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Maine’s Weapon Data Mixup Reveals the Dangers of Poorly Organized Education Records

Michael Nutter

February 14, 2018

Good data reporting isn’t just a powerful tool for school districts — it’s a legal and moral obligation. When reporting processes go ignored by district staff, it can quickly create disastrous and unexpected problems, as Maine’s public schools recently demonstrated.

Districts are required to report all manner of data on both students and staff to their state Departments of Education, and for good reason. This reporting helps states understand the needs of and challenges faced by public schools and their student populations. Failing to follow protocols for recording and submitting student record sets has severe consequences for district leadership because poor reporting can hurt students’ academic performance and even put them in danger.

An alarming example of poor data reporting occurred recently in Maine, where both the state Department of Education and local communities have expressed alarm about a number of unreported incidents involving deadly weapons on school property.

Disastrous Data Reporting

According to CBS, the Maine Department of Education has sent the news office incorrect data on the state’s school weapons incidents on three separate occasions. In one instance, the DOE reported 84 incidents in the Sanford school district, while the superintendent of the district reported only one. In another, one spreadsheet reported 28 incidents, while the previous one reported 1,312. There are also notable decreases in reported incidents from year to year, none of which could be plausibly explained by state authorities.

These discrepancies are symptomatic of a dangerously flawed approach to data collection and organization. Maine is clearly struggling to follow the reporting systems it has in place, and it very likely stems from a lack of clarity around protocols that each stakeholder in the reporting process is responsible for following.

Why Districts Struggle to Keep Accurate Records

There are many ways data reporting and recording could go awry, but problems like these frequently stem from a lack of centralized protocols. The way that data is organized tends to vary from district to district and even school to school, whether it’s different names for the same data field, different hierarchical structures that determine who is accountable for what structure, or different software to store and organize those record sets. This makes reporting errors at the state level much more likely.

CBS corresponded with the Maine DoE’s Director of Communications, Rachel Paling, to investigate the cause of these serious errors. Paling suggested that the mistakes were the result of multiple incidents involving the same students that were counted only once. Lack of information on the nature of the incident and/or type of weapon could also have resulted in inaccuracies and underreporting.

While it’s impossible to say whether or not Paling’s theory is correct, this is exactly the kind of confusion that leads to reporting errors in public school districts. These schools are responsible for a vast amount of data that all needs to be accurate and accounted for, so it’s no surprise that mistakes become apparent to the public every now and then. The real problem is that district stakeholders don’t have the tools to organize and verify all this data, which can bring the kind of professional consequences and public anger that Maine’s Department of Education is facing now.

Fixing the Process

The appearance of weapons at school is certainly one of the scariest statistics to underreport, but other record sets that seem far less consequential on the surface can also have a far-reaching and serious impact. When districts don’t submit accurate reports to their state Departments of Education, they often get far less money from the state than they deserve. That means fewer resources for the students who need them most.

That’s why Vinson built CheckPoint, a software platform designed to help Ohio districts streamline their reporting processes and easily verify and organize all of their EMIS data. By establishing a chain of accountability for each EMIS data field and offering clear visibility into not only which errors exist, but also who’s responsible for fixing them, Vinson and CheckPoint can help Ohio districts avoid making critical errors and get all of the funding they deserve from the state.

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