Big data offers opportunities in all industries to make operations more efficient and effective. Those same benefits can be applied in public education at all levels.

Massachusetts, as one of the country’s leaders in both technology and education, is expected to be among the forerunners for states using big data to improve classrooms. However, much of the innovations are still being tested. Schools also must ensure that privacy rules are adhered to when collecting and using data on students.

Still, there are several areas where the analysis of large datasets can help educators improve how well students do in the public education system. It’s opened up yet another possible career avenue for those who earn a master’s degree in data science.

Massachusetts Public Education Data Initiatives

In Massachusetts, recognized as a leader in big data in both education and industry, leaders also have put data to use in elementary and secondary schools.

For example, the state collects data that tracks student achievement. Part of this is an Early Warning Indicator System, which helps identifies students who are having trouble and get them extra support before they fall even further behind.

Educators in local districts can use the data in conjunction with their own observations to find the underlying causes that potentially are leading to academic problems, then develop plans that can lead to better outcomes.

Many other states have followed Massachusetts’ lead in this area.

Improve Student Outcomes

As the Massachusetts Early Warning Indicator System shows, the vast amounts of data now collected can be used by school districts to build predictive models for how students will perform.

For example, certain grade patterns and standardized test results can indicate where some students will have difficulties in the future based on what has happened to similar students that came before. Recognizing these patterns can instruct teachers and administrators on when, and how, to intervene with students and provide them the support and help they need to achieve better outcomes.

Improve Graduation Rates

In addition to improving a student’s grades and test scores, big data can also help identify issues that keep students from graduating high school.

For example, the Hattiesburg Public School District in Mississippi uses data from students to identify those who have low assessment scores and are frequently absent. This allows the school to intervene early and improve student performance.

Also, a school district in Spokane, Washington, improved graduation rates 8 percent by using data to find patterns in students who typically end up as drop outs. The Alabama Department of Education is also building a similar “early warning” system for students.

Behavioral Issues and Big Data

As with the data on school performance, data on certain behavioral issues can also help teachers and administrators decide how to best work with students. Some community colleges are already putting this into play to resolve the “intention-action gap.” This involves the intention of 80 percent of community college students to transfer to four-year academic institutions, but the fact that only 20 percent do so.

Data can be used to find important “transfer pathways” where students can succeed in attaining that goal, if provided the proper support. The behavioral insights from big data can allow schools to properly communicate those pathways to students, increasing their chance of being responsive and successful.

These behavioral issues can also extend to how students are taught. Not all students learn in the same way, and data can help educators find the best approaches to get students engaged in school and improving their grades.

Those are some of the ways big data could improve public education. As security issues are resolved and more research is conducted, expect this to become yet another growing field within data science.