New dropout rate in question

The state Department of Education reported a sizable uptick in the dropout rate this week, leading to speculation that school budget cuts, the high school exit exam, or – choose your speculation – was to blame. But there was enough noise in the data to call into question the validity of the increase, let alone the cause behind it. And Russell Rumberger, an education professor at UC Santa Barbara and the state’s foremost authority on the dropout rate, says he doesn’t get too excited about one-year fluctuations anyway.

Already disturbingly high, especially for minorities, the latest four-year adjusted high school dropout rate, for 2008-09, is 21.7 percent, a full 2.8 percentage points above the 18.9 percent in 2007-08. The rate for Hispanics and African Americans also rose proportionally, to 26.9 percent and 36.9 percent respectively.

This is the third year that districts have used individual student identifier numbers, an integral part of the state’s longitudinal data system, to more accurately track where students go when they leave school. No longer willing to accept assumptions that students have transferred to other districts or to take relatives’ word on what students are up to, the state required districts to verify whether students  enrolled in adult education or a continuation school – or else the default assumption was that they dropped out.

This change, which held districts and schools accountable for the data, led to a bump in the dropout rate two years ago, from 16.8 percent to 21.1 percent.

But this year was the first year that districts reported the data through CALPADS, the troubled database system that gave district personnel fits. Because of software problems, the state delayed the CALPADS deployment date by nearly a year when districts had to upload the data for 2008-09 needed to determine the dropout rate.  According to Keric Ashley, director of the Department of Education’s Data Management Division, about a quarter of the state’s districts then missed the initial deadline for submitting the data. They then had a week – instead of months – to correct the dropout report that the state sent back to them. That left districts like San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest district, no time to track down 1,300 “lost transfers” that the state had classified as dropouts.

San Diego’s dropout rate rose from 9.2 percent to 23.5 percent. The Contra Costa Times reported that the state assigned a 99 percent dropout rate to Dublin Unified; clearly something was screwy. There may have been enough instances like these to account for the variation from last year, Ashley acknowledged.

Next year’s dropout rate, for 2009-10,  will be the one to watch – and should be out in May, assuming CALPADS is back up and running. It will use methodology required by the federal government, tracking four years of a cohort of students through their student identifiers. And it will also significantly change how the rates are calculated.

Under the current system, the state bases enrollment on a specific date in October. That tends to inflate the dropout rate, according to Rumberger, because it misses students who come in and out of school throughout the year. The new cumulative rate will pick up students who enroll at continuation schools, community day schools for at risk students, juvenile halls and county programs throughout the year and should significantly lower the dropout rates in these institutions (see a brief that Rumberger wrote on this earlier this year).

Meanwhile, some district officials are scratching their heads over the latest numbers. Last week, I wrote about Stockton’s nationally acclaimed effort to dramatically cut its 4-year dropout rate from 54 percent to 17.7 percent in 2007-08, less than the state average. Well, the dropout rate shot up again to 34.8 percent in 2008-09, according to the state.

Districts officials insist that the latest report is inaccurate, and told the Stockton Daily Record they would retrace students whom the state labeled as dropouts. They assumed the rate went up some, but not nearly that much.

Another warning on CALPADS

The outside consultant that earlier this year called for immediate, major repairs to CALPADS is now warning of a new threat to the student longitudinal data system: Gov. Schwarzenegger’s line-item veto of nearly $7 million in operating money for the system.

In a seven-page report, Folsom-based Sabot Technologies concluded, “The vetoed funding places all CALPADS expenditures to date at risk by fundamentally risking the success of the system.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who commissioned the study and found it much to his liking, released it Monday as part of his lobbying to persuade the incoming Legislature and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown to quickly restore the money for CALPADS, and allow the Department of Education to continue managing the project.

“Unless funding is restored quickly for CALPADS, millions of dollars invested in California’s longitudinal education data system will have been wasted,” O’Connell said in a press release.

Schwarzenegger’s veto requires money supporting the system to end on Dec. 6, which coincides with the first day that the Legislature reconvenes. However, funding for the California School Information Services (CSIS), which provides critical help for local districts on CALPADS, is projected to run out sooner.

Others have called for the Legislature to quickly restore money. Sabot goes further, painting a worst-case scenario. A cut in operating money will lead to an unraveling of progress and “will very likely cause instability of the system and failure of the entire CALPADS project, thereby wasting years of work and millions of dollars,” it said.

Once completed, CALPADS will provide data on dropout and graduation rates, attendance, and information on individual students’ courses and performance that the federal government requires or researchers will find useful. California has fallen behind other states in data collection and analysis.

Schwarzenegger expressed frustration with delays and problems with the Department’s management of the contract with IBM, the system’s builder. He has called on the Legislature to replace the Department of Education as the manager of the project. He’s not alone in criticizing the Department’s handling of the project. One possibility: Transfer oversight responsibilities to the Office of Chief Information Officer Teri Takai and to CSIS, which eventually will be handed the job of keeping the system going anyway.

But Sabot emphatically defends the Department of Education in its turf war, saying: “A transition of the CALPADS project to another outside state agency is highly problematic and will likely be paramount to setting that agency up for failure.”

The report concludes: “Short of reinstating the vetoed funding, Sabot recommends canceling the CALPADS system altogether. … It would be more economical to stop the program in its entirety than to transition the project to a new agency and absorb the transition costs and accept a severely increased risk of failure under a new sponsorship.”

There’s no disagreement that the money must be restored soon. The question is when and under what conditions.

Call to restore CALPADS money

Speaking no doubt for many of his peers, the data administrator overseeing compliance with CALPADS for Long Beach Unified is urging the Legislature to quickly restore money that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed for the besieged statewide student data system. The failure to do so will lead to the shutdown later this month of the state agency that supports and trains local districts in uploading critical data that the federal government demands, John Novak, the Long Beach administrator, wrote in a letter he circulated last week among legislators. Long Beach is the state’s third largest school district and recognized as a leader in using data.

A month ago, Schwarzenegger deleted from the state budget nearly $7 million in operating money, effective Dec. 6, for the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, which IBM is building under a contract with the state Department of Education. The governor expressed frustration with delays and errors, which have put the system a year behind schedule, and he called on the upcoming Legislature to consider a different manager of the system.

But Novak argues that “the undeserved target” of the veto is the California School Information Services, a small agency that runs the help desk for CALPADS and trains district personnel on using the system. Novak asserts – and others have confirmed – that CSIS will actually run out of money in mid-November, three weeks before the Dec. 6 date cited in the governor’s veto. Joel Montero, CEO of the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which run CSIS, confirmed that as many as 40 CSIS employees may have to be given layoff notices within the next month.

“The Governor’s veto has generated a tremendous amount of angst, anxiety, and anger among those of us at the LEA level … as we consider the not-at-all-attractive prospect of moving into an uncertain new realm without our most trusted and reliable support system,” Novak wrote, referring to CSIS.

Novak acknowledged that bad decisions by IBM and the Department of Education and a failure to communicate with districts the first year “conspired to bring the system to its knees.” But, backing up the claims of the Department of Education, Novak said that things have turned around. “Plainly speaking, the CALPADS system is working,” he wrote, adding that he expects the critical next phase of uploading CALPADS data, known as Fall 2, will go smoothly.

But Dec. 6, when the veto takes effect, also coincides with the start of the reporting period for Fall 2, leaving districts without anyone from the state to consult with about reporting problems.

One way or another, the state must report dropout, graduation, and other data to the federal government by next September. A months-long stoppage in feeding data to CALPADS could create a mess, forcing already-stretched-thin local district employees to work around the system.

Novak’s letter adds urgency to the Legislature to take a two-pronged approach: to quickly restore money for CSIS and core CALPADS operating dollars and then separately and deliberately to create new oversight for IBM and CALPADS, in the process settling unresolved governance questions regarding access and control of the system.

Districts show the way in using data

In Sacramento, the partially completed statewide student data system, CALPADS, has become mired in a power struggle over the management and oversight of the system.

But in Fresno, Long Beach, and San Jose, districts aren’t waiting around for the state to finish a colossus. They and a few well-run charter organizations have built their own data systems that are doing what CALPADS, as currently designed, won’t provide: fast and ready information to guide teachers’ decisions in the classroom and administrators’ judgments in working with teachers.

These systems are models for other districts, and they should steer the Legislature and governor as they consider what’s next for CALPADS (assuming it doesn’t implode). That was a message at a conference Tuesday in Mountain View, “From Inputs to Outputs: The Power of Data and Technology to Close the Achievement Gap.”  The event was sponsored by the advocacy group Education-Trust West and the Silver Giving Foundation, Children Now, and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.

“The impediments are not financial but governance. Powers in Sacramento are not familiar with data work in Fresno and Aspire (a charter management organization)  and how far they have come,” Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Ed-Trust West said. “Innovation is reflected in districts in California but not in Sacramento.”

Innovative districts are showing powerful potential. San Jose Unified is building an early warning system to identify high-risk students and then respond with interventions.  Fresno Unified is working with Microsoft to create an intricate employee information system that will systematically guide recruitment, identify effective teachers and potential leaders, and, tied to student results, inform teacher development. Long Beach Unified’s web-based LROIX system has cemented a district-wide culture of attention to data. Teachers have rich profiles of their students linked to past test results, quarterly benchmark assessments, personal information, data on discipline and attendance – all accessible and easy to read and use.  Principals can measure teachers’ impact on individual students and classes over the course of a year.

Teachers are familiar with the system and how to read the results, so their conversations turn on good practices, a Long Beach principal said.

“Blow up CALPADS, and build this system for the state,” quipped Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson.

Small districts like Sanger can’t afford to build a system like LROIX or hire a vendor to do it, and it makes no sense for 1,000 districts to do so on their own.

Texas appears to have an answer, as much as California might hate to admit it.

It has had a centralized data system like CALPADS for years, but the Texas Student Data System, when completed in 2014, will provide individual student narratives in templates that teachers are finding readable and useful. It will be Long  Beach writ large, for 4.7 million students in 1,235 districts. One key component, the District Connections Database, will be a platform, on which districts can add their own software and improvements. The Texas-based Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been a big funder and influence.

CALPADS isn’t designed as an open, interactive system. It’s partly compliance-based – to provide state data to the federal government to satisfy requirements of No Child Left Behind and Title I – and it will be a data warehouse, from which researchers and policy makers can better decide which programs work and which don’t.

“If you’re struggling to persuade Californians to spend more money on schools, then you must persuade them that their  dollars get results. Without a real data system, you cannot make the case,” State Sen. Joe Simitian, who’s been instrumental in creating CALPADS, told educators at the conference.

The goal should be improving learning in the classroom. “It’s not a binary choice”  between a state system and individual districts’ systems, he said. The challenge is how to create multiple uses.

Governor cuts CALPADS money

Gov. Schwarzenegger has become increasingly critical of delays and persistent problems with the new statewide student data system that’s supposed to provide a wealth of vital information and policy guidance on student achievement.

Friday night he put his pen behind his words with a line-item veto, stripping $6.45 million for CALPADS (the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System) in the state Department of Education’s budget, while challenging the Legislature to transfer control of CALPADS from the Department to somewhere else in government.

“Enough is enough,” the governor said in a press release in which he partly blamed CALPADS’ poor performance on the state’s failure to win a Race to the Top grant and cited a lack of accountability in managing the system.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell immediately lashed back, calling Schwarzenegger’s line-item veto “shortsighted, ill-informed, and hypocritical,” claiming that the system is now working while chastising Schwarzenegger for vetoing a $5 per pupil expenditure to help local districts pay for training and uploading CALPADS.

Over the weekend, state superintendent candidate Larry Aceves indicated he’d make CALPADS an issue in his race to succeed O’Connell. “I don’t usually agree with the funding cuts that Governor Schwarzenegger has made to education, but I applaud his actions in vetoing CALPADS funding,” Aceves said.

The immediate impact of Schwarzenegger’s line-item veto will be to withhold further payments to IBM, which has yet to be paid for about half of its $13 million contract to set up CALPADS. On Friday, before Schwarzenegger acted, Keric Ashley, director of the Department of Education’s Data Management Division and the point person for CALPADS, told me that the Department had already decided not to pay IBM until the system was running right. The line-item veto will guarantee that doesn’t happen and turn the decision over to the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger has also made sure that Ashley and the Department don’t turn around and prematurely give IBM the contract for CALTIDES (the California Longitudinal Teacher Information Data Education System), the database with information about teachers that will be tied in to CALPADS. Schwarzenegger deleted $3.5 million in federal money budgeted for CALTIDES, again requiring an act of the Legislature to revive it.

There’s no denying that CALPADS has been a mess and remains behind schedule. O’Connell himself prevented a meltdown in February by postponing uploading of data while ordering a shakedown of the system. A scathing consultant’s report, which I wrote about here, criticized the performance of IBM’s team, the Department’s management, software defects, and premature release of untested updates. A May reexamination found improvements but unresolved management and oversight issues. Ashley said that the final report verified that the system was stable.

The question is how much of it is finally fixed. In his press release, O’Connell overstated the status of the system. “Despite some initial operational challenges, the system is working and important student-level information is being collected in California,” he wrote.

Only to a narrow extent is that true. CALPADS is a data collection system that  will enable the state to better calculate dropout and graduation rates and track students through the use of individual student identifier numbers: the courses they take, teachers they have, and grades they get.

Starting last year, districts were supposed to upload data in four batches. But the state put off requiring three of the four reports after big problems surfaced. (The districts still reported the data, but not through CALPADS.)

Last year’s Fall I report – enrollment data – is now due, and 90 percent of the districts have uploaded it. They’re now beginning to upload this year’s Fall I data. IBM and the state are just now beta testing the Fall II report, consisting of data on students’ courses. The date for districts to begin sending in data has been pushed back a month, to December. The spring and end-of-the-year reports, now a year behind schedule, remain question marks.

Problems erode districts’ confidence

Problems with CALPADS coincide with severe budget cuts. Many districts have laid off or reassigned data personnel in their central offices. And those who remain, already overloaded with work, were exasperated last year by CALPADS’ malfunctions, forcing repeated uploading of data on the districts’ dime.

CALPADS must regain credibility, because confidence among districts is very low, said Marc Liebman, who, as superintendent of Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, has been following the developments carefully. And, while a believer in CALPADS’ importance and potential, Liebman acknowledged that its usefulness to classroom teachers and even to districts has been oversold.

CALPADS wasn’t designed as a data warehouse, in which districts could get access to information. Researchers and the state will be mining the data and issuing findings, but it will be a one-way street. Even it CALPADS had been up and running perfectly, the state still would have lost points on its Race to the Top application because of functionality.

Schwarzenegger and O’Connell also disagreed on the cost, most of it covered by the federal government. Schwarzenegger cited $150 million, but that includes the costs of other data systems dating back to 1997. O’Connell cited $23 million. The governor’s May revised budget put the cost of CALPADS alone at $34 million.

Green-tech academies vetoed

“Green jobs”  in conservation and alternative energy will require workers exposed to careers in those fields and trained in emerging technologies. But a  bill  to create  97  green high school career-tech academies was killed last night by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The academies under SB 675 would have been financed  by diverting $8 million from a small ($.00022 per kilowatt) surcharge on electricity. In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said the bill would set a “dangerous precedent” in funding programs outside of the Proposition 98 guarantee for K-12 schools. He also said that siphoning money from the Energy Resource Programs Account would force the California Energy Commission to increase the surcharge paid by all electricity users and drain money from its purpose: funding  energy-efficiency programs and  licensing renewable energy facilities.

There are currently 475 partnership academies, which are 3-year programs that offer hands-on training in a career area, work internships, and academic courses and supports, such as tutoring. But state funding for many  academies is due to expire within a year, with no money  for creating new ones. SB 675, sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would have established academies in the fields of energy and water conservation, renewable energy, and pollution reduction.

Other education bills had their fates decided last night:

SB 1357, which would require that the state collect data on chronic absenteeism and truancy through the state student data system, known as CALPADS, and create an early warning system for districts of students deemed at risk of dropping out. In signing it, Schwarzenegger took a swipe at the Department of Education, expressing “serious concerns about the frustrating delays that schools, teachers, and parents have had to endure”  because of poor oversight of CALPADS by state education officials. He called on the Department and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to consult with State Chief Information Officer Teri Takai to get the system right.

Implementing the bill is contingent on finding federal funding.

AB 2446, which would have allowed students to substitute a career education course for a year-long course in either foreign language or the arts as a graduation requirement. The bill was supported by industry and manufacturing groups but strongly opposed by language and arts teachers, who expressed anger at dropping courses that develop creativity and prepare students for a diverse world. Scharzenegger vetoed the bill, but not for those reasons. He said he feared the bill would add costs to school districts and possibly create a state mandate to fund additional career education academies.

The bill would not have affected districts that require students to pass all of the A-G courses needed for admission to a four-year state university. Students still would have to take the required foreign language and arts classes. But for other districts, the potential loss of arts and foreign language classes could have limited some students’ access to A-G classes.

Bill would create green academies

Two noteworthy education bills I haven’t written about are sitting on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk. Both had substantial support in the Legislature, and, by all rights, deserve his signature. But with this governor, you never know.

SB 675 would create 97 “green” partnership academies in the areas of clean technology and renewable energy. It would pay for them by tapping  $8 million from an existing, small ($.00022 per kilowatt) surcharge on the price of electricity. Building a skilled workforce and spurring careers in alternative energy and resource conservation are a novel, appropriate use of the fund and will help California keep an edge as a national leader in green technology.

There currently are 475 partnership academies in the state. The three-year programs often are located within comprehensive high schools and offer hands-on training in a career area, work internships, and academic courses and supports, such as tutoring. Academy themes include computer design and graphics, architecture and building construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.

As with all partnership academies, the new green academies would target at-risk students. Program graduates could go on to a four-year college or, depending on the focus of the academy, might go to work as a solar panel installer or an energy auditor for a utility or continue with further job training at a community college or in an apprenticeship program.

There are challenges ahead. Only about half of the partnership academies have permanent state funding. Money for the others will expire in the next year or two, forcing districts and industry partners to come up with the difference at a tough time. SB 675 would guarantee $1,000 per student per year or the 97 new academies only for the next five years.

Because green partnership academies are so new, some districts may have trouble finding instructors from industry to teach technical courses, or find current career technical teachers who have updated their training.

But California should push forward just the same. And if the green academies are showing results in 2016, then the funding from the energy surcharge should be made permanent.

Early warning system for at-risk kids

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is the sponsor of both SB 675 and the other important bill, SB 1357. It would incorporate chronic absenteeism and truancy into the state student data system, known as CALPADS. It would establish an early warning system of students at risk of dropping out, and require the Department of Education to alert districts about who the students are. All of this would be contingent on the state’s obtaining federal funding.

The state reports would be particularly useful for tracking at-risk students who change districts. What’s surprising is that this information wasn’t part of the system from the start.

CALPADS’ operation has been troubled from when it went online in 2009, and it’s a year or more behind in collecting some data. So it’s probably wishful thinking to assume the state will be issuing the alerts any time soon.

In deference to districts that are already frustrated in dealing with CALPADS, the bill doesn’t mandate that districts upload absentee information to the state. The truancy and absenteeism reports will be useful only for districts that voluntarily supply the information.

Nonetheless, data on absences should be part of any statewide data system. The governor would be unwise to veto the bill.

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.

Continue reading “Is CALPADS unfixable? No answer yet”

CALPADS accepting data

School districts can continue to upload data to CALPADS, the beleaguered student longitudinal data system.

That’s the word from the Department of Education, which says CALPADS will continue to accept information during the next two months, when the system is being overhauled and fixed.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell took the unusual step earlier this month of calling in a technical team to find defects in the system that have caused outages, errors and slowness in the system since CALPADS started up in October. As I reported on Friday, a consultant warned of system failure unless comprehensive fixes were made.

Districts have been uploading enrollment and dropout information, known as Fall 1 data. Recognizing that districts have faced headaches with CALPADS, O’Connell has extended the submission deadline indefinitely at this point. And he has said districts should not upload other types of information required under the Fall 2 and  Spring 1 submissions via CALPADS this year.

Consultant: shut down CALPADS now

CALPADS, the new comprehensive student data system on which huge hopes for school and student improvement are riding, is hobbled by serious problems.

Acting on a consultant’s report bluntly critical of state managers and of IBM, the system vendor, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has shut CALPADS down for two months and ordered all efforts focused on fixing it. The hiatus will put data collection from the state’s 1,000 districts months, if not a year, behind schedule. (See correction: CALPADS is continuing to accept some data — dropouts, enrollments — while system is being overhauled.)

O’Connell had little choice but to act quickly. After studying the system for a month, Sabot Technologies of Folsom predicted a  “high probability of system failure should the project continue on the current path”  as a result of  “anomalies, errors and defects throughout” the system.

Continue reading “Consultant: shut down CALPADS now”