School districts in Washington state collect a lot of data about their students.
From attendance and advanced-course participation to discipline and graduation rates, each of the state’s 295 school districts funnel a dizzying amount of information about each student into a central hub known as CEDARS, or the Comprehensive Education Data and Research System.
The state in turn uses that information for its school accountability system, with new ratings set for release in March. But state lawmakers now want schools to use some of that data pre-emptively, both to help students on the verge of dropping out get back on track and to encourage more students to take classes that can earn them college credits while still in high school.
“These are both very important policy choices, and we’re trying to make sure we’re not solely focused on one side,” said state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.
“No district wants us telling them what to do,” he added, “but we’re trying to offer some flexibility.”
Mullet was a primary sponsor behind a bill that would require all 295 school districts in Washington to adopt a policy that would use exam scores or other data to identify students ready for more rigorous courses and offer them the opportunity to earn college credit in popular programs like Advanced Placement or Running Start. The bill also would require districts to start tracking data – including student attendance, course performance and discipline rates – that research shows are strong predictors of whether a student will ever graduate.
That legislation died in committee earlier this month. But last week, Mullet and his fellow senators voted unanimously to resurrect some of the key proposals and attach them to a separate bill. The new proposal, rather than setting new mandates for districts to follow, would encourage individual schools and districts to enroll more students in advanced courses by expanding an existing grant program that covers the cost of training teachers and student exam fees.
Since 2013, more than 50 districts have tapped that grant money to help about 75,000 students access advanced courses.
The bill, which now awaits a vote in the House, also would offer districts some flexibility in using money meant to support low-income students to create new data systems that would detect which students are at risk for dropping out.
“Research around (high school) freshmen has been extremely compelling around essentially making sure that kids in the ninth grade are not failing courses,” said Dave Powell, government-affairs director at Stand for Children, an education advocacy group in support of Mullet’s legislation.
In September, The Seattle Times and Education Lab reported on research that shows, for ninth-graders, failing even one course drops their likelihood of graduating on time to just 22 percent. But high schools in places like West Seattle and the Franklin Pierce School District in Pierce County, have started reinventing the freshman year, using data to prevent more students from ever becoming at risk of dropping out.
At Washington High just south of Tacoma, for example, the graduation rate has climbed to 87 percent since the school started paying more attention to freshman success.
“At a minimum, we want every district to have these data systems in place … to see them track attendance and behavior and course performance for every grade,” Powell said.
“We really want to make sure they’re doing the interventions in ninth grade and then sixth grade, which is another critical transition year,” he added.