Trending toward graduation

California’s high school graduation rate is edging upwards for most groups of students. The overall graduation rate for 2010-11 was 76.3 percent, or 1.5 percent above the prior year.

Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, acknowledged that while it’s not a surge, it’s still good news.

“It’s heading in the right direction; it’s certainly not where we want it to be,” said Torlakson during a telephone conference call with journalists on Wednesday. “The thing that I think is more noteworthy is the larger gains we’re seeing among Hispanics and African American students.”

The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 2.2 percent to 70.4 percent, and rose by 2.3 percent among African American students to reach 62.9 percent. At the same time, dropout rates for those groups of students fell by 3.1 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. English learners also showed progress, with a 3.8 percent increase in their graduation rates.

Torlakson said these improvements are especially striking because they’re happening “in the face of terrible budgets, a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in schools, more crowded classrooms, a shorter school year, summer school being eliminated,” and a shortage of textbooks, computers, and science lab equipment.

He credited the change to more focused interventions for low-income students at risk of dropping out, such as AVID and the Puente Project, that give them the support, encouragement, and college prep skills to put college within their grasp.

The CALPADS difference

This is the second year that the state has calculated graduation and dropout rates using CALPADS, the longitudinal student data system that uses unique student identifiers.

One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source:  California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge
One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source: California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge

With CALPADS, state education officials can track student progress from ninth grade to twelfth grade, accounting, for the most part, for students who transfer to other public schools in the state, earn GEDs, and even those who stay in high school for a fifth year to graduate.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to compare the rates from one year to the next, and for them to be used in the federal accountability system,” said Keric Ashley, director of the data management division at the state department of education.  Starting next year, Ashley said California will have enough data to calculate graduation and dropout rates for students starting in seventh grade.

Nearly all states now use a similar system required by the federal government for reporting under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Before CALPADS, there was little consistency, and not always great accuracy, in how districts and the state computed these rates. One common approach was to take a head-count of students in ninth grade and subtract the number remaining at the end of twelfth grade.  Another method was to add up all the 17-year-olds reported to be in public and private schools and divide that by the total population of 17-year-olds.

Even CALPADS has limitations and some bugs to be worked out.  As the chart on the left shows, there are two columns for the class of 2009-10 – the first is 09-10 and the second is 09-10(A).  The “A” stands for adjusted.  Ashley explained that when CDE was reviewing the rates for the class of 2011, they noticed that some graduates had been in high school for more than four years so they were actually part of the previous year’s cohort and had to be switched.  There will be another adjustment in December, when school districts will have another opportunity to make corrections to their data.

CALPADS also doesn’t know if a student transfers to a private high school in California, switches to home schooling or leaves the state unless the original school gets documentation from the student’s family and sends it to the state department of education.  It also doesn’t track students who complete high school in different venues, such as an adult education program at a community college.

These are small gaps and won’t account for big changes in the numbers, but having more and better data can be meaningful, said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Dropping Out:  Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it.

“We’d like to know how many of our students eventually graduate and go on to college,” said Rumberger. ”As a state we’d like to know everybody who completes, however and whenever they do it.”

‘Getting Down to Facts’ revisited

The principal author and other contributors to the massive research project on California education known as Getting Down to Facts are marking the fifth anniversary of its release by examining its impact and discussing what still needs to be done.

Clearly, a lot.

“Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted,” wrote Susanna Loeb, Stanford University professor of education and coordinator of the 23 studies, in the preface to a policy update published last week by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE. The researchers and foundations that funded the projects hoped that reams of information would lead to policies “to streamline governance and to simplify and rationalize school finance,” produce smarter use of data, and more effectively develop teachers and administrators.

None of that has happened to any degree; any momentum for acting on recommendations was sidetracked by an economic downturn that walloped school budgets and by the indifference of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised expectations by creating the Committee on Education Excellence and hyping the Year of Education, and then ignoring it all.

But in a conference that PACE held on Thursday in Sacramento, Loeb also offered a dose of optimism. “Even though we haven’t come very far, we may be at a particularly promising moment,” she said, with Gov. Jerry Brown proposing significant finance reform and a “positive indication in recent polls that suggest public support for meaningful reform.” An online poll by PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education found that two-thirds of Californians agreed that the state should provide more money to poorer school districts even if it resulted in decreased spending in wealthier districts. A majority (55 percent) still favored higher spending in low-income schools even if it meant less spending in their neighborhood schools.

For those favoring significant changes to the system, that’s heartening. Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Excellence Committee were explicit in saying that K-12 under-resourced schools needed reforms and more money. In early 2008, before the recession, the state was projecting Proposition 98 increases of $5 billion over several years. Instead, since then, K-12 spending has been cut more than that.

Wtih budget cuts, state approrpriations this year are about what they were in 2004. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)
With budget cuts, state K-12 appropriations this year are about what they were in 2003-04. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)

So groups in the Education Coalition are resisting finance reform, which would reallocate money to disadvantaged students, and are wary – as is Brown – of new programs, mandates, and expenditures. As Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser for Assembly Speaker John Perez, commented at the PACE conference with a note of aggravation, “Back in 2007, we were looking at a huge windfall. Now schools have been cut billions and billions of dollars, and the conversation is, ‘You’re not going to get that money back until you do all these reforms.’”

But the researchers of Getting Down to Facts continue to argue that the state cannot sit still and wait until money owed to schools is fully restored. As Heather Rose, an associate professor of education at UC Davis, wrote in the Getting Down to Facts update regarding finance reform, “Without a stronger finance system, reaching California’s academic goals will be an uphill battle. Pouring more money into the current system is akin to pouring a concrete foundation without putting the form boards in place. It consumes substantial resources, makes a mess, and doesn’t improve the stability of your house.”

Rose and others contributed sections in the 36-page update on governance, finance, personnel, and data. Here’s a summary of their findings:


Getting Down to Facts concluded that legislative dictates, a phone-book-thick education code, and conflicting lines of authority in Sacramento inhibited sound policy-making and frustrated local districts. “California has one of the most hierarchical rule-bound school institutions in the country,” Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, told conferees.

Not much has changed, concluded Richard Welsh and Dominic Brewer of the University of Southern California. All-consuming concern over passing a state budget has “hijacked any real conversation about policy reform,” quoting an expert they interviewed. Manipulations of Proposition 98’s funding formula by the governor and Legislature have made it difficult for districts to predict revenues.

Brown did eliminate the Office of the Secretary of Education (actually moving it onto the shoulders of Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education), but there remains overlapping and competing policy authority among the State Board, the Legislature, and an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. There’s no talk of changing that.

The Legislature has backed into one of the reforms advocated in Getting Down to Facts: more local control over spending, though without giving locals more power to raise money. Districts have been given power to spend money on 40 categorical programs, worth $4 billion, as they wish. Most have used the money to backfill their basic budgets, raising questions about whether money previously earmarked for poor kids will end up being spent on them and whether worthwhile priorities – for teacher training, adult education, career and technical education – will be dismantled as a result of austerity.

Meanwhile, some districts have innovated on their own. Los Angeles Unified is experimenting with decentralized pilot schools; Twin Rivers Unified has turned over budgeting decisions to school sites, and the seven districts that came together for the state’s Race to the Top application have pursued a collaboration through the California Office to Reform Education.


Getting Down to Facts concluded that education funding is “overly complex, irrational, and fails to link resource allocations with student need or district costs.” Brown’s plan for weighted student funding addresses some of the criteria for a sound finance system: Funneling more money to disadvantaged students and eliminating most categorical funding would make education funding simpler, more transparent, and more equitable. But California would still lag behind most states in per-student spending, even if Brown’s proposed tax increase passes. And the administration, through the State Board, is just beginning to think about new ways of holding districts accountable for student achievement, beyond the current limited array of standardized tests, that would be needed once districts have flexibility to spend money as they choose.

Simpson expressed skepticism that Brown’s funding proposal could be made ready for passage by the end of June.

Teachers and Leaders

“At the state level, there have been no significant changes in teacher or leadership policies. If anything, things have gotten worse,” wrote Jennifer Imazeki, professor of economics at San Diego State. Districts have cut money for professional development, and layoffs have left staffs demoralized.

Getting Down to Facts found significant problems, among them:

  • Administrators with relatively poor training compared with other states;
  • Difficulties identifying and dismissing weak teachers;
  • Systemic flaws in teacher compensation and distribution, with little correlation between student achievement and a pay system that rewards teachers based on education and years of experience;
  • Reforms pertaining to the evaluation, inequitable assignment and retention of teachers that are inhibited by state policies.

Imazeki noted “pockets of progress,” with Los Angeles Unified, which is piloting new teacher evaluations based on multiple measures and San Francisco Unified, which passed a parcel tax to  fund more professional development, better evaluations, opportunities for master teachers and incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff schools. A reconstituted state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to which Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond was appointed, is focusing more attention on teacher training programs.

There’s been some action in the Legislature. However, provisions under the current version of AB 5, the primary bill proposing changes to teacher evaluations, would take effect only once cost-of-living adjustments owed to schools are paid back – a process that will take years.

Another approach that Imazeki proposes is for the Legislature to do no harm and get out of the way. “At a minimum, state policy should focus on removing regulatory barriers to these local efforts and encourage further experimentation,” she wrote, noting that these policy changes would not require additional money.


Both Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Committee said that the development of a statewide comprehensive data system was indispensable to guide long-term educational improvement. The state currently has no idea which programs work and why; it’s difficult for the public to hold the decision makers accountable for spending without this knowledge.

After fits, starts, and mishaps, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) is running smoothly, collecting useful data on the performance of schools and students, along with accurate dropout information and graduation rates. But there is no agreement on where to go from there. Data advocates want to link CALPADS to higher education institutions down to preschools. And they want a teacher database, CALTIDES, which would link to CALPADS and include information on teacher salaries, certification programs and student results.

But Brown vetoed the acceptance of federal money for CALTIDES, and has questioned whether any more money should be spent on statewide data systems. The focus should be on locally generated and collected data that teachers, parents, principals and districts find useful, not on data for researchers and policy analysts.

David Plank, executive director of PACE, argues in the update that the state should build a state data warehouse that would compile and link data from pre-kindergarten through higher ed institutions and create tools useful to local educators to support continuous improvement. As it is now, the state imposes programs, like class-size reduction, without any way of measuring to see if they work; meanwhile, promising practices from local districts go unrecognized and measured.

“It is unarguable that for now,” Plank wrote, “that the persistent lack of useful educational data continues to handicap all efforts to improve the performance of California schools and students.”

California stutter steps on data

California’s various education databases bring to mind that philosophical puzzle about the tree falling in a forest.  The state has the ability to link the data systems and make them robust, but since there’s no political will to do that, how useful are they?  Okay, perhaps that’s overstating the existential question, but it does keep California from even having a thoughtful conversation about the pros and cons of data sharing.

So when the Data Quality Campaign yesterday released its seventh annual report on state education databases, California received mixed marks.  The elements of a strong system are there, but they’re not  backed up by action.

Increase in states meeting all elements of a good data system. (Source:  Data Quality Campaign). Click to enlarge.
Increase in states meeting all elements of a good data system. (Source: Data Quality Campaign). Click to enlarge.

Since the organization’s first survey in 2005, California has gone from meeting just one of the 10 Essential Elements of a data system, to a full sweep.  Thirty-six states have met all the elements, which include giving each student a unique identifier and having access to students’ college readiness test scores, graduation and dropout rates, and transcript information showing each student’s classes and grades.

But when it comes to action items the state has met only four of the ten.  To put that in perspective, no states have implemented all ten actions; although more than half of them are at five or better.  Here’s where California stands:

No  – Link data systems
No  – Create stable, sustained support
Yes – Develop governance structure
Yes – Build state data repositories
No  – Implement systems to provide timely access to information
No  – Create progress reports using individual student data to improve student performance
Yes – Create reports using longitudinal statistics to guide systemwide improvement efforts
No  – Develop a P-20/workforce research agenda
No  – Promote educator professional development and credentialing
Yes – Promote strategies to raise awareness of available data

The four Ts

Before Gov. Brown’s veto last summer of CALTIDES, the statewide data system for teachers  – which required Brown to return a $6 million federal grant to help build the database – the state had also met the second action item of creating stable, sustainable support for longitudinal data.   At that time, California was on a path to developing two huge databases that could be linked.  The other one is CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, which is up and running, and recently published the state’s most accurate dropout and graduation rates.

But it’s the link between the two systems that’s the big data kahuna. The Data Quality Campaign’s report now says that California “is not moving forward in a way that allows data to impact student learning, and political implications in the state are a detriment to this.”

The state’s reluctance to pursue a more expansive data system validates the four barriers to using data described by DQC’s report: Turf, trust, technical challenges, and time.  Trust is the biggest hurdle.

Teachers unions foresaw a nefarious application of statewide data by using only student test scores to evaluate teachers, a concern that Gov. Brown shared. “Gov. Brown is very fixated that it’s all about test scores, and it’s not,” said Paige Kowalski, director of DQC’s state policy initiatives.  “It’s only about test scores to the extent that the leadership makes it that way.  As governor if he doesn’t like what it is, he can turn it into something that districts want.”

In the absence of a statewide strategy, some California districts have established their own data systems that teachers use to inform instruction.  In Sacramento City Unified

Letter from CORE to Gov. Brown on the need for a statewide data system.  (Click to enlarge)
Letter from CORE to Gov. Brown on the need for a statewide data system. (Click to enlarge)

School District, teachers meet weekly to review student work and test scores and use that information to modify lesson plans or provide more individualized instruction.

Sacramento City is a member of the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a group of seven unified districts, including Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, that are working together to build a shared data system.  But, in a letter to Gov. Brown last June, urging him not to cut funding for CALPADS and CALTIDES, the superintendents said there’s a limit to what local districts can do without a statewide foundation to support them.

“CORE does not have the capacity to build a data system that tracks students longitudinally over time throughout the state,” they wrote.  “The CALPADS infrastructure will provide a backbone for development of local data systems that can be used to promote and improve teaching and learning.”

Brad Strong, the senior director of education policy with the advocacy group Children Now, said it’s also not feasible to expect all the state’s 1,000+ school districts to have the resources and technical know-how to build their own systems.

What’s more, he said, local data systems alone couldn’t track a student who left a district to learn whether he dropped out or enrolled in another district, they couldn’t follow their graduates to see if they were prepared for college-level work, and they wouldn’t be able to analyze teacher preparation programs to determine which ones are doing the best job of developing highly qualified teachers.

“Some districts are going to have the capacity and they’re going to do fabulous work,” said Strong, adding that a statewide system is still required to give all teachers and administrators access to those top teaching tools.  “In an ideal world, how do we capture that magic and give it to all districts?”

CALPADS goes to college

California’s student data system has reached another milestone.  By linking the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, known as CALPADS, with two other data systems, state education officials tracked for the first time the number of high school graduates who enrolled in college – in and out of state.

2009 California high school graduates' enrollment in UC, CSU and community colleges.  Source California Postsecondary Education Commission. (Click to enlarge)
2009 California high school graduates' enrollment in UC, CSU and community colleges. Source: California Postsecondary Education Commission. (Click to enlarge)

They found that nearly three-quarters of the 382,514* high school graduates in the class of 2009 enrolled in a college or university.  More than 25,000 went to the University of California, some 44,000 enrolled in California State University, 109,000 went to a California community college, and the rest attended private colleges either in California or in another state.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson hailed the numbers as a step toward gaining a foothold in the new economy.  “In a knowledge-based economy, college and career training are becoming the price of admission to the job market,” said Torlakson in a statement released Thursday.  “So it’s good to see so many California graduates taking the next step on the path to success.”

CALPADS has had a shaky path since it was first approved in 2002.  Most recently, Gov. Brown sought to defund the data system over the summer, but wound up keeping the student system and eliminating the teacher data system, CALTIDES.

The college enrollment statistics were generated by matching student data from CALPADS with two other data systems: the National Student Clearinghouse and the California Postsecondary Education Commission (which has also been decommissioned by Gov. Brown).

“We’re now starting to track this stuff in a systematic way, which is a good thing,” said UC Santa Barbara Education Professor Russ Rumberger, founder of the California Dropout Research Project. “Now we have better and newer information than we’ve had before. Now we can see trends.”

Earlier this week, the Data Quality Campaign held a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress to discuss the need for using data to help students succeed in college.  “That’s the big issue; it’s not getting them in, it’s getting them out,” said Rumberger.  “That’s the whole push in our state today, to get them [high school students] better prepared.”

As we’ve noted in this space many times, college graduation rates, particularly for community colleges, are in dire need of improvement. The six-year graduation rates at

Costs and graduation rates at California state colleges and universities.  Source:  Public Policy Institute of California.  (click to enlarge)
Costs and graduation rates at California state colleges and universities. Source: Public Policy Institute of California. (click to enlarge)

the University of California and Cal State are 80.5 percent and just over 47 percent respectively.  At the state’s community colleges, even after six years, 70 percent of students planning on earning an Associate’s degree or certificate had not completed the work.

*Number from Data Quest

Brown skeptical of key ed bill

Gov. Jerry Brown has warned lawmakers that his veto pen will flow freely over the next three weeks. Among bills on the threatened list is potentially the most far-reaching K-12 education legislation before him – a bill that would significantly shift the state’s accountability system away from its concentration on standardized tests. SB 547 is also a priority of its author, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Acknowledging that the bill may be in trouble, Steinberg said Friday that Brown “has expressed some doubts” about it, while not precluding the possibility that he might sign the bill, in several discussions they have had.

Brown, too, has expressed a dislike of the reliance on standardized tests by the state and particularly the federal government with the No Child Left Behind law to measure the success of students and teachers. So one would think that he would be simpatico with Steinberg on SB 547, which would create an Education Quality Index, or EQI,  to replace the Academic Performance Index, or API, with new indices to downplay standardized tests.

Brown’s apparent objection isn’t about the bill’s cost but instead about uncertainties over a possible demand for new data. Brown has a visceral distrust of statewide data systems and use of data in general. He killed money for a statewide database on teachers – CALTIDES – and wanted to delete additional federal funding for the state’s database on students, CALPADS, though the Legislature reinserted it into the budget.

SB 547 would create new indices measuring a broader range of student achievement, such as career and college readiness, accomplishment in areas outside of core subjects, and high school graduation and dropout rates. For high schools, standardized tests would be a maximum of 40 percent of the new EQI; for middle and elementary schools, standardized tests would comprise a minimum of 40 percent of the EQI.

“This bill is consistent with his (Brown’s) philosophy of getting away from test scores,” Steinberg said.  And with Congress deadlocked over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the formal name for No Child Left Behind, California should set its own priorities and “lead by example,” Steinberg said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and an advisory committee would develop the EQI, but the State Board of Education, whose members are Brown appointees, would have to approve it. That would give Brown control over the indices, Steinberg said. Rather than veto the bill, Brown could sign it with a message signaling the changes he would want to the bill next year, he said. (He also credited Brown for spending a lot of time and thought on the bill.)

Meanwhile, Steinberg has been campaigning to raise visibility for the bill; last week, he and Torlakson held a press conference in Los Angeles with Torlakson, U.C. Regent George Kieffer, and representatives from business and civil rights groups, the state PTA, and early childhood education advocates to call on Brown to sign it.

The bill has substantial support from diverse groups (see list at the end of Steinberg’s fact sheet), representing business and manufacturing, career technical education, gifted students, charter schools, school administrators, and school boards. The California Teachers Association hasn’t taken a position on SB 547; the California Association of School Counselors and the California Business Educators Association are backing it. Steinberg is hoping other groups will speak up between now and Oct. 9, the last day for Brown to sign or veto bills.

John can be reached at

New dropout rates may be accurate but tell you little and could get worse

State-level school graduation and dropout statistics have always been squishy, and the most recent numbers, from California’s Department of Education, are not immune to some of the familiar problems.

While far more accurate and reliable than anything we’ve had before, they can’t capture all the uncertainties of student mobility or cut through all the fog of educational definitions. Nor do they tell anything about the quality of the education those students have gotten, another area where there’s lots of numbers and even more fog. And of course, they say nothing directly about the shabby support their schools have been getting from the state or the voters; they only reflect it dimly and indirectly.

The latest numbers, from CALPADS, the new California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, are similar to what we’ve had before: Roughly 74 percent of students who started ninth grade in 2006 graduated four years later, in 2010; 18 percent dropped out. The balance – some 8 percent – is said to include students who are still in school, non-degree special-ed students and those who passed their GED, the General Educational Development tests.  Girls graduated at a higher rate than boys.

And of course, there’s no telling how many more of those listed as dropouts will get their GED or some other form of education or training, either here or elsewhere, that may never be recorded by the state’s data system.

Nonetheless, a lot of people are cheering that the new system is working. For years CALPADS, which is based on individual student identifiers and thus can track students from school to school, was beset by both technical problems and political resistance from two governors. That it’s now up and running is itself an achievement.

As was predictable, the new numbers show the familiar ethnic gaps. Blacks and Latinos graduate at significantly lower rates and drop out in greater proportions than non-Hispanic whites and Asians, who have the best numbers of any ethnic groups – 89 percent of Asians graduated with their class; only 8 percent dropped out. For whites, the comparable numbers are 83 percent and 12 percent.

Some 59 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Latinos graduated within four years; among blacks 30 percent dropped out, and among Latinos it’s 23 percent. If English learners aren’t counted, the Latino graduation rate rises to 75 percent. But none of it is anything to cheer about – except maybe next year in hindsight, when we get the 2011 numbers, which may well be worse.

What may be most notable in these numbers, however, and certainly most significant, is that just one third of the graduates are non-Hispanic whites; Latinos make up over 41 percent, Asians another 10 percent. This is our economic future and the real challenge to our education system.

The remarks of state school superintendent Tom Torlakson were as predictable as the numbers. “Sadly,” said he in his department’s handout, “the graduation rates of these subgroups of students are too low and their dropout rates are too high.” He’s right, of course, but other than issuing pronouncements, there’s not much he can do.

On the other side of the fence, you can probably expect the voucher crowd, the charter school boosters and the other privatizers to seize on the numbers to show how the system isn’t serving what used to be called minorities, or maybe anybody.  The fact that, according to the state, some 17,000 eighth grade students (of some 470,000) , roughly 3.6 percent, dropped out in 2008-9 before they even got to ninth grade, doesn’t make the picture any brighter.

But the dropout numbers are tricky; while other states now have individual student tracking systems similar to CALPADS and thus should pick up interstate transfers, there’s often no way to track immigrant students who’ve moved back to their home countries.

In the past four years, a million illegal aliens have left the country, some because of tougher immigration law enforcement, some because of the recession. Unless their new schools – Mexican or Salvadoran or Honduran – ask for their American school records, no data system records what’s happened to the children they’ve taken back with them.

CALPADS also reports a 56 percent graduation rate for students classified as English learners, which on its face sounds impossible. How can someone classified as an English learner complete high school? The answer, according to state officials, is that an English learner is anyone who at some time in her high school career was so listed. Which is to say that the apparently low percentage may in fact reflect a great success.

But more probably, the numbers really tell very little. If the English learners who didn’t graduate only arrived in this country a year or two earlier, you wouldn’t expect them to graduate – would be shocked if many of them did.

The Department of Education warns that because both the graduation and dropout numbers were computed differently from any in the past, no comparisons with prior years can be made. They will, however, be useful for future comparisons.

Yet given California’s rapidly declining school funding – the curtailed school calendar in many districts, the bigger classes, the shrinking number of counselors and reading specialists – and the voters’ apparent indifference in the face of it, and given the shrinking opportunities in the state’s higher education system, we may soon look back on this year’s numbers, poor as they are, with longing.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, in which this column also appeared, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.


Brown’s mystifying CALTIDES veto

Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of $2.1 million for the development a statewide database on teachers – CALTIDES – apparently ticked off U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pleased the California Teachers Assn., and puzzled just about everyone else in education, who are left wondering, “Just what does Jerry want?”

Did he worry about the possibility of another state computer fiasco, as CALPADS, the statewide student database, was in its development? Or does he think that the emphasis on data in general is a waste of time? Is he OK with collecting data on teachers, student test results included, on a local level but not at a state level, where researchers and the Legislature can meddle with the data? Did he think that federal education officials would let him use the $2 million he vetoed and $4 million more in a federal grant for CALTIDES for another purpose? (The feds said no and are demanding full repayment.)

Soon, Brown will have to give an inkling of his thinking. The seven school districts that nearly snagged a federal second-round Race to the Top grant on behalf of California are anxious to pursue the next round. The competition will be limited to nine second-round semifinalists, so the districts, operating under the umbrella organization California Office to Reform Education, or CORE would appear to have the inside track to grab $50 million of the $200 million Duncan has set aside. With few dollars anywhere for doing anything innovative, the CORE districts covet the federal dollars to help continue their work implementing the Common Core standards and creating new ways to recruit, train, and evaluate teachers and administrators.

The rules for the next round are expected out in the next several weeks, but two requirements are likely: Brown, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst will all have to sign off on the CORE application, and the feds will require some use of standardized test data for evaluations.

Impact on Race to the Top

The state’s retreat from CALTIDES by itself may not prevent the districts from moving forward on their own, but it could complicate CORE’s effort.

A teacher database, assigning teachers anonymous identifiers, could be quite useful for analyzing which teacher credentialing programs are effective, where teachers are being assigned outside of their specialties, and which teachers are showing good and bad results, based on training, curricula, and other factors.

But teachers already have been assigned unique identifiers, and it would be possible to expand CALPADS to incorporate many functions of CALTIDES, including linking teachers to student test data, according to Keric Ashley, director of the state Department of Education’s data management division. “Teachers and students have ID numbers. We know which courses teachers are teaching. We can connect teachers to student achievement data, though we are not doing that now. That is a policy question.” **

On this question, CTA has an answer: no. I’ve been hearing from several sources that CTA has been lobbying Torlakson, if not Brown, not to let CORE’s Race to the Top application move forward. CTA President Dean Vogel denied this in an email to me, calling my claim “bad information,” but I remain confident in what I’m hearing.

The seven CORE districts – Sanger, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Francisco, Clovis, Fresno, and Long Beach, all influential unified districts encompassing 1 million children – want to use teachers’ standardized test results primarily to help improve instruction. But CTA nonetheless would see that as the foot in the door for tying teachers statewide to test results.And United Teachers Los Angeles is fighting the district’s pilot test of an evaluation system in which standardized tests could count 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. (The final evaluation system has to be negotiated.)

Brown is counting on CTA’s deep pockets next November to put a revenue initiative on the ballot. CORE districts are worried that election politics may trump clear benefits of the $50 million grant and the principle of local control.

In his veto message, Brown said he was cutting the money for CALTIDES to save “the development of a costly technology program that is not critical.” Brown also wants a commission to answer the bigger questions about student and teacher data, including concerns over privacy: What’s necessary to collect and for whom is the data important?

Brown has yet to appoint members of the commission.

** Ashley and other state officials are disputing an Education Week story that indicated that Brown’s veto of CALTIDES jeopardized the state’s commitment in accepting $6 billion in federal stimulus dollars and that the state may be asked to repay all of the money. Ashley said that the state complied with the requirement to assign unique identifiers to teachers, with the capability of linking student test data to teachers. At this point, he said, the federal government is not requiring the actual linkage, just the ability to do it. Duncan has said that future grants and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind would require using the data.

New way of counting dropouts

There’s not much new in the latest graduation and drop-out rates released yesterday by the California Department of Education (CDE), except for the way they were computed.

For the first time since the student data system, known as CALPADS, went online, California has been able to track each student who entered ninth grade in the 2006-07 school year throughout high school using individual identifiers assigned to each child on the first day of kindergarten.

Nearly three-quarters of the class of 2010 graduated – 74.4 percent to be precise – and 18.2 percent dropped out.  (We’ll get to the missing 7.4 percent shortly).

According to the CDE, the graduation rate is about four points higher than the 2009-10 academic year, but the Department also cautions not to make comparisons because of the change in calculations.

This year also marks a first for including dropout rates for middle school students, and state officials don’t like what they see. Nearly 4,200 students dropped out during eighth grade and another 13,067 left school after graduating from middle school. These are 14- and 15-year-olds. A 2007 law requires districts to incorporate those numbers into the 2011 base API to be released next spring.

“Our research shows that chronic absence from school even as early as kindergarten is a strong indicator of whether a child will drop out of school later,” said State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “Clearly we need to invest more in programs designed to keep elementary and middle school students in school.”

Little movement on closing the gap

The numbers are also bleak for Hispanic and African American students. More than 30 percent of African American students dropped out of high school and 59 percent graduated. There was an increase in the graduation rate for Hispanics, with about 4,700 more graduates last year than the year before, but the total is still just 67.7 percent. Compare that with Asians, 89.4 percent, and white students, 83.4 percent, and the gap is significant.

Some individual districts, however, are models of success for raising graduation rates. In Long Beach Unified School District, the third

Graduation and drop-out rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District. (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.
Graduation and dropout rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.

largest district in the state, nearly 75 percent of Hispanic students graduated last year, along with more than 73 percent of African American students. The dropout rate for African Americans there is about 40 percent below the state average.

The district has been a leader in using test data to provide differentiated instruction to students, has strong career technical programs integrated into academics, and will open a credit recovery high school next year to try to keep students who need just a few more credits from giving up.

“We know we can do more and we have a number of plans,” said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.  “So we’re not complacent about these results, as encouraging as they are for Long Beach.”

Missing information could be more interesting

No one may have been waiting for this new data more than U.C. Santa Barbara Education Professor Russell Rumberger, who founded the California Dropout Research Project.

“I would characterize this as a good first step in better information about graduates and dropouts, but there are still some additional questions we’d like to get answered,” said Rumberger.

He’s particularly interested in knowing how many students were excluded from the statistics and why. Districts can remove students who fall into one of ten categories, including transferring to a private school, moving out of state or out of the country, dying, enrolling in an adult education program, and being home schooled. These students aren’t included as dropouts or graduates; they’re pulled from the cohort.

Some alternative programs also aren’t included. GEDs are listed separately in the state data, as are special education students who earn a certificate of completion.

With all the high school alternatives today, Rumberger said it would be helpful to know how many of the excluded students went into one of those programs and earned a diploma. Conversely, he wants to know how many students included in the data transferred into a California public school after the initial ninth grade cohort was identified.

The answers that Rumberger is seeking are available in CALPADS, but weren’t released. Karl Scheff, administrator of the educational demographics office, said he didn’t think anyone wanted that information.

Scheff says he also is not sure if the CDE will add a fifth and sixth year to the cohort to follow up on students who needed more than four years to graduate. Those 34,086 students make up most of that 7.4 percent difference between graduation and dropout rates.

To Rumberger, who has focused so much of his research on getting to the root causes of the dropout crisis in order to inform public policy, those details are essential.

“We don’t want to underestimate graduation even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional system.”

Hurdles for NCLB state waiver

With congressional Democrats and Republicans looking like they’re headed for more gridlock, this time on education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan confirmed Monday that the Obama administration would permit states to seek waivers from the tightening screws of the No Child Left Behind law.

California could certainly benefit from waivers and would prefer its own accountability system as an alternative to the feds’. But it also could have a hard time persuading the feds to grant it a waiver.

The details of the waiver requirements won’t be published until next month; Paul Hefner, spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, said the state would wait to see them before deciding whether to apply for a wavier.

But Duncan and others have indicated that states would have to commit to conditions for reform similar to those required of states seeking money from Race to the Top: using a statewide data system to inform decisions; creating teacher evaluation systems based on multiple criteria, including student test results; taking actions to turn around the lowest performing schools; and adopting career and college readiness standards. California at this point might flunk the first three of the four measures.

The statewide student data system, CALPADS, remains behind schedule and more limited in scope than other states’ systems. Gov. Jerry Brown mystified Duncan by rejecting $2 million in federal money to build a teacher database, CALTIDES, which would have provided insights into teacher training programs and teacher placements.

A bill on teacher evaluations, AB 5, amended to appease the California Teachers Association, may go nowhere this year – and could be interpreted to prohibit using standardized tests to judge teachers’ performance. And the state Department of Education was chastised this spring by the feds for their inadequate monitoring of the lowest performing schools that received more than $133 million last year in federal School Improvement Grant money.

Furthermore, years ago officials in the Bush administration for technical reasons rejected California’s request for a waiver to implement a different accountability model, using growth in API scores.  California has made no efforts to design a new assessment system to accommodate the feds’ objections. Put all these factors together, and California would face tough odds in persuading the feds to grant a waiver.

Exceeding his authority under the law?

Duncan’s critics charge him with using waivers to swap the Administration’s concept of education reform for NCLB’s requirements, superseding the intent of Congress. That would appear to be the case. But Duncan is also responding to states’ call for relief from NCLB’s chief provision: the unrealistic demand that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014 – with stiff penalties for schools that fail to comply.

Duncan has predicted that 82 percent of schools across America would fail to make NCLB’s targets this year. I and others have doubted that estimate; even in California, with very high academic standards among states, only about half of schools will fail to meet targets because of a “safe harbor provision” that lets many schools improve at a slower rate.

Nonetheless, states resent the 100 percent proficiency requirement, and there has been bipartisan resolve to modify  or abolish the provision when No Child Left Behind – or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as it’s formally known – is reauthorized. Duncan said he could be criticized for tone deafness” if he ignored states’ pleas.

But reauthorization is already years late, and now it’s appearing unlikely that a new version will be passed before the November 2012 elections. That’s why U.S.  Rep. George Miller, the veteran East Bay congressman who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, now supports Duncan on waivers, reversing a position he had a few months ago. Then, he agreed with his Republican counterpart, Committee Chairman John Kline of Minnesota, that waivers would distract the Committee from its goal of reauthorization this year. Since then, Kline and Republicans pushed through the Committee a bill that would give states flexibility to spend Title I funds as they want. For Democrats and civil rights groups, that violated a 50-year commitment to improve education for poor children and English learners and was a clear signal that reauthorization was in trouble.

The Title I bill was “a partisan reality check,” Miller said. “I share the Secretary’s concern that the push for legislation is in some peril.”

Miller is hoping that Duncan does not take a rigid approach to the waivers. He wants Duncan to permit alternatives to turning around the lowest performing schools to only the four models allowed under Race to the Top. And he doesn’t favor  the federal government setting the percentage that student test results must comprise a teacher’s evaluation.

In general, Miller supports the Duncan’s conditions for waivers, and he said is disturbed by Brown’s position on data use. “California continues to get itself twisted in knots over data. The politics in the state does not want to encourage a modern, effective data system.”

Brown vetoes teacher database

In a compromise with the Legislature, Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed money for one of two education databases he wanted to eliminate.

Cutting about $2.5 million in federal funds for CALTIDES, a statewide data system that would have compiled information on teacher training, placement, and effectiveness, was among $24 million in cuts that the governor made while signing the state budget on Thursday. Vetoing the money for CALTIDES, the California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System, avoids “the development of a costly technology program that is not critical,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

At the same time, he didn’t cut the $3 million for CALPADS, the statewide student database that he had dropped from his May budget revision and that the Legislature had then restored.

CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, is more important of the two; although it’s been intensely criticized for delays, poor management and implementation, and technical problems, it’s within months of completion, and has been compiling individual student data on enrollment, course completion, attendance, grades, test results and graduation for three years. Eliminating it now would have created headaches for districts, which still would have had to collect some of the data, and denied the state potentially valuable information on what works in the classroom and which students are not being served well – and why.

CALTIDES is not yet off the ground. It would be designed to provide insights into the value of teacher preparation and training programs, teacher placements and effectiveness. It could, for example, provide information on the distribution of highly effective teachers in high-poverty schools. Its primary purpose would be to provide research to guide policies, although teachers have been wary of how it could be used to evaluate individual teachers.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said that Brown has not decided whether to scrap CALTIDES or delay it. Meanwhile, the governor’s office will continue to explore how postsecondary and early childhood data can be integrated with CALPADS, he said.