Why one district CIO says the Ed-Fi data standard is taking over

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School districts collect a lot of data — on students, teachers and families — but as that data piles up, administrators find it increasingly difficult to compare datasets against one another or share data between applications. An education data framework called Ed-Fi — the “gold standard” according to Portland Public Schools CIO Don Wolff — is changing that.

The Ed-Fi data standard, launched in July 2011, is an open-source data framework that’s designed to connect a district’s various software applications — such as student information systems, assessment software, rostering tools and learning management systems. It’s currently used in districts that reach 30.9 million students across 30 states, according to a group that promotes the standard.

As districts have in recent years transferred all those types of data from paper forms to digital formats, they’ve picked up different vendors and different applications along the way, without a chance to link every tool together. If the tools are made by different vendors, the data is often siloed, because different vendors use different data storage techniques and formats.

When the Ed-Fi standard is applied to applications, the common set of rules allows the myriad systems to talk data to each other, enabling easier data-driven decision making for school leaders. And when the Ed-Fi standard emerged eight years ago, schools could mandate that each vendor they work with comply with the standard, ensuring all the district’s data would be accessible.

“It’s my holy grail that we would get a data standard and transfer method in K-12,” Wolff said, “because we have no real solid frameworks that say ’this is what thou shalt do and this is what it should look like.’ It’s very different from the banking industry or the healthcare industry. Ed-Fi is the closest thing and we’re getting there.”

Ed-Fi’s not the only K-12 data standard. The Common Education Data Standards from the National Center for Education Statistics is another, and in the late 1990s, the Schools Interoperability Framework began competing with standards under the electronic data interchange but none emerged as an accepted national standard.

But Ed-Fi is growing faster and succeeding where others have failed, Wolff said.

“What I am seeing is a much larger community,” Wolff said. “That never happened with the Schools Interoperability Framework.”

Ed-Fi is both open-source and constantly evolving based on the input of education stakeholders, said Sean Casey, the Ed-Fi Alliance’s manager of strategic partnerships. He said Ed-Fi’s funding is stable because it’s backed by philanthropies, rather than vendors that might have something other than the efficacy of the standard at heart.

Wolff, speaking at the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon, last week, said he uses the standard to sort out his district’s historical data. During his recent six year jaunt as chief information officer at Hillsboro School District, he said he realized needed a better system for comparing the district’s financial, academic and student discipline data.

“How did we spend the money and where did we allocate it and what types of schools — did we do it equitably or equally? That makes a difference,” Wolff said. “We need all of those pieces, and we need it to be consistent across all applications.”

Wolff said when he talks to vendors and they learn his district is Ed-Fi compliant, it’s a shortcut to continuing their work together.

“That makes it a no-brainer and it’s really easy to set up and move forward with us,” Wolff said.

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