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Learning from States’ Student Level Data Systems (SLDS)

For years, proponents have been calling for a national student-level data network (SLDN) that could allow for more-detailed understanding of how students interact with, and derive benefits from, the U.S. postsecondary education system. The idea is that a national SLDN would give policymakers, researchers, students, and the public more comprehensive information upon which to base decisions than is currently available. However, a decades-long ban on such a system at the federal level, combined with extensive statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS) grant opportunities, has resulted in the development of numerous state systems rather than a single federal system.

All but one state has an SLDS (and in that one state, an SLDS is under development), and in 34 of those states, there are established linkages between K-12, postsecondary, and workforce data. There have also been a number of efforts to link data between states, such as the Multistate Longitudinal Data Exchange and the Coleridge Initiative. Given these abundant state-level efforts, it is logical to look to these state and inter-state systems for lessons that can be learned—and pitfalls to avoid—when designing and implementing large-scale data systems, as such lessons could help streamline the development of a federal system.

This brief shares lessons learned and best practices from states’ experiences with developing, implementing, and using their SLDS. These lessons include actions taken at the state level as well as recommendations for implementing a national SLDN guided by those lessons learned. It is important to note that there is wide variance across state systems, as each has been developed for the unique needs of the state and within the constraints (e.g., financial, political, etc.) imposed. Ultimately, however, if a national SLDN is to be created, insights from experts in state systems include the following recommendations and suggestions:

  • Provide legislation that clearly articulates the requirements of the data system and ensures a reliable funding source adequate for meeting those requirements.
  • Be clear and explicit about the purpose and audience(s).
  • Involve a variety of potential end users in design and implementation conversations to help define how various audiences will benefit from the data.
  • Create strong governance and privacy protections.
  • Build upon a foundation of existing data systems and efforts, if possible.
  • Use common and well-defined reporting standards.
  • Provide flexibility for changing needs and contexts.
  • Promote use of data by multiple users and audiences.

If a federal SLDN is created through legislation, there are many details that will need to be implemented. States have been facing the challenges that accompany building a detailed data system for decades and can serve as an excellent resource when deciding what to do, and what to avoid, when designing a data system that can provide useful information, protect personal privacy, and be responsive to the changing needs of its many intended audiences.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by James Isaac (Director, Education Research) and Allison Bell to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.