AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Linking High School and Postsecondary Data: Not Just a Technical Challenge
Educators across the country have increasingly recognized that high school graduation is not enough; students must graduate equipped to succeed – without remediation – in a degree-bearing post-secondary course of study. This has led to a wealth of new policies and initiatives focused on college readiness.
But how do we know if a student is college ready? Indicators exist to identify students at risk of dropping out of high school, but few college readiness indicators are currently informing districts’ efforts to develop effective policies and practices. One key barrier to developing better indicators, identified by sites in AISR’s college readiness work, is the lack of integration of unwieldy and sometimes-incompatible data from different sources. In particular, once students graduate from high school, there is little feedback on their college enrollment or performance.
Building Equity into College Readiness Data Collaboration Systems
One approach to this challenge has been a data-sharing collaboration between the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) and the City University of New York (CUNY) to evaluate the college preparedness of their shared students. The researchers in this collaboration, known as the Leaky Pipeline project, have shared their experiences in an AISR-sponsored webinar and in a new AISR publication, Data Collaboration in New York City: The Challenges of Linking High School and Postsecondary Data. As the NYCDOE researchers outline in detail, this work involves formidable technical challenges.
But the challenges go well beyond technical issues, as AISR has repeatedly seen across our urban education reform work. Data collaborations, like all improvement efforts, must explicitly address political, social, and cultural issues, too, if they are to avoid simply replicating old inequities with new technology. We urge districts and higher-education institutions that are interested in this kind of collaboration to ask themselves, at every stage of planning and implementation, a series of questions aimed at building equity into their systems.
What data will we gather on student characteristics and histories?
The goal of secondary-postsecondary data collaboration systems is to see which college outcomes are associated with which student characteristics and histories. In addition to gathering data on achievement histories such as which type of diploma achieved, participation in AP courses, or scores on standardized tests, the system should be able to measure variation in college outcomes based on race, ethnicity, language, gender, and immigration status of students and their parents or guardians.
How will we structure the work groups that will develop research questions, design and implement the system, and evaluate the results?
The purpose, composition, and responsibilities of these work groups should be clearly defined, explicitly addressing questions of equity. In addition to diversity of areas of expertise (e.g., programmers, data analysts, researchers, institutional directors), will the membership reflect diversity of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, gender, disciplinary field, and experience? Will it represent the community as well as the institutional partners? Who will the partners be for this work? Who will the work groups be accountable to, and how will they be held accountable? Will all stakeholders be represented, including families, students, and community members?
With whom will information from the system be shared?
Findings from the data collaboration should be shared broadly beyond the collaborating researchers, institutions, and funders. Who will the work groups communicate with and report to? Will policy-makers, school administrators, educators, parents, students, counselors, and community groups get information about the demographic characteristics, achievement histories, and college outcomes of their communities’ students and about lessons learned from the system’s development?
In what form will the information be shared?
The information from the system should be presented in a format that is accessible to a broad audience: i.e., complete and accurate, but not couched in jargon or exclusively technical language.
What will the expectations be for action based on the system’s data?
The system should be designed so that it produces actionable information, with clear expectations of how that information will be used. What kind of accountability metrics will be developed for the information generated by the system? What kind of actions will districts and schools be expected to take based on the metrics? Who will have input into the future use of the data system and the types of analyses it performs?
The Need for a Critical Lens
Secondary/post-secondary data-sharing systems like the NYCDOE/CUNY collaboration have tremendous potential to illuminate previously hard-to-analyze connections between student characteristics and histories and college enrollment and success. With such systems – at least in theory – districts can identify and analyze effective and ineffective supports and interventions and better allocate resources to help their students become college ready. The Leaky Pipeline project demonstrates some of the new ways that different education stakeholders might connect their knowledge to improve their supports for college readiness.
But “can” is not the same as “will.” Potential partners must take a critical look at how they design, implement, and evaluate these data collaborations. They must go beyond technical concerns alone and ask hard, explicit questions about equity along the way if they hope to truly help address the intractable race- and income-based inequities in our country’s patterns of college access and success.
 AISR and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities at Stanford University collaborate on the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Five sites receive support to develop and test college readiness indicators, use them to create effective interventions, and share knowledge and best practices with each other. AISR, in collaboration with the sites and national experts, is preparing a series of publications and webinars that aim to disseminate this emerging knowledge on college and career readiness early warning systems with a broad national audience. For more information, see http://annenberginstitute.org/cris.