Nassau BOCES, Harvard team to better mine test data

(L-R) Data Analyst Jeff Davis, Nassau BOCES District (L-R) Data Analyst Jeff Davis, Nassau BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Thomas Rogers, and Data Strategist Brandi Bakshi, stand inside the server room at the Robert E. Lupinskie Center for Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Nassau BOCES building in Westbury on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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A new partnership between Nassau BOCES and Harvard University could help educators here make better decisions on how to improve student performance by analyzing test scores from more than 200,000 Long Island students.

Nassau BOCES has been selected as one of 21 educational organizations nationwide to participate in the Strategic Data Project, a program of Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research.

A Harvard Fellow, Brandi Bakshi, has been placed on-site with BOCES, and a BOCES staffer, Jeff Davis, is being trained by Harvard.

"If you have the expertise from Harvard and are able to provide some key insights into the data, it is one more tool to help make better resource allocations in the district," said Thomas Rogers, district superintendent of Nassau BOCES.

Each year, BOCES collects, studies and disseminates reports about test scores involving the county's 225,000 K-12 students. BOCES officials said analysts can mine the data to pinpoint where students need to improve, and then districts can direct resources there.

In 2001, the agency established the first student "data warehouse" in New York State. Teachers and school officials can view the data, the bulk of which are state test results.

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But data from each source are stored separately, limiting the ability of educators and policymakers to identify trends and make informed decisions.

That will change with help from the Center for Education Policy Research.

Tom Kane, the center's faculty director and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said analysts will help Nassau educators use their own data to "learn what's working and what's not."

Rogers said Harvard analysts assigned to BOCES for the two-year project will look for test score correlations to key foundational skills. For example, students who failed to learn fundamental phonic awareness may struggle with reading.

"We want to intervene earlier with the students who missed key skills before they become larger issues later," Rogers said. "That is what Harvard brings."

BOCES was selected after applying and detailing its goals. The mission of the Strategic Data Project, officials said, is to give educators the tools they need to improve student achievement. The project is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Herricks Superintendent Jack Bierwirth said the program could go beyond numbers to help the district develop new strategies.

"The tool is valuable as something to prompt reflection and discussion. The data alone doesn't tell anybody any answers," he said.

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Student data collection has come under fire in New York recently, with state school officials postponing a controversial plan to turn over names and addresses for 2.3 million students to a private corporation for storage and distribution via "cloud" technology.

Since October, parents and other speakers at public forums across the state have denounced the Atlanta-based inBloom project, with many demanding the right to opt children out of the data-sharing project.

Nassau BOCES stressed that it's always in control of its data, keeping it secure and maintaining student privacy. The information is not made available to third parties.

"The security is very strong, and that is something we work on and have worked on," Rogers said. "This data warehouse is ultimately under the school district's control."

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