In the midst of a state budget crisis, Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to establish a system to collect individual-level student statistics from all sectors of education and the work force might not attract much attention. That would be unfortunate, because this initiative could revolutionize policymakers' ability to answer questions at the core of educational effectiveness.
The Maryland Longitudinal Data System would make it easier to share information about students across agencies and institutions in the state for the purpose of examining student progress and outcomes over time -- particularly those related to preparation for postsecondary education and employment.
If created by the General Assembly, the system would vault the state to the top tier of those that have responded to the "Data Quality Campaign" movement. Launched in 2005, the campaign called on every state to put in place systems that would align data from pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. Such systems, the campaign envisioned, would supply decision-makers with information to shape and adjust policies and practices as they relate to student achievement.
I became familiar with the campaign at a conference of state-level higher education researchers in 2007. The organizers of the campaign made a presentation about what they consider to be 10 essential elements of longitudinal data systems. The crown jewel: the ability of states to match student records between the pre-K-12 and postsecondary systems.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission has had the capacity to track students since the mid-1970s. The Maryland State Department of Education became involved in creating a data system based on individual student records just in the last few years, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. But even with the necessary databases, there is no guarantee that the requisite collaboration between pre-K-12 and postsecondary education will be forthcoming. I know from experience that roadblocks can occur. I served on task forces charged with exploring ways of improving the alignment of pre-K through college educational statistics to improve the analysis of relevant information. The Maryland Partnership for Teaching and Learning set as one of its top priorities an examination of how databases in the state could be enhanced to share information across sectors of education. These efforts went nowhere because of the absence of political will to make them happen.
Establishing a Maryland Longitudinal Data System would overcome the turf battles between pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. The legislation proposed by Mr. O'Malley envisions such an arrangement by housing the system in an independent unit of state government. Overseeing the Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center would be a governing board consisting of representatives of all of the major constituencies, as well as members of the public. State agencies and institutions associated with pre-K-12 education, postsecondary education and the work force would be asked to supply data.
The value of a Maryland Longitudinal Data System to studying issues related to student progress and preparation would be immense. It could help us answer such key questions as: What achievement levels in elementary school indicate that a student is "on track" for later success? What effect does early grade retention have on later academic success? What evidence exists that students who pass courses have learned the course content? Which elementary, middle and high schools in the state are consistently highest performing in preparing different student populations? What high school achievement levels indicate that a student is ready for college or work? Are students academically prepared to enter college and complete their program in a timely manner? What is the relationship between students' performance on state assessments and subsequent postsecondary performance and graduation? What is the difference between students' academic preparation in high school and their placement in college-level remedial courses, and how does this vary among student populations? How do dual enrollment and advanced placement programs in high school affect student success in college? Which teacher preparation programs produce the graduates whose students have the strongest academic growth?
These are but a small number of the serious policy questions that are not being addressed -- but could be if a Maryland Longitudinal Data System existed. Conversations are under way about increasing the rigor of high school, improving teacher quality, increasing graduation rates and reducing achievement gaps among different student populations. These discussions cannot be successful unless they are informed by reliable data collected over time. Michael J. Keller served as director of policy analysis and research for the Maryland Higher Education Commission from 1993 until his retirement in 2008. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.