Administrators and educators then can make decisions that can change a potentially negative outcome before it takes place. (See “Tennessee district improves student performance, reduces dropout rates.”)

Using advanced analytics for predictive modeling marks a total structural change in education. “It gives us the ability to act,” Gold says.

Using ‘imperfect data’

While many schools have become adept at tracking and measuring student and teacher performance, structured information such as grades, state test scores, and attendance–as well as other information, such as food service data and bus routing schedules–is typically kept in a variety of different repositories.

Then there’s the high volume of unstructured data that can exist within a school or district: information about disciplinary action, parent-teacher reviews, notes from a counselor, surveys of parents or students, or notes from PTA members about different issues affecting a school, to name a few.

Data mining tools such as SPSS Modeler or SAP’s BusinessObjects analytics allow institutions to pull together both structured and unstructured data. And that’s important, because 80 percent of the data produced every day–from eMail messages to call logs to blogs on the internet–are unstructured, according to Gold.

“Generally, the information is there. There just hasn’t been a vehicle by which institutions could take advantage of it,” he says. “Now, text analytics products are looking at sentences, how the words appear, what the words mean.”

Then, they build relationships between those words and make connections, such as identifying students who indicate they’re always tired, or students who say they have little support, and predict how those factors affect test scores.

Without the appropriate tools, school organizations are unable to use methods such as these, and qualitative factors end up being analyzed in a subjective fashion, with nobody pulling together insights based on all the data–which leads to wasted opportunities.

But as the use of advanced analytics becomes more widespread, the trend is moving from simple reporting to predicting. “It changes the school’s mindset from thinking about, ‘What do I do with at-risk kids?’ to ‘How do I keep kids on track so they don’t become at-risk?’” says Gold. “If I provide early intervention, I can preempt or prevent completely what will be the likely outcome.”

Another benefit of a product like SPSS Modeler is that it provides real-time data, and it puts the data into the hands of those making the decisions. Administrators and educators no longer have to ask the IT department for data and wait weeks for this information to be returned to them, by which time it is old and perhaps no longer useful.

Gone, too, is the need to dump data from a variety of different systems into a giant data warehouse every night–an important point, as data in that case are “only as accurate as the last time you did the dump,” points out Don Seaman, business development director at SAP Public Services, another provider of predictive modeling solutions.

Rather than dumping information into a data warehouse on a regular basis, educators and administrators can immediately begin using the information to make business and education decisions.

“That’s the power [of predictive modeling], going from hindsight to insight to foresight,” says Sherry Amos, executive director for industry strategy at SAP Public Services. “You can access the data where [they exist]. You don’t have to spend months pulling [the data] together.”

With data mining of this sort, there’s also no need to form a supposition about what you think the data will show. Rather, educators can wait to see what trends the mining process uncovers.

“With statistics, you have to have really good data and a hypothesis,” explains Gold. “You have to say, ‘I believe this type of student, with this type of history, will exhibit this type of behavior.’”

And that’s difficult, he says, because data often are in silos. Also, not all schools have that kind of continuity with a student, as students often transfer from one school to another.

A good advanced analytics software program “allows you to take whatever data you have and allows the technology to work through the information and see what the outcome is. You don’t need a hypothesis,” Gold says.