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The National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) is pleased to present Traveling Through Time: The Forum Guide to Longitudinal Data Systems. This document, Book One of Four: What is an LDS?, is the first installment of this Forum series of guides on longitudinal data systems (LDS). One goal of the Forum is to improve the quality of education data gathered for use by policymakers and program decisionmakers. An approach to furthering this goal has been to pool the collective experiences of Forum members to produce "best practice" guides in areas of high interest to those who collect, maintain, and use data about elementary and secondary education. Developing LDSs is one of those high-interest areas. These systems hold promise for enhancing both the way education agencies use data to serve students and the way they do business, from the policy level to the school office and into the classroom.

LDSs are increasingly becoming the state of the art in education data. These systems move us from relying on blunt, aggregate, snapshot student data; to detailed and timely, student-level data that reflect the student's entire academic history. An LDS makes it possible to not only monitor the success of individual students, but also to identify trends in those students' education records. Freeing educators from guesswork and lessening the burden of painstaking data analysis, these systems provide powerful and timely insight about students and allow educators to tailor instruction to better meet individual needs. An LDS can reveal with great clarity what effects our policies, programs, and decisions have on schools. These systems allow agencies to track students across institutions to facilitate appropriate course placement and to determine who has transferred and who has dropped out. Longitudinal data systems also offer a new level of sophistication at the business level that can streamline operations; improve data quality; and free up valuable resources previously allocated to inefficient data entry, maintenance, and reporting practices.

For these and others reasons, states should continue to introduce, develop, and expand their LDSs. The Traveling Through Time: The Forum Guide to Longitudinal Data Systems series is intended to help state and local education agencies meet the many challenges involved in developing robust systems, populating them with quality data, and using this new information to improve the education system. The series will introduce important topics, offer best practices, and direct the reader to additional resources related to the LDS development process. In sum, it is intended to help agencies establish LDSs that will have lasting, far-reaching impact on the education system and students' lives. For a description of the entire guide series, see appendix A.

Book One of Four: What is an LDS?

This first book in the guide series focuses on the fundamental questions of what an LDS is (and what it is not), what steps should be taken to achieve a sound system, what components make up an ideal system, and why such a system is of value in education.

  • Chapter 1 introduces this guide series, discussing its purpose, format, and intended audience.
  • Chapter 2 covers some LDS basics, defining the concept of a "longitudinal data system" and laying out key nontechnical steps to planning and developing a successful system.
  • Chapter 3 presents the technical components that generally comprise an LDS, as well as some additional features that may enhance the system.
  • Chapter 4 addresses some common misconceptions regarding longitudinal data systems.
  • Chapter 5 discusses the overarching benefits of an LDS.

The appendices include an overview of the four books in this guide series, references, additional resources, a handout summarizing key LDS components, excerpts from LDS-related federal legislation, and other relevant Forum and NCES resources.

The National Forum on Education Statistics

The work of the Forum is a key aspect of the National Cooperative Education Statistics System (the Cooperative System). The Cooperative System was established to produce and maintain, with the cooperation of the states, comparable and uniform educational information and data that are useful for policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels. To assist in meeting this goal, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), within the U.S. Department of Education, established the National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) to improve the collection, reporting, and use of elementary and secondary education statistics. The Forum deals with issues in education data policy, sponsors innovations in data collection and reporting, and provides technical assistance to improve state and local data systems.

Development of Forum Products

Members of the Forum establish task forces to develop best-practice guides in data-related areas of interest to federal, state, and local education agencies. They are assisted in this work by NCES, but the content comes from the collective experience of the state and school district task force members who review all products iteratively throughout the development process. Documents prepared, reviewed, and approved by task force members undergo a formal public review. This public review consists of focus groups with representatives of the product's intended audience, review sessions at relevant regional or national conferences, or technical reviews by acknowledged experts in the field. In addition, all draft documents are posted on the Forum website prior to publication so that any interested individuals or organizations can provide feedback. After the task force oversees the integration of public review comments and reviews the document a final time, publications are subject to examination by members of the Forum standing committee sponsoring the project. Finally, the entire Forum (approximately 120 members) reviews and formally votes to approve all documents prior to publication. NCES provides final review and approval prior to publication.