Minnesota Department of Education and student data sharing

With frequency, education policy finds itself at the crossroads of political contention and debate. Last decade, disputes arose over the implementation of federal “No Child Left Behind” requirements. Today, “Common Core” standards have raised similar controversies.

While education initiatives are much discussed, the data that underlie them are often not easy to access. Recently, Public Record Media set out to begin to address that situation. In June, PRM filed a public records request with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), seeking two major categories of data:

1. Records relating to the use of “Common Core” educational standards in Minnesota, and;

2. Records relating to the sharing of Minnesota student information with the federal government and private entities.

Last month, MDE sent us a lengthy letter detailing its response to our request, as well as several related documents and reports. The following is an overview of the agency’s data release.

Common Core standards
PRM’s request sought to determine the extent of Minnesota’s data-sharing with the federal government as it relates to the state’s participation in the “Common Core” standards initiative. PRM also sought information on the state’s future participation in Common Core.

The Common Core standards were formulated by state officials acting under the auspices of the National Governors Association (NGA). According to the NGA’s Common Core website, a “lack of standardization” among state education metrics led the organization to undertake the Common Core initiative in 2009.

Minnesota is not considered a full “Common Core” state, and is not a member of the two national testing consortia related to Common Core standards. MDE’s letter noted that Minnesota adopted the Common Core standard for English four years ago, and that the state’s public schools currently use it to shape their curriculum. MDE also noted that the state’s mathematics standards do not currently incorporate Common Core benchmarks. Those standards are up for review in 2015.

MDE stated that it did not provide student data to the federal government or any other “outside entity” in relation to its current use of Common Core standards.

Federal data sharing overview
As the recipient of federal grant monies, the state of Minnesota is subject to reporting requirements for its expenditures and outcomes. Federal grants fund a variety of initiatives in the state, from early learning programs to various “school improvement” projects.

In its letter to PRM, MDE noted that it filed multiple electronic reports with the US Department of Education (US DOE) in connection with its federal grants, and that some of the reports contained student data. MDE specifically noted that the student data was aggregate information, and not individual data – an important distinction, of course, as aggregated information protects individual student identities and characteristics. As the letter noted:

“MDE does not report any data about students at the individual student level to the US DOE; all reporting involves data aggregated at the school level or higher.”

Elementary and Secondary Education Act
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is one of the largest education funding packages that is authorized by Congress. Since its inception in 1965, the ESEA has undergone several modifications, but its core purpose of providing funds to mitigate the effects of poverty has remained.

Funds received under the ESEA are reported to the federal government through the federal “EDFacts” reporting portal. The US DOE maintains multiple data files that states submit through EDFacts as part of US DOE’s compliance and oversight work. MDE provided PRM with a list of the files it submits to US DOE, as well as its related “Minnesota Consolidated State Performance Report.”

Data sets provided to US DOE include information on free and reduced lunch prices, staffing, data on children with disabilities, numbers of homeless students served, graduation rates, and discipline data. The reporting also includes data sets on “firearm incidents” and “students involved with firearms.”

Other federal programs
MDE provided PRM with the reports it submits to US DOE for a variety of other grant-funded programs. MDE noted that data related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is reported through EDFacts and annual performance reports. MDE also provides US DOE with aggregate student information related to federal School Improvement Grants.

Early learning grants
MDE stated that Minnesota receives federal funding to support early learning, and indicated that the state submits a performance report to the US DOE about progress made under the grant. MDE included a copy of its 2013 “Race to the Top” performance report in its document disclosure to PRM.

The report provided a recitation of achievements made under the grant, and noted that the state was involved in marketing a “Parent Aware” program to parents of public school students. The report described “Parent Aware” as a “voluntary quality rating and improvement system for early care and education programs.” According to the Parent Aware website, the program is an initiative of the Department of Human Services that is aimed at increasing school readiness in young children.

No information on federal use of student data
In its data request, PRM asked for data that would document the uses to which the federal government or others put collected student data. MDE replied that the agency did not hold any information that “documents the intents of external entities that review Minnesota student data.” However, the agency did note that US DOE maintains information on its own web site that documents how it uses the information it collects.

Minnesota state education standards
As part of its response to PRM’s inquiry about Common Core standards, MDE provided an overview document that detailed general information about Minnesota’s state educational standards.

MDE’s document states that Minnesota has developed standards in five areas: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and physical education. MDE noted that state standards for the arts also exist, but districts are allowed to develop their own standards if they so chose. For other categories, such as health, world languages, and technical education, districts must develop their own standards. According to MDE, the development of curricula based on the underlying standards is then left up to the individual districts.

State standards are developed by committees of 25-45 people, each appointed by the Commissioner of Education. Public comment periods follow the committee work. Subsequently, a “Special Education Review Team” examines the public comments and sends feedback back to the committee, which may choose to incorporate it. The final draft of a standard is then sent to the commissioner, who adopts it into a set of administrative rules.

Find PRM’s full collection of documents from the Minnesota Department of Education in our Minnesota document library.