The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

One indisputable effect of introducing technology into education has been the generation of unprecedented amounts of electronic data on America’s public school students — their attendance, their test scores, their graduation rates, and many other kinds of information that can now be tracked and stored in massive databases.

What to do with all this data is another question. The use of students’ test score data to evaluate their teachers has already led to controversy, as has the “harvesting” of student data by for-profit companies. Just this week, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill prohibiting companies “from compiling, sharing, or disclosing student personal information for any purpose” other than the educational purpose for which the information was originally gathered.

But there’s another potential danger regarding student data that is much less frequently noted: the possibility that it will sit unused, inaccessible to parents, educators, the general public—and students themselves. In Virginia, where vast quantities of student data have been collected, starting in 2009, a program aims to prevent this from happening. The state’s department of education, along with a nonprofit organization called the Center for Innovative Technology, created Apps4VA: an initiative promoting the development of software apps that make it easy to explore Virginia’s trove of educational data.

RELATED: How computer coding can increase engagement, provide a purpose for learning

The trove includes information, organized by school, such as average scores in English, history, math and science; dropout and graduation rates; the number of students with disabilities receiving special education; and percentages of high school graduates enrolled in college and other “postsecondary institutions.” (In order to protect individual students’ privacy, any identifying details have been removed.) These data sets can be combined with other sources of publicly available information, such as census, health and real estate data, to provide penetrating insights into the workings of the state’s public school system.

Apps4VA has extended its invitation to Virginia residents through events like hackathons and contests offering cash prizes. The program has also been integrated into computer science courses, which make the development of an education-data app a class requirement. Chris Mayfield, a professor of computer science at James Madison University, led one such class and wrote about the experience in a journal article. (His coauthors included two researchers from the Center for Innovative Technology and a representative of the Virginia Department of Education.)

Educational data mining
In this April 2, 2014 file photo, Pre-K students use electronic tablets at the South Education Center in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

In past years, students who enrolled in the course, an introduction to database systems, were directed to build an app that could search through citations in a bibliographic database of computer science publications — hardly an inspiring undertaking. But this time was different. “For many of the students, the data was about them, their schools and their state,” Mayfield notes. “Students were motivated to develop successful, high-quality projects because the data was about them and the future of their educational system.”

The number of students who withdrew from or failed the course declined dramatically from previous years, and students’ learning improved. “Both the quality of the final presentations and student feedback on course evaluations showed vast improvement from the previous offerings,” writes Mayfield. “Based on these assessments, students appeared to learn more content and learn it more efficiently than in prior years.”

RELATED: Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions

In addition, of course, the students produced apps of real use to other people. Here’s a sampling of their work:

  • An app that allows parents to compare schools they might be considering for their children. The schools are ranked based on test scores, enrollment rates and graduation rates.
  • An app that helps parents and educators of special needs students to identify and rank schools by how well they match students’ particular needs.
  • An app that reveals how school schedules affect students’ learning capacity, by analyzing and comparing school schedules and student performance across the state.
  • An app that helps identify the types of students who are most at risk of dropping out of high school.
  • An app that compares school districts, individual schools, test scores and graduation rates in Virginia in order to highlight the areas that are most in need of additional funding.
  • An app that allows policy makers and school superintendents to look at industry projections for various careers and match them to the programs offered at their career and technical education schools.
  • An app that reveals the gender gap in mathematics and science test performances across grade levels.

More than a hundred apps have been developed so far through the Apps4VA program. While concerns about the use of student data will no doubt continue to arise, Apps4VA has successfully taken on another issue: whether the nation’s new wealth of education data gets used at all by the people who need it most.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *