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State leaders are collecting reams of data on students, but they must do more to put that information into the hands of parents and teachers, according to a new report.

Making that information available to school communities consists of more than merely publishing complicated, archaic spreadsheets online, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for better data use. School leaders must work to provide data in a format that makes it easy to understand and act upon, the group says.

“We think that’s the hardest work left,” said Brennan McMahon Parton, director of policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign. “We know spreadsheets and 30-page PDFs are not the most useful.”

Instead, data visualizations and user-friendly analysis can help the public make sense of complicated information.

The new report, “Time to Act 2017: Put Data in the Hands of People,” catalogs how the evolving use of data has influenced policy and teaching practices over the last 10 years. While data used to be widely connected to test scores and punishment for failing teachers, the report found a change in opinion among educators: just 18 percent now say data is used simply as a way to crack down on so-called failing schools. Today, it’s more common to hear schools talk about using data to create custom-fit lessons for students, or to plan interventions for students who are either excelling or failing.

“We know spreadsheets and 30-page PDFs are not the most useful” [for the general public].”

But the data is of little use if it remains hidden in virtual filing cabinets in school administrative offices. Many teachers and parents still don’t get access to that information – only 38 percent of parents say they had “easy” access to all the information they need. And a full 67 percent of teachers say they do not have full confidence in data and the tools used to make sense of it.

Using data and sharing it takes on renewed urgency due to new federal regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Among the changes are requirements that states track and publish information on specific kinds of students, such as those in foster care, by next year. At this point, just one state (Washington) publishes data on those students – although undoubtedly many more states are collecting that information. And Alaska is the only state that publishes data on students who come from military families.

“Our sense is that … more than one [state] has the information, but they have not gone the next step to make it publicly available,” McMahon Parton said. “It’s been more about the internal conversation.”

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