Georgia building system to track students from preschool to Ph.D.

ATLANTA — Georgia educators are blazing a trail as they develop a computer system that will trace student progress from childhood to graduate school.

With money from the federal Race to the Top, officials from seven agencies are sharing information to create a multilevel, statewide database. The goal is for agency researchers to identify trends – positive or negative – as students advance from one level to another.

For example, high schools have never been able to tell how their graduates do in the University System of Georgia or the Technical College System of Georgia. Likewise, the tech schools haven’t been able to monitor students who transfer from their system to four-year colleges.

Officials take pains to make clear that the multilevel system is not supposed to be an extension of the internal one just getting off the ground at the Department of Education. That system keeps up with every public school student from the time they enter preschool until they leave high school.

THE DEPARTMENT’S SYSTEM will allow teachers from pre-K through high school to look up information about their students’ performance on tests, whether they’re eligible for free lunch, their attendance and other details. That system is new, too, and teachers are just now tapping it for insights.

Integrating the handoff of students from one level to another will even boost professionalism, as upper-level instructors begin to see those in earlier grades as colleagues, said Susan Adams, assistant commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning.

Pre-K teachers are using their iPads to take photos and to note their observations of student skills. They’re even scanning images of the children’s drawings.

Theoretically, every one of those pupils’ future teachers will be able to see those first stick-figure drawings as well as test scores and grades from every year through the 12th grade.

But the multilevel system won’t offer that much detail for college instructors.

Philip Smith, an Augusta State University professor of educational research, said the data from a student’s K-12 career isn’t necessarily relevant in a professor’s day-to-day dealing with a class. When accepted to college, it is presumed that students have mastered certain concepts already, and looking forward can be more important than looking back, he said.

“A professor teaching introductory calculus at the university should have a presumption that the student has the prerequisite skills to have gotten in that class,” Smith said. “That’s different than a 10th-grade geometry teacher presuming that student already knows algebra.”

A COMMITTEE FROM each of the seven agencies has decided how much of the hundreds of bits of data on each student gets included in the statewide database. Much is excluded, but enough to measure the success of challenges of various student groups.

While it’s not designed to duplicate the Education Department’s system on a larger scale, it is designed to make trend data available for the first time across levels.

High schools have long been able to see how their students do from the ninth to the 12th grade, and colleges can track freshmen to seniors. Until now, no one could track students from ninth grade through their senior year in college.

With the multilevel system, researchers could see how every student on free lunch does in high school chemistry and then in college chemistry. Or they could trace the success in college of graduates from a particular high school.

Parsons says high schools will learn for the first time just how well they’re preparing students.

“What we’ve heard over the years from high school administrators is ‘We heard the research, but that’s not our students. Our kids go to Georgia Tech and Georgia,’ ” he said. “This will be hard data. It gets away from the anecdotes.”

Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this story.

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