Stephen Hawking once said, “’Half the battle is just showing up.” And this year, as the world continues to adjust to COVID-19, educators and administrators are often at a loss in truly understanding which students are winning the attendance battle, and which are being left behind.

In the past, that is to say, pre-pandemic days, students’ attendance was marked either absent or present. However, within the first few months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it became clear that both the approach and process for capturing student attendance data was insufficient to meet the needs of the moment. As students moved to online and blended learning models, ambiguity around how to accurately capture attendance information bubbled to the surface, and several questions began to circulate. How can we accurately record the time students are engaged within a virtual learning environment? When and for how long is a student actually present? When are they absent, receiving virtual instruction, or in some other instructional modality? The reality is, we lost the ability to accurately record the most basic student data points. 

To navigate today’s COVID-19 world, and fully understand its future impact, it is imperative for state education agencies (SEAs) to lead the way in standardizing student data specifications, especially regarding how each learner is participating in instruction. Doing so will continue to be of utmost importance as districts and SEAs prioritize equitable funding, access to resources, student outcomes and educational efficacy. This is the future of instructional equity. 

The Future Funding and Understanding the COVID-19 Slide

Some states are continuing to fund schools at pre-pandemic levels, regardless of instructional modality. For other states, the opposite is true. Meaning, they’re only receiving additional funding based on “headcount,” which is gauged by looking at student enrollment and attendance during the current COVID-19 climate. Unfortunately, without clear standards about what student data to collect, it’s impossible to make sound judgments about funding or basic (but essential) school operations such as food service and student transportation. 

While the main impetus for collecting positive and negative student attendance data is state accountability and auditing purposes, the benefits also extend to the school and into the classroom, whether physical or virtual. Yes, standardized student modality data allows states to gather and compile reports more efficiently and accurately. However, it also empowers leaders across the education spectrum. 

Principals, district administrators, and policymakers will have access to comprehensive data needed to plan school logistics and operational support, and make critical decisions surrounding funding and reopening procedures.

For teachers, data standards help to provide a real-time view of their students. The more insight teachers have at their fingertips, the better informed they are to provide specific resources to individual students. This granular data is especially crucial given how varied the circumstances are for each learner during the pandemic. 

Addressing Digital Equity Through Data-Driven Insights

State agencies have a responsibility to provide schools with resources, educational information, and technical assistance. These provisions are not one-size-fits-all, but specific reinforcements that support the needs of a particular school district. To equitably deploy resources, states must first analyze data to accurately diagnose what a school district requires. And to leverage the data at its maximum potential, it must be standardized. 

Absent an agreed-upon data standard, individual schools are left collecting data in disconnected silos, with no way to connect the dots, making it difficult for SEAs to spot trends, provide assistance, or help solve challenges. Individual school data is powerful on its own, but it’s even more powerful, and actionable, when used to analyze trends from both a state and national level. 

For instance, perhaps data in one district shows a larger gap in digital equity regarding internet access, versus other, similarly situated districts. How can the SEA direct funding to address broadband access in schools, homes, and communities where students are learning? What positive domino effect would be set in motion once the state addressed this digital equity gap? 

However, for a positive ripple effect to occur at all, states must lead the way, and they must lead with data. Without the full breadth of standardized student and school data, increasing the quality of education remains at a standstill. At best, nothing changes. At worst, students fall through the cracks, teachers don’t receive the support they desperately need, and state education systems cannot keep up with the pace of innovation.

Community and Collaboration Are Key Ingredients to Success

A school, a district, a state — these are not separate entities or islands unto their own. Rather, they should be viewed and treated as a community working toward a common goal: Improve education by better serving every student. 

To reach this goal, communication and coordination must exist at every layer of the community. In so many ways, states have the power of influence, and must set an example for other entities (including other states) by carrying the torch for education community collaboration and data standardization.

By establishing a common understanding and public commitment to data-gathering practices, states can work more efficiently and effectively, and be a champion for their schools and students, no matter where they are on their data standardization journey.

A Homework Assignment for SEAs – Work Together 

While the pandemic exacerbated the challenges brought on by a lack of data standardization, it was merely the tipping point of an existing and rapidly growing issue in the education space. Each day that passes without a data standard is another day schools, districts, and states are gathering information without a clear data vision. 

There is work to be done to implement a standard and achieve interoperability, and states have a responsibility to lead the way. This is an evolution of education, and the payoff will be multi-tiered, more efficient, and establish a foundation for research and analysis to inform smart education policy decisions.

In a perfect world, every education agency would implement a data standard, every student would receive the individual attention and resources they need, and there wouldn’t have been a global pandemic. This is unfortunately not the reality in which we live. Luckily, in the absence of a perfect world, we still have standards-based data, the support of communities, and our shared goal to better serve each and every learner – no matter the challenge.

To learn more about how to streamline state, federal, and student modality reporting through data standards, please see our resources:

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