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Maryland has made significant progress in assembling an educational data system that would allow the state to track every student's experience through the public school system from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary education.

In a report released this week, the Data Quality Campaign said that Maryland, which was behind 48 other states in completing its data collection system, has now given each student a unique number, an important step in collecting data that will allow it to eventually link student test data to teacher performance.

Maryland made more progress than any other state in the last year, according to Aimee Guidera, executive director of the campaign, a collaborative nonprofit established by the National Governors Association and other national education groups and funded by private foundations. Maryland remains behind most states but is likely to close the gap within the next year or two.

Guidera said Maryland's progress is due in part to the emphasis Gov. Martin O'Malley has given to the issue by recognizing that the data need to be used in developing a better work force and ensuring that students leave high school prepared for college.

After the last report came out in 2008, Guidera said, there was a lot of focus by policymakers on why Maryland was so far behind. "I think the governor really lit a fire," she said, by recognizing it as a statewide problem.

The national push toward longitudinal data systems was bolstered by the U.S. Department of Education, which began requiring states that took education stimulus money to agree to complete a system by 2011. Today, every state is now on track to meet that target. Of the 10 elements needed in the data system, Maryland will soon have seven. Currently, 11 states have all 10 and 31 states have eight or more.

The data these systems produce can be used by policymakers as they make decisions on how to reform school systems. But developing the systems has been a sensitive issue for teachers unions, some of which have been opposed to linking individual teachers with student test data and using it for evaluating teacher performance.

Southern states, which embarked earlier on the most comprehensive systems, have completed much of the work. Louisiana, for example, can track individual teacher preparation programs to student performance. If Maryland implements such a system, it could have the capacity to see if teachers who received their teacher preparation at Towson University had classes that performed better than those educated at the Johns Hopkins University or Loyola University Maryland.

In addition, the data would allow districts to better track student graduation and dropout rates, often unreliable when students move from school district to school district or out of state.

For the past several years, educational data have been seen as used for punitive measures, Guidera said, but "the real power of data comes from using it as a flashlight to shine light on what works."

The data, which are expected to be made available to researchers and not just school systems, would follow an individual student's academic growth through college. By looking at how much growth students make over many years, districts might be able to pinpoint the most effective schools, not just which schools have the highest test scores.

Maryland State Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard said the department has been applying for federal grants to get the system put together. He said the department "is really pleased that the Data Quality Campaign has made note of our progress."

The state still has some holes in its data system. For instance, teachers have yet to be assigned individual numbers that would allow test data to be linked to them. The state also doesn't yet link higher education with the public school districts.

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