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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Visualizing student success
How data, innovation and sustainability impact students
By Tam Nguyen | March | April 2023
Orange Unified School District (OUSD) uses more than 40 core and supplemental instructional programs and benchmarks that generate student data online and on paper. Unfortunately, teachers, principals and district administrators are often paralyzed by the mountain of data available. When big data analytics started to boom in other industries years ago, the OUSD technology department looked at how this emerging field could help drive student success by trending data into actionable, visually-represented trends. Today, the technology department has created data analytics dashboards that assist in decision-making and preventive interventions leading to positive student outcomes.
The Microsoft Power Business Intelligence platform, or Power BI, has been used by OUSD to build data visualization dashboards in various areas of K-12 school operations. The different analytics modules dynamically ingest data from multiple sources daily, hourly or instantly to apply business logic and present relevant data to district staff. The result is an easy-to-read real-time report or dashboard.
Power BI reports and dashboards have been instrumental in analyzing: Assessment data; student performance; grade analysis by demographic; school and department fiscal budgets; school site staffing; computing device inventory; student enrollment; attendance recovery; identifying at-risk students; and many others.
The data visualization dashboard to the right gives principals and administrators a birds-eye view of various metrics necessary to run a school successfully. For example, this dashboard informs a principal about their attendance, student performance, substitute need, CALPADS data and computing device distribution at a glance.
Board of education support
The Orange Unified Board of Education, recognizing the importance of data-driven decisions, supported creating a reporting manager position to ensure that school administrators can access critical information for student success. The reporting manager pioneered and promoted the use of advanced analytics within OUSD. The board subsequently supported the Power BI analytics platform for select administrators and office staff. After overwhelmingly positive feedback from the initial group of district staff, the board endorsed the program's expansion to include Power BI licensing for all district staff. As a result, all employees of OUSD can now create and access data analytics tools to process mountains of data.
Student impact
How do teachers and principals determine where students are falling behind? Which groups of students are underperforming and where are resources needed to bring those students up to standard? A single high school has tens of thousands of data points around grades alone.
It would take keen intuition and a personal touch to identify at-risk students in years past — unfortunately, some were not caught in time. However, data analytics can reduce students’ chances of falling through the cracks. Data visualization has allowed teachers and administrators to zoom in, drill down and intervene much sooner. The result is that school staff can identify and intervene before the student's student failure is recorded permanently.
With the ever-growing prevalence of online curricula and business software, collecting data is a problem of the past — data is generated and logged with every click, every second. The modern-day challenge for school administrators is to securely gather data from disparate sources, normalize it into a consistent format, apply calculations, statistically identify trends and repeat daily, in addition to the basic duties of running a school.
The district needed to innovate and take advantage of leading-edge cloud technology to provide our school administrators with data they can use in an easy-to-digest visual format. The technology department collaborated with other K-12 districts to find a solution to our school administrators and department leadership needs. After carefully considering emerging technologies, IT staff skill sets, peer feedback and available funding, the technology department built visualization dashboards on the Power BI platform.
A business intelligence platform has enabled innovations such as the Attendance Recovery Tool Dashboard. Previously a manual process of gathering and manipulating attendance data in a spreadsheet, the technology department has converted the concept once done on paper into a real-time visual dashboard. Additional business logic can be applied and calculated, such as instructional minutes lost or lost revenue due to absenteeism. This information is gathered from the financial and student information systems simultaneously, then calculated in real time to keep business and instructional decision-makers informed.
Data visualization has allowed teachers and administrators to zoom in, drill down and intervene much sooner than ever.
K-12 school IT departments support nearly 1,500 devices per technician, well above the 250 devices per technician that IT governance frameworks recommend. District IT technicians are jacks of all trades with enough knowledge and ability to implement and support most instructional technologies. Unfortunately, programming skillsets to build custom analytics are not reasonable for small K-12 IT departments. To create a sustainable practice, the OUSD technology department considered tools that can be developed by anyone with intermediate knowledge of spreadsheets and formulas.
Working with other districts within California to learn from their successes and failures, the OUSD technology team chose the Power BI platform for its ease of implementation, ease of use and fiscal sustainability. Where competing products start in the quarter-million-dollar range, the Power BI platform costs tens of dollars per year, per user. More importantly, the visualization dashboards can be built by anyone with a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel.
The dashboards are designed to pull data from the last three to five years automatically, reducing the need for district staff to perform time-intensive updates and maintenance.
The success of the data analytics visual dashboards leads to expansion into other school departments such as accounting, budget, purchasing, business services and human resources. It has proven itself as a scalable solution, sustainable and maintainable by K-12 IT departments. The Power BI dashboards created with and by departments have been consistently used over the years and integrated into some employees’ daily operations.
Our mission in the OUSD Technology Department is to utilize technology to improve student outcomes — this holds true, no matter which district the student belongs to. To that end, we have shared our successes and failures with others in the county and state in hopes of recreating the achievements we have enjoyed. In addition, we have developed a framework for other districts to build their own data analytics visualizations with minimal financial investment and staff time.
Many visualization modules use programming code that school districts share freely, building data dashboards as a community instead of silos — collectively building faster and impacting more students positively than if we were to work alone. School districts can leverage this technology to make instruction more impactful, ensure that students without access to technology are identified and use funding more efficiently. OUSD continues to lead conversations and share knowledge to spread data analytics technology to benefit students throughout the state and country.

Tam Nguyen is the chief technology officer at Orange Unified School District.
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