Is CALPADS unfixable? No answer yet

State education officials expressed deep disappointment last week on learning that California was out of the running for money to expand the statewide student data system.

They haven’t heard yet why the state placed 26th out of 50th in a grant competition that funded only the top 20 states. But they shouldn’t be surprised if the feds’ answer is, “Are you kidding? Why would you expect taxpayers to enlarge a data system when  you have yet to get it to work right?”

Nearly one year into its operation, CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, is still struggling. Five months after a consultant warned of an imminent system collapse and urged a top-to-bottom review, the student data system is still being fixed. It will take at least a month before it becomes clear whether the processes work, and the system can perform as designed. Still to be determined is whether management problems – a big factor behind the poor operation ­– have been straightened out.

Meanwhile, the collection of key data elements – courses students are taking, their grades, credits, and their teachers, as well as information on attendance and English learners – has been pushed back a year. Only enrollment and dropout data will have to be uploaded by summer’s end.

The Department of Finance and the Schwarzenegger administration have grown frustrated with the delays, to the point of giving an ultimatum of sorts to the Department of Education, which oversees  CALPADS and a related data base for teachers, CALTIDES. A one-paragraph reference in Schwarzenegger’s revised budget in May, called “Contingency Proposal for Longitudinal Data Systems,” warns that if the system can’t reliably receive and transfer data by the end of the year, the administration will “seek to contract these projects out to a consortium of local school districts” and higher education institutions to meet federal reporting requirements.

It’s not clear what that means, but Keric Ashley, director of the Department of Education’s Division of Data Management, is confident it won’t come down to that. CALPADS is in the middle of a two-month test of  a software release that includes 200 repairs to stabilize the system.  Ashley said that IBM, the system vendor, has assigned additional  employees, at its expense, and the department has added oversight personnel. This was partly in response to the consultant’s conclusion in January that IBM had assigned its B team, under-experienced and understaffed, to the project, and that the Education Department’s poor monitoring and the “distinct lack of technical leadership and engineering resources” compounded the problems.

In an interim report on May 20, the same consultant, Sabot Technologies of Folsom, found some encouraging signs.  Complaints and service calls were down; there had been no major outages and slow-downs in operation; there had been no system-threatening defects since March. However, Sabot also said that notable governance and operations issues remain unresolved, and the system hadn’t been up and running long enough, or under high-capacity use, to declare success.

A statewide data system that tracks students from preschool through college is the linchpin for school improvement. For more than a decade, every important study on school reform has highlighted the need for it to help determine what programs and practices work best, which teacher training programs produce the best teachers, which forms of spending are the most effective. Other states, such as Florida, are years ahead of California. In scoring Race to the Top applications, the Obama administration made data system a top priority (It’s one of the areas in which California was docked points.). In the latest round of federal funding, which California lost, the Department of Education allocated $245 million.  California had sought $20 million to expand the K-12 data base to include higher education institutions and the workplace.

CALPADS would be the nation’s largest student data system. But it’s been beset by problems since going on line last August. Districts found the system would freeze, especially during peak times, when they tried to upload data. They complained about slowness.

Execution, not architecture, to blame

In its January report, Sabot concluded the architecture of the system, built on top of the California School Information Services system, was sound. But the execution and management were seriously flawed.

So far, 173 districts, out of nearly 1,000, have successfully uploaded the  first phase of data, on enrollments and student dropouts. One of these, San Jose Unified, reported that  CALPADS has already proven useful. By tracking where students go once they leave the district, San Jose Unified will be able to lower its dropout rate this year.

For years, there’s been a running argument between budget hawks at the Department of Finance and CALPADS advocates and the Department of Education over whether the state has invested enough in the creation of CALPADS and CALTIDES. Finance cites the $155 million, including $41 million for CALPADS and CALTIDES, that the state has spent on education data systems since 1997. Every year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell calls for more investment in CALPADS and money to train district personnel how to use it. This year’s version, AB 2265, sponsored by Assemblywoman Mary Salas of Chula Vista, would appropriate $32 million to local districts for training.

The Sabot report recommended adding state personnel to monitor CALPADS, and the Department of Education requested three more technical positions. But Finance fought this on the grounds that the Education Department has  yet to show it has competent managers in place. For now, the department has shifted personnel from other duties to work on the project.

The next critical date to judge CALPADS operation will be in July, when the last of this round of fixes to CALPADS is installed.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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