AERA Joins ASA, COPAFS, and Others to Urge Bolstering of Federal Statistical Agencies

January 2021

On January 28, AERA joined the American Statistical Association (ASA), the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (COPAFS), and other supporters of federal statistics in urging specific actions to address both the immediate data integrity issues and the decades-long challenges that have undercut the ability of the principal federal statistical agencies to carry out their missions to the fullest.

In the news release, ASA President Robert Santos said:

To advance the COVID-19 pandemic recovery process, we encourage investment in and reinforcement of our U.S. data infrastructure. Challenges and threats to reliable and objective government statistics have been manifold in recent years. The Biden-Harris administration and new Congress are in a unique and propitious position to address these challenges promptly. Real-time data can serve to catalyze the nation’s recovery from the profound setbacks experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide long-term dividends, as well.

The release highlighted the four agencies that have faced the most acute challenges in recent years—the Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the USDA Economic Research Service.

In a section on NCES, the release noted that since FY 2010, the budget for the center’s descriptive statistics—which together with assessment makes up the total NCES budget—has lost 27 percent in purchasing power. NCES staffing has also reached a crisis level, with NCES full-time equivalent (FTE) employees having dropped over a 15-year period from approximately 125 in-house staff to 88 in early 2020. NCES has since staffed up to near its maximum allowed of 95 FTE, but it lacks sufficient in-house staff for its work, which includes managing 10 times as many contract staff.

As a result, NCES has had to curtail programs at a time when school districts and administrators need reliable national data for dealing with the continued disruptions of the pandemic and the likely long and complex period of getting schools and students back up to speed. The recently proposed School Pulse Survey, mirroring the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, could fill this need if NCES is provided with the funding and staff to carry it out.

“The Biden-Harris administration could take immediate steps to help our schools deal with the pandemic by getting NCES the resources it needs to do a School Pulse Survey,” said AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine, chair of the COPAFS board of directors. “Our country needs accurate, timely, and objective statistics on such information as in-person student attendance rates, absentee rates for in-person and distance learning, rates of teacher absence due to contraction of COVID-19, teacher availability, and student performance.”

The release pointed to additional documents from the supporting organizations that outline the needs of nine of the primary federal statistical agencies and the federal statistical system as a whole, including priorities for NCES for the 117th Congress and the Biden administration that were jointly prepared by AERA, ASA, COPAFS, and the Population Association of America.

The supporting organizations noted that the opportunities the administration and Congress should prioritize to build back and enhance the nation’s data infrastructure include enhancing federal statistical agency autonomy to ensure reliable, objective data; giving greater emphasis to “real-time” data; and linking data to deepen insights on social conditions.

To act on these priorities, the supporting organizations urged the administration and Congress to restore lost purchasing power and address staff shortages across the federal statistical system, and strengthen capacity for system-wide coordination.

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