What Does It Take to Get Quality Data?

Data Systems That Work, Federal Policy
What Does It Take to Get Quality Data?

An NPR article earlier this week has sparked an important conversation, citing stark differences in how data on school shootings is being tracked and reported. NPR highlights that “the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, ‘nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.’” Two hundred forty schools – the number reported by individual schools as part of the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) – is an alarming number, especially when contrasted with the much lower numbers of school shootings over the same time period, as reported by other entities like the FBI.

While we can all agree that even one school shooting is too many, this news coverage brings up a vital question: what does it take to get quality data?

In my career, I’ve collected and reported data for two major school districts, and at the U.S. Department of Education, was on the receiving end of this information. I can attest to how valuable it is. But data collection and reporting get us nowhere if we can’t be sure of the data quality. And no one will use data they don’t trust.

Quality data takes time to collect and report accurately; it can take multiple data collection cycles to yield reliable and accurate data. Because the information used in the NPR story is from the first year that all schools were required to report information as part of the CRDC, it still needs the benefit of time to ensure that the data is both accurate and reliable. As we’ve noted, the CRDC gives state and local policymakers, as well as education leaders, information to understand and improve inequities in education. But giving users access is also critical to improving the data itself – enabling them to see it and use it, and shining a light to correct it. These corrections are an integral part of the process, and allow users to work together to ensure that they are reporting and receiving good data.

States have spent over a decade improving their data systems and working with schools and districts to build capacity around collecting and auditing it. They are now well positioned to ensure that data is reflective of what’s happening on the ground.

We also can’t overlook the fact that definitions matter. The Child Trends report that accompanies the NPR article details how different entities are defining “school shootings,” which dramatically impacts how they are counted. Consistent definitions of what should be collected allow us to compare across resources, giving the public a clearer picture of the data and what it means.

Everything is more burdensome when there’s no value in it. This conversation alone proves that the public cares about data reported by schools – and is valuable in shedding light on issues of school safety. Now, let’s continue the conversation around quality data and continue working to ensure that better data is reported next time.