BANGOR, Maine — A national report released Thursday says Maine is making considerable progress on a project that at first glance might seem like a load of information technology mumbo jumbo. But education officials say the fledgling system will soon prove invaluable for tracking student progress from kindergarten all the way into the work force.

Bill Hurwitch of the Maine Department of Education is overseeing development of the state longitudinal data system, a vast online database that produces comparisons between students, classes, schools and districts that until now have just not been possible.

“It’s always been that the Department of Education collects data from the districts,” said Hurwitch. “What people are seeing now is that we’re actually giving them some valuable data back and there have been great reactions. As people start to see what data they can get out of the system, they want more.”

The longitudinal data system pulls together information from some 45 different sources ranging from student-by-student testing scores posted by individual teachers to financial, demographic and income data from the state departments of labor, education and health and human services. Users of the system will for the first time have the ability to compile comparisons between districts, schools, teachers, and for those qualified to do so, even individual students.

The practical uses for the system are nearly endless, said Hurwitch. Families moving into the state will be able to compare the performance of school districts. Teachers will be able to track student progress on a subject-by-subject basis. Taxpayers will be able to see how their local schools spend money compared to neighboring ones. Education policy developers will be able to pinpoint which teaching methods work the best and which ones are failing. And once and for all, lawmakers will have hard data that shows how education programs from head start through university graduate programs translate into quality jobs and benefit the economy.

“It was once all about collecting data for federal reporting,” said Hurwitch. “Now it’s collecting data specifically for student outcomes.”

A nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group called the Data Quality Campaign, which has been tracking states’ progress on developing their educational data systems, released a report Thursday that showed Maine is ahead of or on par with the majority of other states.

“Maine has really stepped up in terms of putting all the necessary policies and practices in place,” said Paige Kowalski, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of state policy initiatives. “You have only the toughest pieces left to go, which is the case in many other states. I would say Maine is doing quite well.”

Of the 10 state actions suggested by the Data Quality Campaign’s initiative, Maine has met seven, which is up from four last year. There are only a handful of states ahead of Maine in meeting those final three requirements. Kowalski said those measures are perceived by many to be more difficult to attain than the others because they involve merging education data with information from other sectors, making the database available to the public in a secure way and inserting new training requirements for teachers.

In general terms, the three points Maine falls short on are the following:

• Merging K-12 student data with the same student’s work force performance.

• Opening the longitudinal data system to the public and developing assurances that the person trying to access the data is authorized to do so.

• Requiring training on the system for educators, including making it a necessity for teacher licensing and educational program approvals.

The database, which is already up and running for superintendents and teachers, will be opened to the public in January. According to Hurwitch, Maine has already spent $10.5 million in grant funding from the federal government on the project. The U.S. Department of Education, in turn, has invested more than $500 million on it nationally.

Though most of the development funds have been covered by federal grants, Hurwitch said Maine will soon have to pick up the expense of maintaining the data system. He said that could cost as much as $1 million to $2 million per year, but that Maine and other states in New England are working together to find efficiencies and collaborations that could reduce that figure.

Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign said the need for states to fully implement these data systems as soon as possible is urgent.

“States have worked so diligently to build their capacity to collect and use quality education data, but we will see improved student achievement only when all stakeholders — from parents to policymakers — actually use these data to make informed decisions,” said Guidera in a press release. “State policymakers are right now in the process of allocating scarce resources based on what works to help students and they cannot do that well without data. The need is urgent.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.