Effective exploration of spatially referenced educational achievement data can help educational researchers and policy analysis accelerate interpretation of datasets to gain valuable insights. This paper illustrates the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze educational achievement gaps in Arkansas. The Geographic Academic Policy Series (GAPS), developed in the National Office for Research on Measurement and Evaluation Systems, provides a visual "snapshot" of achievement relative to important policy issues. The GAPS series displays maps in conjunction with state-wide summaries of educational statistics, but does not require complicated understanding of statistics or methodology by the user. Currently, the GAPS series examines the relationships between school district academic performance and other district level variables including percent of students participating in Free and Reduced Lunch Programs (a proxy measure for poverty), school district size, and per pupil spending. In addition, district performance on the ACT exam, which is completed by students intending to attend college, is presented and examined in relation to district size. The GAPS series also includes state maps identifying the academic performance status of all districts and schools in Arkansas relative to NCLB. Policy makers have been particularly interested in the GAPS series, noting that it provides them with an effective method for examining academic achievement statewide.
Since the implementation of the "No Child Left Behind" Act in 2001, educational assessment has become increasingly important to educators, administrators, and policy makers. Analysis of educational achievement gaps is, however, a complex and rapidly developing field.
In the last few years, through the National Office for Research on Measurement and Evaluation Systems (NORMES), we have been asked to provide information on. numerous education related policy issues. Our immediate reaction was to organize and develop formal academic studies. However, we have also learned that in most cases what was requested was not a comprehensive research study, but an overview of data addressing the question being asked. For education policy analysis, while school and district academic performance data are useful for obtaining specific achievement results, it does not facilitate broader examination of performance trends within a state, region or district. In this time of school accountability, it is vital that the policy analysts have access to data that can inform their decision making. Educators and policy makers require information that will enable them to determine which programs and policies art effective, and which might need to be revised.
"A picture is worth a thousand words." Graphical representation has always been a vital tool for education policy analysts, because it shows patterns in the data rather than detail, accelerating the interpretation of datasets to gain valuable insights (Tukey, J. W. 1977; Wegman 2000). Many people involved in education policy are often not comfortable with 'numbers' or 'statistics' but color-coded graphical representations of the information. As Cobb (2003) noted "Considering that it has been estimated that 80% of all local government decisions are made with geography in mind (Garson &Biggs, 1992), it seems reasonable for education researchers and policy analysts to study the world in a geographic context." Given the importance and the need for analyzing and understanding of geographic influences in support of decision making, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and associated tools provide a strong foundation for dealing with these problems. A GIS is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing data and events. GIS technology integrates database operations with the visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps. Digital maps created using GIS can directly access the power of human vision and reveal patterns that are often more difficult to discern in numerical summaries of data. …