California lags on using data

Failure to agree on sharing, managing info

The release Wednesday of an annual 50-state survey reveals that California is falling behind – way behind – in using statewide student data in effective ways. Despite its ongoing struggle to get CALPADS, the longitudinal student data system, up and built, the primary obstacle is not technology but leadership. If CALPADS were flawless, there still would be this problem: Despite years of talk, the state remains no closer to an agreement on governance: who will manage which data, how it will be shared, who will have access to it, for what purpose, and under what conditions?

California is stuck in the first phase, constructing CALPADS primarily to meet federal reporting requirements, with no will or momentum to take the next step. Other states are moving ahead, positioning to collect, link, and distribute data to help state leaders make smart decisions and to assist teachers and principals with real-time information.

In its sixth annual survey, the non-profit  Data Quality Campaign compared states’ efforts in meeting the “10 essential elements” for a successful statewide data system and 10 actions that states must take toward the ultimate goal of using data effectively to improve student achievement.

In accepting federal stimulus money – $4.9 billion in California’s case – all states agreed to fulfill the 10 elements of a data system by September 2011. And despite its ongoing battle with IBM, CALPADS’ vendor, California is satisfying nine of the 10 elements. They include using a statewide Student Identifier to track students from grade to grade, collecting data on student enrollments, dropouts and transcrips, and matching statewide teacher identifiers with individual students.

But the one missing element, which will put it out of compliance with the feds this fall, is the failure to link K-12 data with higher education data. The connection is critical for school districts to finally learn how well they are preparing students for college and career choices.

The problem is not a lack of data. The higher ed systems have their own extensive databases. But they and other gatekeepers in state government could not come to an agreement, despite more than a year of discussion, on how the data will be linked and who would control it. (Democratic Sen. Joe Simitian, one of the few champions for data, proposed a governance system in SB 1298 in 2008, but it was weakened in the Assembly.)  Forty-one other states have been able to solve this challenge.

No state has taken all 10 actions that the Data Campaign identified as necessary “to create a culture of effective data use.” But Texas, which is developing a rich data system that will inform policy makers on student progress and teachers on individual students, has taken eight actions; 12 states have taken six or seven; and 18 have taken four or five.

The Campaign was charitable in crediting California with two. I’d add asterisks.

The 10 actions are:

  • Link data systems with early learning, postsecondary education, workforce, social services, and other critical agencies so that it’s clear whether students are getting effective services, and schools are preparing students to meet college and career goals;
  • Create stable, sustained support for the data systems;
  • Develop governance structures to define the roles and responsibilities needed to guide data collection and use;
  • Build state data repositories like CALPADS;
  • Implement systems to provide timely access to information while protecting student and teacher privacy;
  • Create progress reports for educators and parents using individual student data to improve student performance;
  • Create reports using longitudinal statistics to guide systemwide improvement efforts. (Decisionmakers and educators would be armed with information about how students progressed from preschool through college.)
  • Develop a P-20/workforce research agenda with universities, researchers, and intermediary groups to explore data for useful information;
  • Promote educator professional development and credentialing to ensure educators know how to access, analyze, and use data appropriately;
  • Promote strategies to raise awareness of available data so that everyone – legislators, parents, researchers – knows how to access and use the information.

California got credit for building a statewide repository and for creating sustained support for the systems. That’s ironic on both counts. The state Department of Education charged IBM this month with doing substandard work on CALPADS and has given it two weeks to fix the problems or default on the contract. The “stable, sustained” support refers to federally funded work by the California School Information Services (CSIS) to maintain CALPADS. In October, the $7 million that Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed for CALPADS  because he was unhappy with CALPADS delays included CSIS money. Had there not been a technical error in the veto language, the CSIS staff would have been laid off. So much for sustained support.

In its second-round application for the Race to the Top competition, the state and its participating districts laid out a broad post-CALPADS vision for using student data. It envisioned creating a a “one-stop shop” online data portal by 2013, designed to ensure that “the different education datasets, education data collections, and education data reports collected by the State are listed in one central location for ease of use.” It would contain data reports; individual snapshots of schools, districts, and counties; tables presenting comparative data; and downloadable files that can be independently analyzed.

But California not only lost out on Race to the Top but also on the competition for $250 million in data system funding. President Obama is requesting money for state data systems in next year’s budget.

Even when it eventually does perform as designed, CALPADS won’t satisfy legislators’ or educators’ expectations. And California has no money, no data governance structure, no software design and no comprehensive plan to begin to meet them.


  1. It’s also not clear that CALPADS and similar very large-scale databases are even feasible.  State government and education agencies in California have seemingly all failed in their attempts to create similar databases.  The CALPADS debacle is just the latest of a long string of seemingly failed efforts, including the imploding courts database, motor vehicle database, state university’s CMS database, and others that either don’t work or aren’t comprehensive.
    Even if the state fixed CALPADS, there remain serious questions regarding whether the underlying California Standards Test data is useful or and/or subject to longitudinal analysis.  Since the CST data is not vertically scaled, and since CDE seems intent on perpetually extending the testing contract with the Educational Testing Service without any apparent plan to address the problem, California may never have data that provides a useful basis for performing longitudinal analyses.
    Why not leave it to districts to either do it on their own and/or create voluntary local or regional consortia to develop their own academic performance standards, select assessment tools, and track/report data.  The state of California has proven itself utterly inept in nearly all of these areas and doesn’t seem to be showing any prospect of improving–so perhaps its time for the state to get out of the way.

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  2. Has it occurred to those concerned, that a long term agenda has been been to get local governance and “states out of the way” so the nationalization/internationalization of education can take over the direction of lives from cradle to grave?  The ten criteria listed in the article sends chills down one’s spine.  There may be times when lovers of liberty for present and future generations can thank incompetence and/or empty state coffers to preserve a bit of time.
    When nationalization of education is accomplished by a many pronged agenda to get states and local representation to co operate or be co oerced into relinquishing any concept of “local”, every taxpayer, elected official, school board member, school administrator, teacher, and parent should see  the writing on the wall.  But the ones  in the front lines who are in store for incessant tracking, assessing, medling by the Federal government to force compliance with nationally enforced so called “standards” are most vulnerable.  Federal standards will be determined by an undefined elite partnering with global corporate interests to create 21st Century global worker bees. 

    Be not deceived, the charter school movement, parent trigger laws, etc., are part of the agenda to weaken and render moot, any authority of local and evenentually state elected reprepresentatives.  If every child is to be tracked and assessed from birth with the rationale being the necessity for data re: progress expected by Big Brother through life, it is  a no brainer whom the Feds will hold responsible for the results of tracking and assessing .  Parents and misguided champions of  the concept of charter schools, will be in for a very rude awakening when the long arm of the Federal trackers and assessors include them too. The transparent term of “No Child Left Behind” may change if/when Federal No Child Left Behind name is dropped.  But new buzz words will be found to accomplishe the nationalization of education where every stakeholder, including parents,students, teachers and administrators become little more than digital cogs  in a national/international workforce training system called “school”.

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  3. Well said, Mary and Eric.
    Eric – Technical and project-management failures aside, another risk with CALPADS is duplication. I find it hard to believe that a school secretary, charged with registering transfer students, will take the time to search for an existing CALPADS entry instead of simply creating a new one. The parents, desiring a fresh start for their child, might even try to withhold the child’s original statewide ID number and prior school records.

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