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How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing school data

A survey shows how state departments of education used COVID-19 emergency relief money to collect new data and invest in system updates.

Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

Nicholas Garcia / Chalkbeat

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted unprecedented, rapid changes in the way states collect, report, and share education data internally, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States. 

Many states began gathering new or more up-to-date information on student attendance, whether students were learning online, student access to technology, and other topics. 

Some of that information made it into newly created public dashboards. Pandemic relief funding also allowed states to update their data infrastructure, with some states planning to spend millions on new systems. 

To understand how states responded to the pandemic’s data challenges, the commission conducted a survey in partnership with education consulting company DataSmith Solutions and the Data Quality Campaign, a national group that analyzes state education data systems. 

Thirty states responded to the survey, some saying they plan to permanently change their data collection and reporting practices. However, it’s unclear which changes will stick. 

Changing priorities nationwide

The pandemic meant that many of the most common kinds of education data were suddenly unavailable or less useful. In 2020, state standardized tests were canceled, and in 2021, participation was spotty. Attendance data was muddled by students learning virtually. When enrollment fell or students stopped attending class, schools were left trying to figure out where they went and who was likely to return.

Education data systems were crucial to understanding what happened to students during the pandemic, according to senior policy director Claus von Zastrow, who co-authored the commission’s report.

If the pandemic had happened 20 years ago, Zastrow said, it would have been “very difficult to get a handle on what happened, and who was most affected, and what they need.”

Of course, that was still difficult. But state data systems allowed government agencies to share crucial information during the pandemic. For instance, von Zastrow pointed to the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfers program, which provided funds to purchase food as a replacement for free and reduced priced school lunches during virtual instruction. 

To administer the program, social service agencies needed detailed attendance data from schools to calculate how many lunches a student had missed. For some states, that meant gathering more specific and frequent attendance metrics.

Before the pandemic, Indiana collected attendance annually, according to John Keller, the chief information officer at the Indiana Department of Education. Indiana switched to daily attendance updates, Keller said, “essentially collecting a million records about attendance every single day.” 

That effort, paired with the state’s first time recording students’ home addresses, eventually streamlined the process of sharing information with the Family and Social Services Administration to calculate P-EBT benefits. It also improved the state’s understanding of virtual instruction, which was the original purpose of the data. 

Indiana had started modernizing its data system in late 2017. According to Keller, that was crucial to adding daily attendance records.

“Without the modernization legwork that had already been accomplished, there was no way we could have done that,” Keller said. The new system made submitting data quicker, but switching systems was also a time-intensive process that school staff couldn’t have started and completed during the pandemic, he said.

For states that already had a student information system fully in place, like Oregon, the pandemic still disrupted data collection and created new needs. 

The state used survey tools to collect data on whether schools were remote, hybrid, or in-person during the 2020-21 school year. It also modified its systems to collect data that will answer longer-term questions about attendance, English learners, and remote learning. Marc Siegel, the state education department spokesperson, said the agency prioritized collecting data that could be used to ensure student safety and well-being.

Investment in future data collection

Pandemic relief funding also freed up resources for states to look forward, making permanent changes to their data infrastructure and exploring new research priorities.

While pandemic aid spending has been notoriously difficult to track, a review of proposed COVID aid spending by the think tank Future-Ed showed that at least 29 states slated relief funding for data systems updates.

Future-Ed noted investments in state data systems that ranged from $55,000 in Washington for tweaks to an existing system to approaching $20 million in states like Florida and Missouri, which both proposed modernizing their data systems with pandemic relief funds.

Colorado budgeted federal funding to transition to a less expensive data system that will be more financially sustainable, according to Marcia Bohannon, the Colorado Department of Education chief information officer. It also used federal funding to create a Data and Evaluation Office, which will help the public understand available data and its constraints and will help districts use their own data. 

It’s unclear whether the temporary federal influx of funds went as far in other states. Out of 25 states, 17 said in the ECS survey that they do not generally have the time, funding, or staff to invest as much as they wanted in their data systems. 

Nancy Smith, CEO of DataSmith Solutions and co-author of the report, said that she expects a significant number of these changes to be permanent, even in the “big behemoth systems” that tend to change more slowly. Smith hopes that states will continue thinking about data systems as powerful tools for responding in times of crisis — not just tools to collect data for mandatory reports.

Most of the states surveyed by ECS didn’t delay data projects in response to the pandemic — in fact, many projects accelerated.

“Policymakers understand better and want more updates. Hopefully, that remains, and data doesn’t become something in the background again,” Smith said.

Twenty states reported that COVID changed their research priorities for the future. Of those, 79% said they wanted to measure learning loss long-term, 71% said they wanted to look at questions of digital equity like student broadband access, and 67% said they wanted to better understand how student groups were impacted differently by the pandemic.

Keller said that he hopes that Indiana’s policymakers will use the data to drive school policy as the state continues its work to make data collection cheaper and easier for schools.

“The appetite for data is always on the rise,” Keller said. 

Kaitlyn Radde is a data reporting intern for Chalkbeat. Contact Kaitlyn at kradde@chalkbeat.org. Kae Petrin is a data & graphics reporter for Chalkbeat. Contact Kae at kpetrin@chalkbeat.org.

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