Here’s to the data system that works

California can’t get a computer system right. Its K-12 longitudinal data system has been a disaster. Post-secondary institutions are squabbling; a P-20 data system, from preschool to post-college, remains a concept.

You’re heard that before; I’ve written it myself.

But that’s not the complete story. Under the radar, Cal-PASS, not to be confused with CALPADS, is working as designed. By sharing data among school districts, community colleges, and universities and bringing instructors of all levels together, it’s changing classroom practices and, to an extent, policies.

Run on “budget dust,” as a state finance official calls its budget, it’s attracting smart money – about $4 million from foundations (Hewlett, Irvine, Stuart, Gates, Lumina, Walter S. Johnson) – and is expanding. Next week, it will announce the formal creation of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, a nonprofit at the University of San Diego that will oversee the work of Cal-PASS. Brad Phillips, the Cal-PASS executive director, will head the Institute.

Cal-PASS, the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, is doing what many mistakenly assumed CALPADS – the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System – would do: providing data that classroom educators and administrators up and down public education systems can use to answer questions and solve problems. Problems like the duplication of career technical course content in a high school and a local community college, resulting in inefficiency and wasted student effort. Or, in a case  Cal-PASS cites  on its website, the dilemma over why students at a San Diego high school who had passed Algebra had so much trouble with chemistry. The solution was a summer course stressing applied learning, making the connections between algebraic equations and  chemistry formulas. (My colleague, Kathy Baron, recently wrote about a landmark research effort linking Cal-PASS records and the California Child Welfare Database to learn more about the school results of the state’s 62,000 foster care children.)

Cal-PASS has been collecting data for more than a decade and now has 340 million records from 25 million students, including California standardized test results, high school exit exams, and courses students take. Most K-12 districts are part of the system (the largest districts participate), as are all of the state’s community colleges and most of its CSU and UC campuses. The key to its success – and its limitation from a statewide policy  perspective – is that it’s a voluntary collaboration. Institutions sign MOUs determining with whom and how they’ll share data, and it’s regionally focused. About a thousand educators get together monthly  on their own time in 60 regional “professional learning councils” to identify very specific issues to work on.

The encrypted data are accessible to users but not to the public. Teachers can track cohorts of students – how many Hispanics with B’s in 10th grade English in Los Angeles needed remediation in community college – but not individual students.

What makes Cal-PASS user friendly — and is drawing attention from data leaders in other states — are the  internet tools, developed for community colleges and now shared with K-12 teachers, that permit complex searches. That’s why Cal-Pass’ decentralized approach can achieve a lot with a staff  of 20.

By contrast, CALPADS is a one-way street in which districts are mandated to feed records daily to the state.  It was designed as an accountability system for the feds (four-year data on dropout rates are due this summer), not as a local school improvement system for teachers, and it collects far more data, such as attendance records, than Cal-PASS requires of its members. The individual student identifier numbers assigned to every child, enabling the state to track children, the grades they got and teachers who taught them, also raise complex privacy and policy questions.

The ideal statewide data system would combine the capacity and capability of both Cal-PASS and CALPADS. Cal-PASS’s Phillips said that officials from both have begun to discuss how CALPADS data might be made available to Cal-PASS in the future. There’s no point in duplication of collection, he said.

What he didn’t say was that the same higher ed institutions that appear stymied over joint governance of a P-20 data system  are already sharing data, albeit with restrictions, through Cal-PASS.  There is something  to be learned from their experience.

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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