Research, State Advocacy, Transparency

Time to Act 2021: Identifying Disconnects between Pre-Pandemic Data and Post-Pandemic Questions

Time to Act 2021: Identifying Disconnects between Pre-Pandemic Data and Post-Pandemic Questions

Each December, DQC looks back at our research from the year to produce Time to Act—an annual wrap-up of the current state of education data use. This year, DQC’s research included everything from public opinion research to interviews with policy leaders to national landscapes of state legislation, public reports, and plans. Across this research, one big theme emerged: disconnects. Data is a critical tool for addressing the new and persistent challenges facing the education field during the pandemic, but many key stakeholders aren’t on the same page about what information is needed and how to move forward. This three-part blog series explores three of these disconnects and how leaders might begin to mend the gaps.

Faced with education disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, families, educators, and policymakers have many new questions about students’ experiences and learning over the last two years and about how to support students going forward. But DQC has found that existing data systems and research agendas aren’t necessarily prepared to answer all of these new questions.

What We’ve Learned This Year

DQC conducted a series of interviews with state education leaders, which illuminated some of the most pressing new questions facing policymakers during the pandemic:

  • What barriers to learning (e.g., food insecurity, lack of technology or internet) did different groups of students face? What barriers do they continue to face?
  • What evidence-based supports are most effective to address students’ unfinished learning and non-academic needs (e.g., housing, social and emotional health)?
  • How can policymakers effectively target resources to communities and schools most impacted by the pandemic?

Yet, DQC’s review of state report cards—states’ most-public education information resource—showed that many states are not reporting critical student outcomes data and are often not breaking out data by different student groups. For example, over a third of states still do not report graduation rates for each federally required group of students.

And most states shared very little information on students’ access to the internet—something that became critically important when learning moved online. To help fill the gap, the US Department of Education began surveying on internet availability. Without this kind of information, leaders can’t understand how the pandemic affected students differently and provide solutions tailored to their needs.

DQC’s poll of parents and principals found that both groups are reimagining their students’ post–high school options due to the pandemic. As they support students through their education and workforce journeys, DQC found that parents and principals are asking questions like:

  • Which degrees, certifications, or apprenticeships do students need to achieve their goals?
  • For a given pathway, what are the outcomes of students like mine? How much do they cost?
  • What credentials do the most in-demand occupations require?

But DQC’s 2021 polling also found that principals often do not understand how well their school prepares students for post–high school education and careers, while parents can’t find all of the information they need about their students’ options. Despite the desire for this kind of data, too few states included robust information about post–high school pathways on their latest report cards and most states lack the cross-agency data governance they need to meaningfully connect data across the early childhood, K–12, postsecondary, and workforce sectors.

How to Mend These Gaps 

To help bridge the gap between stakeholders’ new questions and the information they need to move forward effectively, state policymakers can: 

  • Ensure that information about student experiences, learning, and outcomes is timely and relevant, easy to find, and presented with the right context. State leaders must increase data access and transparency, including by sharing clear, disaggregated information in state report cards. Educators and families need this information to advocate for their needs and make informed decisions about their futures. 
  • Improve data connections between early childhood, K–12, postsecondary, and workforce data and create a governance structure that brings leaders across sectors together to discuss data needs and priorities. By developing these connections and relationships, policymakers, educators, and families can better support individuals as they navigate their education and workforce journeys. 
  • Remain committed to state assessments. Assessments are just one data point about student success, but provide critical information to leaders as well as those closest to students. Without comparable data on student performance, state leaders cannot target support to those who need it most. Even in years like 2020 where assessments are disrupted, leaders can develop measures, like skip-year growth, to make use of assessment data. 
  • Engage in research-practice partnerships to generate additional insights during data collection disruptions and emerging questions. These ongoing, formal partnerships between education researchers and practitioners provide a collaborative structure for these groups to create the timely, actionable, and evidence-based solutions that education leaders, communities, and families need. 

By increasing secure data access and transparency, establishing cross-sector data governance, remaining committed to state assessments, and leaning on external supports like research-practice partnerships, education leaders can ensure that families, educators, and leaders have the information they need to address their emerging concerns.