Future Tense


How to use the data generated by educational technology to improve schools.

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock
Somebody should be putting students’ data to good use. How about students?

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

One indisputable effect of introducing technology into education has been the generation of unprecedented amounts of electronic data on America’s public school students—their attendance, their test scores, their graduation rates, and many other kinds of information that can now be tracked and stored in massive databases.

What to do with all this data is another question. The use of students’ test score data to evaluate their teachers has already led to controversy, as has the “harvesting” of student data by for-profit companies. Just this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill prohibiting companies from “using, disclosing [or] compiling” student personal information for anything other than the educational purpose for which the information was originally gathered.


But there’s another potential danger regarding student data that is much less frequently noted: the possibility that it will sit unused, inaccessible to parents, educators, the general public—and students themselves. In Virginia, where vast quantities of student data have been collected since 2009, a program aims to prevent this from happening. The state’s Department of Education, along with a nonprofit organization called the Center for Innovative Technology, created Apps4VA: an initiative promoting the development of software apps that make it easy to explore Virginia’s trove of educational data.


The trove includes information, organized by school, such as average scores in English, history, math, and science; dropout and graduation rates; the number of students with disabilities receiving special education; and percentages of high school graduates enrolled in college and other postsecondary institutions. (In order to protect individual students’ privacy, any identifying details have been removed.) These data sets can be combined with other sources of publicly available information, such as census, health, and real estate data, to provide penetrating insights into the workings of the state’s public school system.


Apps4VA has extended its invitation to Virginia residents through events like hackathons and contests offering cash prizes. The program has also been integrated into computer science courses, which make the development of an education-data app a class requirement. Chris Mayfield, a professor of computer science at James Madison University, led one such class and wrote about the experience in a journal article. (His co-authors included two researchers from the Center for Innovative Technology and a representative of the Virginia Department of Education.)

In past years, students who enrolled in the course, an introduction to database systems, were directed to build an app that could search through citations in a bibliographic database of computer science publications—hardly an inspiring undertaking. But this time was different. “For many of the students, the data was about them, their schools and their state,” Mayfield noted. “Students were motivated to develop successful, high-quality projects because the data was about them and the future of their educational system.”


The number of students who withdrew from or failed the course declined dramatically from previous years, and students’ learning improved. “Both the quality of the final presentations and student feedback on course evaluations showed vast improvement from the previous offerings,” wrote Mayfield. “Based on these assessments, students appeared to learn more content and learn it more efficiently than in prior years.”

In addition, of course, the students produced apps of real use to other people. Here’s a sampling of their work:

  • An app that allows parents to compare schools they might be considering for their children. The schools are ranked based on test scores, enrollment rates, and graduation rates.
  • An app that helps parents and educators of special needs students to identify and rank schools by how well they match students’ particular needs.
  • An app that reveals how school schedules affect students’ learning capacity, by analyzing and comparing school schedules and student performance across the state.
  • An app that helps identify the types of students who are most at risk of dropping out of high school.
  • An app that compares school districts, individual schools, test scores, and graduation rates in Virginia in order to highlight the areas that are most in need of additional funding.
  • An app that allows policymakers and school superintendents to look at industry projections for various careers and match them to the programs offered at their career and technical education schools.
  • An app that reveals the gender gap in mathematics and science test performances across grade levels.

More than 100 apps have been developed so far through the Apps4VA program. While concerns about the use of student data will no doubt continue to arise, Apps4VA has successfully taken on another issue: whether the nation’s new wealth of education data gets used at all by the people who need it most.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.