About ANSWERS

What is ANSWERS?
ANSWERS is Alaska's P-20W Statewide Longitudinal Data System (early childhood through the workforce SLDS).

What will ANSWERS do for Alaska?
ANSWERS will link existing data from the state's K-12, postsecondary education and workforce information systems. This linking across siloed systems will help answer key questions about how well the Alaska education pipeline is preparing students for higher education and workforce success, and which programs are most successful in providing Alaska with resident hires for skilled, high-wage jobs.

Who is responsible for ANSWERS?
Created through Governor Sean Parnell's Administrative Order 261, ANSWERS' executive governing body is composed of:

  • the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (EED),
  • the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOL&WD),
  • the President of the University of Alaska (UA), and
  • the Executive Director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education (ACPE)

How is ANSWERS funded?
ANSWERS development and implementation is funded by a three-year, $4 million federal grant, through 2015. It is currently staffed by a team from EED, DOL&WD, UA, and ACPE, with ACPE providing overall project management.

How will ANSWERS be funded after the grant period?
Interim funding will come from ACPE's operating budget, which is funded by the Alaska Student Loan Corporation. The ANSWERS project includes a sustainability plan to minimize costs by designing ANSWERS to align with state standards and by using the grant funding to automate expensive manual processes. Longer term, the ANSWERS executives intend to use the initial two to three years of ANSWERS operation to evaluate its service value to the state relative to its cost. Based on that evaluation, recommendations will be advanced to the administration and legislature, for consideration as to a financing source and structure that meets statewide interests and demands for ANSWERS data in the most cost-efficient and effective manner.

How is ANSWERS different from other state databases and systems?
ANSWERS will maintain de-identified, historical information. Other state databases are primarily transactional, meaning they are designed to track student or citizen individual participation in sate services, such as education programs or unemployment insurance. In compliance with strict federal and state privacy protection requirements, ANSWERS data for research and reporting does not include identifying information such as name, date of birth, and identification or account number.

Why develop ANSWERS rather than expand the functionality of an existing database such as the Department of Education and Early Development's K-12 system?
Two primary reasons:

  1. Cost: Expanding an existing database to do something different from its original design is technically possible, but would be considerably more complicated and expensive than simply designing a longitudinal database.

  2. Privacy: Existing systems are designed to track specific, identifiable individuals. ANSWERS has no identifying information such as name or account.

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ANSWERS Data Use and Privacy

What data will be in ANSWERS?
ANSWERS will contain key data elements collected by the four Alaska partner agencies. ANSWERS' data elements must 1) be available without a new data collection, and 2) must be essential to answer one of 10 policy questions identified by education stakeholders as an education outcome indicator (see acpe.alaska.gov/ANSWERS for the full list of policy questions).

What data will NOT be in ANSWERS?
Data elements not relevant to evaluating Alaska education programs' outcomes will not be in ANSWERS. Examples of irrelevant and excluded data elements are voting records, political or religious affiliation, or student street address. Also, individuals who have not participated in Alaska's education system will not be included in ANSWERS. For example, data on residents and job-seekers who have not participated in Alaska's educational system are excluded.

Will there be new ANSWERS data collections or student surveys and tests?
No. All data in ANSWERS will come from existing data systems. While it is possible that an education provider such as a school district may seek to leverage ANSWERS' capacity to conduct analyses of their programs and services, this type of service and related data collection and analysis would occur only upon request.

How will data and individual privacy be protected?
ANSWERS will protect data in five primary ways:

  1. De-identification: After data are linked across systems, information such as student name, exact birthdate, address, or any traceable ID will be removed and replaced by a random-generated ANSWERS number that cannot be used to re-identify the specific individual in ANSWERS. The information used for the matching is stored by the agency providing the data, and also in ANSWERS information management system (AIMS), a repository that is completely separate and outside the research and reporting ANSWERS system.

  2. Secure storage: Information stored within ANSWERS is encrypted and stored in the State of Alaska secure data center.

  3. Output cell-suppression: Cell-suppression is a reporting methodology that protects individual privacy by "asterisking" or otherwise masking information or reports on small groups where someone in that community might be able to identify an individual. ANSWERS reports will undergo rigorous automated tests and manual review to ensure data is reported only in groups large enough to preclude individual identification.

  4. Access limitations: Access to ANSWERS is provided only to staff or approved researchers who have undergone background checks, or a related approval process, and access will be limited to only those data elements or functionalities needed to perform specific staff duties or approved research.

  5. Testing and monitoring: Regularly scheduled logging, access reports and audits of system accesses will occur, as well as system updates to address the latest security threats.

How will data in ANSWERS be used?
ANSWERS data will be used to evaluate and improve Alaska's education and career development system, as approved by the ANSWERS Executive and Data Governance Boards. For example, ANSWERS will allow evaluation of different groups of Alaska high school graduates' performance as they progress through higher education and into the workforce. An example of a specific question ANSWERS might address is: Are Alaska high school graduates who qualify for the Alaska Performance Scholarship more likely to attend college in Alaska or work in Alaska, and earn a higher income, as compared to other Alaska high school students.

What are some of the ways ANSWERS data will NOT be used?
ANSWERS data will not be used to identify individuals, evaluate performance of any individual, or to determine eligibility for programs or services.

Will individually identifiable information be stored?
Yes, but not in the ANSWERS longitudinal database. Identifiable information is stored by the agency providing the data, and also in a data matching repository, completely separate from ANSWERS.

What are some examples of ANSWERS data products?
ANSWERS' information products will include:

  1. Reports to the public, available as summary reports and Web dashboards, in the form of aggregated and cell-size suppressed information.

  2. Responses to information requests from legislators and similar stakeholders about the performance of a specific category or sub-population. Under federal and state law, such responses must be aggregated at a level to prevent identification of individuals.

  3. Feedback reports, available to key stakeholders such as district superintendents, providing information about the performance of key subgroups of their students in higher education or the workforce, and designed to assist in the evaluation of education programs.

  4. Responses to research requests, which will require approval according to protocols evaluating the appropriateness of the research request, methodology, and data requested, and ensuring data are used only in accordance with all applicable laws and for approved purposes.

What is the federal law that governs what student information may be released?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), as amended, or 20 USC 1232g (implementing regulations are 34 CFR Part 99). There are no exceptions that permit the release of data that could result in an individual's identity becoming publicly known. Exceptions are allowed for program evaluation and research purposes, subject to detailed agreements, research structures, data destruction policies, and similar privacy protections.

Will federal agencies have access to ANSWERS data?
No. Congress has specifically prohibited the creation of a federal student-level database. While it is possible that the state may generate reports from ANSWERS to meet Alaska's federal reporting requirements; because of the way data in ANSWERS is linked, such reports would be aggregated information only, and provided only in cases where it is more efficient for the state to meet existing federal reporting requirements through ANSWERS than through other systems.

Why is the ANSWERS system needed if data can now be linked for the state's annual Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS) outcomes report?
While the APS outcomes report is a "proof of concept" of the analyses made possible through linking existing data, it requires that expensive manual processing and memoranda of understanding be duplicated annually. ANSWERS will eliminate current labor-intensive, costly processes.

Can I opt out of having my personal information included in ANSWERS?
No. Opt out rights under federal law apply only to identifiable information. There is not a right to opt out of having de-identified education performance information included in program evaluations.

Do other states have systems similar to ANSWERS?
Nearly all states either have existing longitudinal systems or are in the process of developing them. As of 2012, 36 states are providing state funding for their longitudinal data systems.

How can I get more information about ANSWERS and this project?

  • Visit our website at acpe.alaska.gov/ANSWERS
  • Sign up for ANSWERS listserv updates at the website

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