AUGUSTA –  What’s become of students who have attended Maine public schools? And what does it say about their teachers, the courses they took and the other public school programs in which they’ve participated?

Those are questions state education officials want to answer by developing a detailed database to track students during their time in Maine public schools, through college and into the workplace.

“It really informs what programs work and what programs don’t work,” said Bill Hurwitch, project director for Maine’s student longitudinal data system.

Education officials say their data collection can improve with one additional piece of information about each student: a Social Security number.

That’s why schools will start collecting students’ Social Security numbers this fall, per state law. As they do, Maine can look to the experience of other states that have collected Social Security numbers for data purposes.

Some 14 states collected Social Security numbers in 2009-10, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that lobbies states to establish.

FIRST, FLORIDA

Florida was among the first states to collect student data for a statewide database and connect the information from kindergarten through 12th grade to college and the workplace.

“The Legislature thought it was very important to be able to connect student data across the systems so K-12 could talk to community colleges and the community colleges could talk to the university system,” said Jay Pfeiffer, who was deputy commissioner for accountability, research and measurement for the Florida Department of Education until February 2009.

In the late 1980s, Pfeiffer worked on ways to connect education data to work force data maintained by the state Department of Labor, which required obtaining students’ Social Security numbers.

“The objective was to create a mechanism where all of these systems could talk to one another,” said Pfeiffer.

Florida’s law requiring schools to collect Social Security numbers took effect in 1990, when the concept was an easier sell, according to Pfeiffer.

“In the late 1980s, the kinds of concerns that we all have, like identity theft, the inappropriate release of identifiable information, would have been considered science fiction,” he said.

In accordance with federal law, families had the option of refusing to provide Social Security numbers, but Florida students rarely did, according to Pfeiffer.

The Florida Department of Education does not regularly keep statistics on the percentage of students for whom schools have Social Security numbers on file, but a special data release from the 2006-07 school year showed 76.8 percent of students statewide had volunteered their numbers.

Anecdotally, the percentage of students volunteering Social Security numbers has dropped in recent years, said Mark Rains, superintendent of Dixie District Schools north of Tampa.

“More recently, you have more and more concerns,” said Rains, whose district serves about 2,100 students.

Students without Social Security numbers on file are assigned identifying numbers in the state data system instead. The same will happen in Maine’s data system.

WHY THE DATA?

For those students with Social Security numbers on file, the data collected is valuable, Pfeiffer said.

“It’s important to connect these data systems in order to evaluate what’s happening, in order to advise policy,” he said.

Florida’s data system, for example, can show – anonymously – whether students from a particular school district and graduating class are working and how much they’re earning. School boards can then make policy decisions based on this information.

In Kentucky, another state that collects students’ Social Security numbers, education officials ultimately plan to use the tracking to set up a system that pays teachers based on their students’ academic performance, said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

As a result of Florida’s data collection, teachers, school administrators and other education officials have varying degrees of ready access to data that show students’ academic and career progression, teachers’ performance over time and schools’ aggregate academic performance.

Florida’s state data system, according to a 2007 article in Public CIO magazine, helped education officials organize a uniform rating system for schools based on state test scores. The system also allows teachers’ access to data about their students through a web-based portal that also provides curriculum and training resources, according to the report.

It’s unclear to what degree Florida’s academic improvements are connected to data-based decisions. But the Sunshine State’s improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – which tests fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading – over the past two decades has outpaced the national average.

In every math and reading category, Florida’s scores lagged the national average in the 1990s; they now exceed them.

Maine can already track students through public school and into college. But the Social Security number will allow the connection of this data to information maintained by the Department of Labor.

“That’s really the big picture for our collecting the Social Security number,” said Hurwitch, Maine’s data system project director, “so Labor can reach back into our system to get information about programs, and we can also connect with Labor to see what programs turned into successful careers.”

Maine received a $7.3 million federal grant in May to fund the development of that part of the data system, Hurwitch said.

Compared to the overall cost of education in Maine, officials say this is a small, but valuable investment.

“We spend roughly $2 billion a year on education,” Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said. “Would you like to know that we’re spending it in the most effective way possible?”

SECURITY CONCERNS

But some in Maine aren’t convinced that the advantages of data collection outweigh security risks associated with sharing Social Security numbers with school districts and the state department of education.

“For the Department of Education, it seems like it’s more important to talk about the benefits of doing this data collection than it does to talk about the harms of privacy violations,” Zach Heiden, legal director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said earlier this month.

The MCLU has been urging schools to attach security warnings to their requests for students’ Social Security numbers.

In recent months, a number of Maine school boards – including ones in Bethel, Kingfield and Waterville – have passed resolutions opposing the Social Security collection law and urging parents not to share their children’s numbers.

Unlike the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union affiliate in Florida hasn’t even tracked the Social Security number collection issue there, said spokesman Brandon Hensler.

DATA QUALITY

The more Social Security numbers on file, the better the data in Maine’s student longitudinal system, said Hurwitch.

But with collection of numbers poised to start in the coming weeks, Hurwitch said he’s anticipating areas in which few Social Security numbers are collected.

“The districts that don’t participate, they won’t have any data on what happens to their graduates,” he said.
Maine education officials, however, aren’t yet worried about a low response rate, Hurwitch said. “The response rate is high elsewhere.”

In Kentucky, for example, which only started its Social Security number collection in the past three years, “a fairly small percentage” of parents have declined to give their children’s numbers, said Gross.

Plus, if numbers aren’t collected this fall in Maine school districts, Hurwitch said, schools will continue requesting them each year by law.

“It’s not a one-year process,” he said.