Outgoing NCES Commissioner James "Lynn" Woodworth Reflects on His Term
Outgoing NCES Commissioner James "Lynn" Woodworth Reflects on His Term

June 2021

James “Lynn” Woodworth began his term as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the Institute of Education Sciences in March 2018. Before joining NCES, Woodworth served as the lead quantitative research analyst at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. His term will end on June 20, as mandated under the Education Sciences Reform Act. We thank Woodworth for his service at NCES and for sharing his reflections on his role as NCES commissioner during an unprecedented time where high quality, trustworthy education data and statistics were essential and mattered.

Q: What do you see as your biggest accomplishments in leading NCES and for initiatives across the federal statistical system?

A. One of my major goals in becoming the statistics commissioner was to minimize the delays between gathering data and releasing data. I feel we have been successful in identifying causes for delay and eliminating those that are not necessary. While I have been at NCES, we have also taken steps towards modernizing our releases. This includes making data tables machine-readable, making web tools more user-friendly, and improving the readability of our reports for non-statisticians. I believe all these steps have gone to make NCES data timelier and more usable to the public.

NCES also developed a unique new data asset using information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). As part of its transition to digital assessment, NAEP gathered data on how students interact with the assessment. This process data will be an amazing asset to future research in learning, cognition, and assessment design. With the process data, researchers can actually see the process students used to answer questions on the NAEP. We can use this to get insight into how kids are thinking as they answer the questions. Educators can teach kids and guess at how they are thinking, but the process data will allow real insight into the thinking process. We can see, for example, if kids read the questions first and then read the article, or vice versa. The process data allows us to see how kids use the calculators when completing math problems. This means we can see the order of operations kids actually use when solving a complex math problem. This has the potential to improve testing but also to improve teaching.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic presented major disruptions to the educational infrastructure—including to data collections and assessments. As the U.S. emerges from the pandemic, what lessons do you think can inform the future of education statistics?

A. One of the biggest lessons for NCES from the impacts of COVID was the emphasis on the need for a method of quick data collection. Most of NCES’s data collections focused on accuracy of data at the cost of timeliness. While data quality and accuracy are of course important, the fact is that sometimes a rough estimate that can be released in a month is a better option than an estimate accurate to the third decimal place that takes two years to produce. NCES processes have been designed for the latter, but one of the lessons from COVID is that we need to have the ability to produce both. To this end, NCES is developing the new School PULSE survey. The School PULSE will focus on using monthly collections from a representative sample of schools to produce data estimates with a turnaround of a few weeks instead of a few years. This will allow NCES to be more responsive to needs for current data and to adjust data collections to address unexpected events such as COVID.   

Q: In your 2018 Q&A, you highlighted declining survey rates as a major challenge that you were facing at NCES. Have you seen progress since then? Are there any other challenges that have emerged (beyond the pandemic) for longitudinal surveys?

A. Declining survey rates remain an issue not just for NCES but for all statistical agencies. Therefore, NCES is experimenting with new approaches. For example, the School PULSE survey will use a small but representative panel which will be surveyed once a month. We will provide compensation to the school districts for the amount of time it takes to respond to the survey. Using a smaller, highly compensated panel will hopefully improve response rates on data. 

NCES continues to work with other parts of the Department of Education to find ways to reuse data collected for program and administrative purposes to create statistics. We are also looking at techniques such as web scraping to gather data which can then be augmented/verified with survey data. NCES will continue to need survey data to get deeper understandings of what is driving educational practices and decisions, but we are looking at ways to introduce new data sources.

Q: What advice would you give to the next NCES commissioner?

A. Keep moving forward. We’ve started a number of updates and modernization efforts at NCES. I hope those continue moving forward. NCES serves a vital role as an independent provider of truth about education topics to all branches of the government and the public. To keep the level of respect that NCES holds, NCES must not only maintain high standards but also keep up with the times. While we have made a number of advances, some of NCES’s tools and web interfaces are outdated. During my time at NCES, we focused on the most critical updates and accomplished much, but the work needs to continue.

Q: How will your experience in leading NCES inform your next endeavor?

A. My time at NCES confirmed for me the importance of NCES’s work and the value of the products produced by NCES. One of the reasons I was so motivated to take on the challenge of being the NCES commissioner is that I was a big user of NCES data. My time at NCES has led me to an even greater appreciation of NCES and its products (including the massive scope of those products). I look forward to diving back into the NCES data as a data user. I am excited to return to spending more time doing hands-on work with data.

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