When the topic of “data” comes up in education conversations, sometimes people aren’t sure what you mean. Is it test scores? Grades? Just a tool for researchers to study things?

At a time when data have revealed — in the form of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s (THEC) recent College Going and the Class of 2021 report — that college-going among the state’s public high school graduates has been declining, it might be a good time to consider the value of data. Having data to shine light on important trends can help us find ways to target efforts and resources to better support students.

Let’s break it down. A high-level summary statistic, like the college-going rate, helps reveal when something has gone wrong. These measures help policymakers and educational leaders identify when things are going off course or when they are doing well. For instance, data can give us the ability to see how students perform beyond their high school years into postsecondary education or the workforce — something that is essential to understanding how successful they are when they exit the education system.

Fortunately, Tennessee has a secure data system called P20 Connect TN that allows for following student movements through K-12 education in postsecondary education and on to the workforce. Unfortunately, these data are not always easily accessible in a timely way for use by stakeholders who need the information the most — like high school counselors working with students in high school.

While annually reporting on college-going is important — particularly when disaggregating the data for different populations of students and providing localized information by district and/or school — there are additional data that could be reported on and better ways to share them. If a full set of key metrics covering the education to career continuum were reported through a dashboard, we could see where momentum for college going, college persistence, and college completion begins to go off course. High school counselors could be prepared to support students at each critical turning point of their high school career as they make decisions about college and career.

And while reports and dashboards showing trends on key metrics are important, behind every data point is a student. Data in the hands of parents and teachers would help them identify where kids are excelling and where they may be falling off throughout the year — long before it’s time to apply for college.

Empowering educators and parents with the right data can tell the story of why a larger trend is happening — and the why will not be the same for every student. Having the right information to see how students are navigating their way across their educational path — and understanding the individual barriers they face — is necessary to help us address the larger trends in the end.

We have the data, we just need to deliver the information in a meaningful way to people who can use it to benefit students. SCORE is eager to work with policymakers across the state to find ways to use the data we have to ensure student success.

Elise Miller is SCORE’s senior director of data strategy.

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