For years, Washington state has collected data on students from prekindergarten through college, and then workforce statistics to better understand how students move from school to college and jobs.
One recent study of dropouts, for example, revealed that about 26 percent of them completed a high school equivalency credential within seven years, while 6 percent spent at least some time in a state prison. And the Roadmap Project, which works to improve student achievement in South King County and South Seattle, learned how many of their former participants graduated from high school or attended college.
Until now, however, Washington and other states frequently hit roadblocks when they tried to track their students who moved out of state, whether as youngsters moving with their families or to attend college or take jobs elsewhere.
That's why Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Hawaii recently participated in a pilot project to share data on student outcomes. It was run by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), a regional organization that includes 15 states and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The WICHE project analyzed information on 192,689 students, including 2005 graduates of public high schools and students at public colleges from 2005 to 2011 in the four states. The $1.5 million project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has awarded a second grant of $5 million to expand the project to at least six more states yet to be determined.
"We're all looking to educate and retain people in our states so that they can help the economy thrive," said Peace Bransberger, a senior research analyst at WICHE. "You can only speculate until you have some information about students who have gone beyond your borders after you've educated them."
One goal of the project was to determine whether it was even possible for states to share such data, given the logistical, technical and political hurdles, including protecting student privacy. Another question was whether states would gain any additional insight about their students with the data from the other states.
The initial results were promising. The multistate approached allowed the participating states to see how many enrolled in graduate school or found jobs in one of the other three states. It also allowed them to determine how much of a local labor market's needs were being filled by people from other states.
Using only data from their own states to look at outcomes among a subset of 38,800 college graduates, the four states could have reported where about 23,600, or 62 percent, ended up. But by tapping into data from all four states, they were able to account for 2,500 more students, or an additional 7 percentage points.
The WICHE study revealed, for example, that three-fourths of the public high school graduates from the four states attended college at some point in the six years covered in the study. Students who received at least one Pell grant (a federal scholarship for low-income students) completed associate's degrees at higher rates than those who never received a Pell grant. But fewer completed bachelor's degrees than those who never received a Pell grant.
Some states learned more than others. Oregon, which knew the outcomes of 65 percent of its college students using only its own data, learned about outcomes for students representing an additional 7 percentage points. Hawaii, which gained the most new data through the exchange, previously knew outcomes of 54 percent of students but learned about students representing an additional 14 percentage points.
Kevin Hollenbeck, vice president of the nonprofit W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said the study helps "fill in the picture of what fields people are pursuing and what fields are attracting folks from out of state."
"Labor markets don't stop at state lines," Hollenbeck said.
Ultimately, the kind of information shared in the pilot project could help states shape education policy, said Paige Kowalski, director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, which advocates the use of data to improve education. Almost half of the students from Maryland who attend college leave the state to do so, she said, for example. But without data from other states, policymakers know little about how whether those students obtain degrees or find jobs.
In North Carolina, for example, about one quarter of new teachers have been trained in other states, which means it's difficult for those states to evaluate how effective their teacher-training programs are.
"It's very difficult to create good feedback loops when you can't follow someone over that state line," Kowalski said.
In Hawaii, as in other states, officials hope the kind of student outcome data they are collecting will be helpful not only to policymakers, but also to students and parents trying to determine where to go to college or what to study.
Pearl Iboshi, director of the Institutional Research & Analysis Office at the University of Hawaii System, said the state is working on reports showing the median wages for different programs at different levels of education, such as associate's degrees and bachelor's degrees.
For educators, the data can help show how effective their instructional programs are. "From the K-12 point of view, you want to look at what percentage of your students go to college, how well prepared are they for the university," Iboshi said. "From the university point of view, you want to look at how well your students do in the workforce and can we align better what we teach with K-12 to improve the transition."
Idaho is planning to use the shared data to better inform policymakers about workforce development and education planning, said Andy Mehl, who manages the Statewide Longitudinal Data System there.
"Without information, a lot of people start assuming that they know what the right answer is, that they know the best thing for Idaho students is to keep them all in the state," Mehl said. "This kind of data allows you to show them what actually happens or what policy is driving students in a certain direction. It helps them be better informed about the decisions and the repercussions of what they're doing."
Mehl said lawmakers could craft scholarships that would encourage students to stay in state, for example, or require them to return to the state after studying elsewhere.