Guest posted on December 20, 2012. 0 Comments

Data Shows the Importance of Early Education

Category: College and Career Readiness, Value of Data

This is a guest post by Chrys Dougherty a senior research scientist at the National Center for Educational Achievement, ACT, Inc. He has written extensively on college readiness and the value of longitudinal student data, and he has taught at the elementary and university levels.

In recent years we’ve seen a growing awareness of some of the major benefits of having a longitudinal data system: the abilities to track student growth, to calculate high school graduation rates, and to follow students from K–12 into higher education. However, we should not fail to take advantage of an additional benefit: to encourage educators and policymakers to focus on long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. Longitudinal data systems can accomplish that in two ways: by making it easier to track and measure long-term benefits and by showing the extent to which quick fixes fall short.

A recent policy brief from ACT, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness, serves the second purpose—showing the inadequacy of short-term efforts to catch up students who are academically far off track. We show that even if schools have four years to catch up these students—between grades 4 and 8 or grades 8 and 12—only 10 percent or fewer catch up. The highest performing schools can raise this to as much as 30 percent among advantaged student populations and 20 percent in disadvantaged areas. (An accompanying research report describes the methodology in greater detail.)

The finding that far-off-track students rarely catch up in a few years may not be surprising, but its implications should not be overlooked. We should not expect high school miracle workers to overcome, in a few short years, all of the effects of what was not done earlier. We need to use longitudinal student data to provide information on how much growth is attainable over specific time periods and to analyze the effects of different types of interventions.

Above all, it is imperative to strengthen early learning in preschool and elementary school. If we think of accumulated academic learning as a deep reservoir that takes time to fill, we should allow ourselves more time to fill it. We should strengthen the early grades curriculum and improve educators’ capacity to teach that curriculum.

The analysis in Catching Up to College and Career Readiness would not have been possible without longitudinal student data. Without the data, we wouldn’t have had the metrics we needed. ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks were set by linking students’ ACT scores to the same students’ grades in entry-level credit-bearing college courses. “On track” benchmarks in eighth grade and earlier in turn were set with the help of longitudinal data from those grades. In addition, it was necessary to follow individual students over four years in order to see how many caught up.

As more reports and analyses using longitudinal data become available, policymakers will be less constrained by a view that is limited to snapshots. Perhaps, with the data in front of us to remind us, we will see a renewed emphasis on long-range solutions—for example, strengthening curriculum, instruction, assessment, and intervention in the early grades to prepare students for long-term success.