important educational concerns.

When a 10th grader stops attending a high school without explanation, for example, has the student transferred or dropped out? The answer affects the school's graduation rate, an important measure of school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. To calculate graduation rates accurately, it is necessary to determine if such students enroll in other schools, whether across town or across the country.

Beyond the accurate calculation of statistics, untangling student mobility from dropouts would help smooth the transitions of mobile students, and help officials identify students who drop out at any grade level. Schools enrolling new students would be better able to place them in the correct classrooms and programs. Schools left behind would know definitively when the responsibility to educate a student had been assumed by another school, and could focus truancy- and dropout-prevention efforts on those who did not enroll elsewhere.

Many states have undertaken programs to build data systems holding the educational records of all of their students, and the U.S. Department of Education has been encouraging these efforts. There are also plans under way to link the state systems to a national database containing aggregate information. The records of individual students are not included, however.

Among states that have created data systems, Louisiana has one of the most advanced. That data system enabled me and my fellow researchers at the RAND Corp. to determine how many students departed the state's public school system and many other facts about the displaced students. We learned, for example, that students who did re-enroll in the state's public schools missed a median of five weeks of school before returning, and that many continued to change schools and miss additional time. Moreover, minority students and those who had been faring poorly academically before the storms were disproportionately represented among the displaced.

Yet, for a data system to meet its full potential, it must not only collect information but make it accessible to educators and other stakeholders with a legitimate need. After the storms, for example, school officials in host schools had to help displaced students make a smooth and quick transition into appropriate classes and programs, to ensure not only their continued achievement growth, but also that of the currently enrolled students.

According to the RAND study, however, many principals reported that they did not have access to information they sought about the displaced students they enrolled. Despite the comprehensiveness of Louisiana's system, the principals were apparently unable to use it to access information on students' special education needs, grade-level placement, prior grades, or test scores. This forced schools to try to obtain the information from parents or the students themselves.

The student displacement due to the hurricanes of 2005 is an ongoing phenomenon. More than half the students who were displaced did not return to their original schools by the end of the 2005-06 school year; for many, the displacement continues into the current school year. For educators and policymakers to react properly to the ongoing situation, and to better prepare for the possibility of future events, would require a full and complete understanding of the experiences and outcomes of all displaced students, wherever they are.

Addressing the problems of tracking students as they move across school systems, whether as a result of the hurricanes or more routinely, requires a national effort to unify the collection and sharing of student records, either by building a national student-information system or by linking all of the states' systems. In either case, several major issues must be addressed.

First, students nationwide should be assigned unique and permanent identifiers to link them with their own records, and not the records of other students with the same name. The identifier must be recoverable if a student appears in a new school with none of his or her personal records. Such systems are already being implemented at the state level; these would have to be nationally coordinated.

Second, all public and private school systems should participate in the national system, so that every student in the country has records stored.

Third, educators, including those at the school level, and others with legitimate needs for access to the records should be able to obtain them in a timely manner.

Fourth, federal, state, and local policies must be adjusted to specify the student information to be stored, the formats for exchanging it, the situations in which it shall be obtained, shared, or destroyed, and the purposes for which its use is permitted. Existing laws, such the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, may need to be amended to clarify the conditions under which student information may be legitimately used by educators or researchers.

Finally, these changes need to occur in a country where privacy concerns encumber all national efforts to create databases to hold identifiable information about individual citizens. Protections must be put into place to ensure that individually identifiable information will only be obtained or altered by authorized people for authorized purposes. The public must be adequately assured that the data will not be compromised.

Further work will be needed to ensure consistent use of student classifications across states, and additional challenges will remain, including differences in education standards and testing across states and a strong tradition of local control in American education. Nonetheless, addressing the issues listed above will be crucial first steps toward enabling the monitoring of all students' education experiences.

The creation of a national system for the sharing of student information would offer many advantages to educational practice and research, not just for understanding and responding to such events as the hurricanes of 2005, but also for understanding and addressing the great educational concerns of our day, such as graduation rates, achievement gaps, and the improvement of schools to the benefit of all children. It is time for our nation to apply its technological sophistication to this task.

John F. Pane is a research scientist in the Pittsburgh offices of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization with headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.

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