Tom Torlakson’s blueprint

Create a Commission on Educator Excellence to jump-start policies on teacher and principal development; increase the adoption of digital materials; incorporate phys ed  into a school’s API score.

These are among dozens of recommendations in Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s “Blueprint for Great Schools,” a 25-page report released on Tuesday. Seven months in the making, it’s the product of his massive transition team, 59 advisers consisting of  parents, business leaders, teachers, academicians, and school administrators.

Sweeping in its scope, the report makes a number of reasonable suggestions without hard edges – a reflection of Torlakson’s consensus style, temperament, and interests: teacher training, career-technical education, and early childhood education.

In California’s fractured division of K-12 responsibilities, Torlakson doesn’t set policy; the State Board does. But his priorities also match up well with those of Gov. Jerry Brown, State Board President Michael Kirst, who chaired Torlakson’s school finance subcommittee, and key Democratic legislators, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in particular. And, from all appearances, Torlakson and the State Board are making great efforts to work together. So there’s a chance that some of the report’s proposals – especially those not requiring substantial new money – may gain traction. The report also has the weight of the transition team’s two co-chairs, Stanford University School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Revive languishing programs for teachers

Budget cuts, combined with flexible spending, have shrunk teacher and administrator development and training programs. California has cut or malnourished model programs – like BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment), Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) – for mentoring underperforming teachers, as well as School Leadership Academies. There is little collaboration time left for teachers.

The Commission on Educator Excellence will focus on reviving some of these programs. Darling-Hammond, who chaired the educator quality subcommittee and has agreed to serve on the State Commission on Teacher Credentialing, champions another idea which the report says could “dramatically strengthen educator preparation”:  enforcing the new performance assessments that all beginning teachers must take and using the results to measure the quality of teacher preparation programs.

An effective teacher and administrator evaluation system would be the glue binding these programs together. The report does recommend the creation of one without venturing into the hot-button details, other than to say the new system should incorporate “appropriate evidence of student learning.”

Integrating career technical education or “linked learning” into high school while better aligning K-12 courses with college and career expectations is a focus of the report. It urges removing the constraints that  A-G – the courses required for admission to a CSU or UC school – and standardized tests have imposed in discouraging students to take, and schools to offer, courses in engineering, biotechnology, and technology. They are electives, not sciences, under A-G.

It also recommends removing barriers preventing high school students from taking community college courses and – listen up, Jerry Brown – urges linking CALPADS, the K-12 student database, with higher education and workforce databases to track students’ records of success.

Other recommendations include:

  • Building on a process started by Gov. Schwarzenegger, speed up the instructional materials adoption process to allow more digital materials and create incentives to provide inexpensive Internet and computing devices to all students. “It may be structured as a  public-private investment as long as the benefits are provided for all kids,” Darling-Hammond told me;
  • Revise the high school exit exam to make it more relevant to preparing for college and career goals;
  • Protect First Five State Commission and county commissions’ funding to preserve vital services for children up to age five;
  • Develop a web of support for children, maternal education, and home visits to infants;
  • Increase access to high-quality summer learning programs, especially all-day programs that blend recreation and academic support;
  • Support legislation allowing passage of a parcel tax by a 55 percent majority vote;
  • Create incentives for district consolidation to save money;
  • Use emerging technologies for more efficient operations and improvements in instruction; revise regulations on minimum instruction time to capture efficiency.

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.

Grad rates trending up – or down

If California’s graduation and dropout rates were a pair of jeans, they’d have an “irregular” sticker on them. Sure, social science research has a reputation for squishy results, but it’s still a bit jarring when a renowned researcher describes certain data as “bogus.” Although he said it with an ironic laugh, that was the first word that popped into Russell Rumberger’s mind when I asked him about the California high school graduation rates in “Diplomas Count,” an annual report from Education Week.

Rumberger is an education professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, where he founded the California Dropout Research Project and has been conducting research on school dropouts for 25 years. His new book on the subject, Dropping out: Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it, is due out later this year.

A sharp dip followed by a sharper rise

Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)
Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)

The statistics in question are in the California supplement of the report (available for purchase from EdWeek here), showing changes in graduation rates between 1998 and 2008. For much of the time they’re fairly stable, from a few tenths of a point to a little over one percent from year to year. Over the course of the decade, California’s graduation rate increased from 67.5 percent to 73 percent, staying close to the national average. But in between there’s a dramatic shakeup and recovery.

It started in 2005, when the state’s graduation rate was 70.1 percent. Within two years, by 2007, it had fallen to 62.7 percent, the sharpest decline in the ten-year period. A year later, in 2008, it surged back up by more than ten points to 73 percent. “Pretty wild,” said Rumberger. “The bottom line is all these numbers are estimates, and estimates have errors.”

California runs its own numbers, and they’re quite different. Actually, California runs two sets of numbers,

Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)
Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)

but more on that in a moment. The official statistics that the state sends to the U.S. Department of Education, for No Child Left Behind reporting, show a downward trend between 1998 and 2008, falling from a high of 87 percent to about 80 percent. But even at their lowest point, those graduation rates are still higher across the board than EdWeek’s figures.

And just to complicate it a little more, that second set of numbers that California prepares has graduation rates heading up after a 2006 downturn, but coming in lower than EdWeek. So we have three sets of calculations, all using data from the same source, obtaining different results and different trends.

It’s all in the formula

It’s no better nationally. Rumberger recently served on a committee of the National Research Council and National Academy of Education that examined the various measurements that states use to determine their graduation and dropout rates. The committee found “widespread disagreement” about the best measurements and their uses. Looking at the year 2005, the committee found three different school completion rates published by the U.S. Department of Education, Editorial Projects in Education (a project of EdWeek), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Some researchers suspect the problem is with the way the rates are calculated and not with the numbers used to make those calculations.

In its final report, the panel found most formulas to be flawed and occasionally skewed by politics. “At a time when policy makers are vitally interested in tracking the incidence of dropping out of school, they are faced with choosing among substantially discrepant estimates that would lead them to different conclusions regarding both the size of the drop out problem and how it has changed in recent years,” they wrote.

The most common calculations are aggregate counts, the cumulative promotion index (CPI), and cohorts. Aggregate is the simplest and bluntest, comparing the number of graduates to the number of ninth graders four years earlier. The CPI is based on how many students progress from grade 9 to 10, 10 to 11, 11 to 12, and then ultimately graduate. Karl Scheff, with the California Department of Education, says CPI is better than aggregate but still doesn’t get at what happens to individual students. That’s the true cohort measure and it’s the brass ring of data.

Calling on CALPADS

California has been collecting this data for five years, ever since assigning individual student identifiers as part of the CALPADS student data system.  Up until now, even though districts have been sending in student-level data, the state has still been aggregating it.  “We just added them up and plugged them into the traditional calculation,” said Scheff.  This year should be the first time they have a full cohort of students from grade 9 through graduation, but now funding for CALPADS is up in the air.

Gov. Brown proposed cutting the budget for CALPADS in his May revise.  Both the Assembly and Senate have restored the money but Scheff says it’s not clear whether the Governor will veto it.  With CALPADS, state officials will have a robust data source that can track students who move out of

"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)
"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)

state, transfer to a private school, or spend a fifth year in high school in order to provide a much more precise look at graduation and dropout rates.

Until then, we’ll have to sort through two, three or four reports each with its own interpretation of the data.  Rumberger tries to be as precise as possible when giving presentations.  “I’ll show the two state rates,” he said, “and what I tell people is the actual rate is somewhere in the middle.”

Additional Resources:

A More Accurate Measure of California’s Dropout Rate, June 2010, California Dropout Research Project.

Independent Evaluation of the California High School Exit Examination: 2010 Evaluation Report, Volume 1, Oct. 2010, Human Resources Research Organization

Public School Graduates and Dropouts From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2008-2009, National Center for Education Statistics

At odds over CALPADS funding

Gov. Jerry Brown has said he would oppose attempts of legislators to put back money for programs he wants cut from the state budget. Funding for two statewide educational databases could become a test of his resolve.

Last week, education finance subcommittees of both the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees restored money for both CALPADS and CALTIDES. Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is an outspoken advocate for the data systems, which have had support in the Assembly as well, so there’s a good chance the appropriation will be in the  budget the Legislature sends to the governor.

At issue is not a lot of money – about $3.5 million, all of it federal dollars and a fraction of the $10 billion shortfall in the state budget. But it’s become a point of contention with a governor who wants to pare back standardized testing and who questions the value of data in general. Brown proposed cutting funding for both systems in his May revised budget.

CALTIDES, the California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System, which would provide insights into teacher preparation programs and effectiveness, is in the conceptual stage. But CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, is about a year from completion, which is why Brown’s move surprised even those who have criticized technical and management problems that have delayed the system.

“We acknowledge that CALPADS implementation has been difficult, and the scope too narrow. Delays, technical challenges, and the massive undertaking at the local level needed to collect, maintain, and report data in new ways has been a constant source of frustration, but now is not the time to eliminate CALPADS and CALTIDES,” said the Information Alliance for Education, representing 13 education advocacy groups in a June 2 letter to Brown. The Legislative Analyst’s Office also recommended approval of the funding.

CALPADS, which collects transcript information, attendance numbers, dropout data, and standardized test results of every student in the state for research and federal reporting purposes, was not designed to provide districts and teachers with readily useful information to guide instruction. But, through individual student identification numbers, it will track students as they progress through school and keep their records intact if they change districts. It should be able to identify at-risk students and offer the Legislature insights into which academic programs and supports are working and why.

The case for/against CALPADS

For all of the shortcomings in its implementation, the data system CALPADS has always had plenty of supporters. Gov. Jerry Brown is clearly not among them. He’s proposing to kill funding for it and CALTIDES, a related database yet to be built. I’ve asked five longtime backers to argue why both systems should be saved, and an opponent – a teacher who shares Brown’s skepticism toward standardized tests and statewide databases – to make the case for defunding them. Brown has called for stripping funding for the two systems as part of an overall look at how data can best be used at the local level and whether the state is putting too much energy and attention on standardized tests.

CALPADS (California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System), which came online last fall and is scheduled to be completed next year, collects data on student achievement, enrollment, teacher assignment, and other statewide student information like dropout and graduation rates. CALTIDES (California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System) would become the central repository for information on the state’s teacher workforce.

Arun Ramanathan: Kids no longer forgotten

Having kids has forced me to look at the world differently. Back in my twenties, I worked with adults with mental illness and addictions, and with very troubled adolescents. I looked at them and saw people who had made adult choices.

Now that I have kids, I look at people who have “fallen down” and see them as the children they used to be. I imagine the paths they’ve taken and think about the unnecessary sorrows they’ve lived through. Twenty, even 10  years ago, a child could “fall down” academically or in school attendance, and one person might know and be able to help. Today, we are lucky to be able to collect the kind of data that allows us to identify and help the kids who have fallen down and pick them up with targeted supports and interventions.

The problem in California is that this work only happens in isolation in forward-thinking districts and charter schools scattered around the state. As a result, millions of our children fall through the cracks and end up in places like our justice system. With a statewide data system that tracked these students and eventually linked into other government data systems, it wouldn’t have to be this way. We could focus on treating symptoms instead of the resulting diseases.

That’s the promise of CALPADs and CALTIDES. They are the statewide foundation upon which we can build a better future for our children, especially the millions of California’s youth who are low income, highly mobile, or stuck in places such as our foster youth system. Fully funding these systems is an adult decision that we ask our leaders to make on behalf of California’s children.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization.

Joe Simitian: For well-informed choices

Both CALPADS and CALTIDES were created to serve two primary purposes: 1) Report required testing and accountability data to the state and federal governments; and 2) Provide state and local policy makers with accurate longitudinal data in order to meaningfully evaluate education policy and investments.

Longitudinal data, the ability to link data from year to year for each individual student and teacher, is important.  It allows educators and policy makers to see changes over time for individual students, groups of students, or teachers.

In the past, school districts would submit aggregate reports summarizing certain student and teacher statistics for a particular point in time. These aggregate reports provide useful ‘snapshot’ data, but the data from one year’s report often can’t accurately be compared to the data from another year, because each snapshot is of a different cohort. For example, under the current system, when the state compares the achievement of English language learners from one year to the next, it can’t accurately distinguish progress because aggregate data doesn’t distinguish between the old and new sets of students.

Longitudinal data will enable policy makers to compare the achievement from year to year, and more accurately evaluate which programs improve student performance and which ones don’t. Similarly, longitudinal data could also be helpful in evaluating the outcomes of teacher credential programs, or the effectiveness of certain professional development activities.

Policy makers don’t yet have the information needed to make smart, well-informed choices for schools and kids. Taking an extended time-out on funding for CALPADS and CALTIDES won’t help solve the state’s budget problem. The $3.5 million targeted for elimination is one-time federal funding.

It has been a long, slow haul, but California has made significant progress with CALPADS and CALTIDES over the past few years. Now is not the time to stall out or forfeit our gains. If anything, the difficult decisions that the budget crisis presents can only underscore the value of meaningful data to the policy and decision-making processes, and to millions of California students.

State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is the author SB 1614, which authorized the creation of CALTIDES; SB 1298, which established a process for schools and universities to report data using existing unique statewide student identifiers; and SB 885 (currently pending) to take the next step toward establishing a statewide education data system.

Margaret Gaston: Critical data on our teaching force

In 2001, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and SRI International compiled and distributed data showing that over 42,000 members of California’s teaching workforce lacked even the minimum requirements to teach, and that vastly disproportionate numbers of those underprepared teachers were assigned to low-performing schools serving economically disadvantaged children of color. That information, which documented a severe shortage of fully prepared teachers and pervasive inequities among schools, garnered headlines and drove policy changes to strengthen California’s teacher development system. The revelation of this stark data also challenged the common practice of assigning the least prepared and novice teachers to schools where students arguably need accomplished veteran teachers the most.

Today, policymakers and educators would not have access to that same data. Last year’s veto of funding for the CALPADS system by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger badly damaged California’s ability to collect and analyze data about the status of teaching and student learning. And now, with the further loss of funding for the CALPADS and CALTIDES data systems, the gap in the availability of reliable information upon which sound policy decisions can be made would be even wider.

We support Gov. Brown’s proposal to reform the state’s data collection systems, making them less bureaucratic and more helpful to school- and district- level decision-making. But we would argue for using what has been developed and paid for thus far as a base for further improvement.

CALPADS is also designed to collect and house critical data on the teacher workforce. That information is essential to developing an adequate pool of teachers with the training, knowledge, and skill necessary to ensure all students are able to reach the high academic goals Californians have set for them. It also reveals the subject matter areas – like math and science – and assignments where teachers are needed most. In times of tight budgets, this data is even more important: Legislators, policymakers, and educators must have the current and accurate information necessary to help them target and leverage limited resources in ways that make every nickel count. Without CALPADS and CALTIDES, California is once again flying blind in its quest to strengthen public education.

Margaret Gaston is president of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Rick Miller: Statewide data does matter

Before transitioning to CALPADS and a statewide student identifier system, if a school reported that a student transferred in-state, there was no way to verify the information. But several years ago, after years of infighting, California finally established a unique identifier system and now tracks students between schools and districts. Now, when this data is published, if a district reports that a student transferred to another school and the student doesn’t show up, the student is classified as a dropout on the originating district’s watch. As a result, schools throughout California have tracked down and re-enrolled many of these students. Real-life students have returned to further their education. Statewide data matters

CALPADS is also designed to provide critical information about students: Do they need special education? What courses have they taken? Have they taken the CELDT? With a statewide data system, all of this information can follow the student, saving time and avoiding unnecessary retesting. When the data in CALPADS is linked to CALTIDES, California will be able to measure effectiveness of teacher preparation programs and other educator workforce trends. Ideally, California will eventually have a statewide data system that allows us to track programs across the state so we can judge effectiveness and better broker expertise.

These are all common-sense uses of a statewide data system that the governor’s shortsighted budget proposal puts in jeopardy, without saving one cent for the state, as the system is 100 percent federally funded. If we consign the collection and use of student-level data to districts and schools, we abandon the ability to learn from each other and leverage successful approaches throughout the state. We need information to know what is working well and what is a waste of time and money. In this era of scarcity, using a high-quality data system to inform and foster a continuous learning cycle  – and using federal dollars to do it — just makes sense.

Rick Miller is a principal at Capitol Impact, an education policy advisory firm.

Ted Lempert: Save, fix, and expand it

Gov. Brown is right in asking questions about how CALPADS will support education in California, but wrong in taking an action that will waste millions and undermine progress made thus far.

Ninety-nine percent of districts are successfully using CALPADS to report enrollment. Eliminating funding for the data systems now is the technological equivalent of repealing class-size reduction on the second day of school. Eliminating this funding would create unnecessary turmoil for districts, which would need to retool in the next few months in order to comply with basic federal reporting requirements. It would further undermine basic data functions that CALPADS will fulfill, including:

  • Providing the minimal system needed to effectively manage over $50 billion in educational programs.
  • Efficiently monitoring student mobility, dropout, and records transfer when students move between districts.
  • Ensuring compliance with assurances that California gave when securing $4.9 billion in federal stimulus money.

CALPADS provides efficient uses of data, including automated matches to certify 1.4 million students as eligible for free school meals without further application; it ensures the timely transfer of student records, eliminating delays while identifying at-risk students; it eliminates redundant assessments for English learners as well as those with special needs; and it consolidates several major data collections into one.

Advocates agree that simply meeting No Child Left Behind reporting requirements will never provide the most meaningful benefits that CALPADS can provide. Largely because the original scope of CALPADS has been restricted since its inception, it does not currently provide more robust data linkages, warehousing, dashboards, and reporting needed to fully support state and local needs.

However, CALPADS has finally provided California with the technological equivalent of an advanced operating system; it can readily support more robust data functions when the governor is ready.

Ted Lempert is president of the advocacy group Children Now.

Anthony Cody: Put more faith in teachers, not data systems

We do not need CALPADS. We already have far too much money, time, and energy spent on student performance on tests. The emphasis on these tests has led to a profound distortion of instruction, consuming huge amounts of learning time and vast resources. The bottom line is that these tests are blunt instruments compared to the fine work of a dedicated and intelligent teacher, working in collaboration with peers. The limited information from these tests does not grow in usefulness simply because it is developed in ever finer and more sophisticated detail. Rather, this lends a false air of mathematical certainty to decisions that are much better made by the human beings in direct contact with students.

If not CALPADS, then what?

We have placed far too much faith in data systems, and far too little in the capacity of our teachers and students in responding to the learning challenges they face. California is a huge and diverse state. We can tap the creative potential of our teachers best when we actively engage them in designing curricula and assessments that correspond to the interests and needs of their students. There is so much phony rhetoric about how important and precious teachers are. It is time to give teachers real responsibility – not just for preparing students for tests, but for the complex challenge of life in the 21st century.

An 18-year veteran teacher, Anthony Cody coaches science teachers in Oakland Unified. His blog, Living in Dialogue, is published by Education Week.

CALPADS put on ice

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to suspend funding for CALPADS, the state student longitudinal data system, and to stop further planning for CALTIDES, the teacher data base that was to be joined at the hip with CALPADS. That big piece of education news was tucked away in May Revision of the state budget that Brown presented on Monday.

Like his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brown has been critical of CALPADS, which is a year behind schedule. Consultants hired by the Department of Education have sharply criticized state oversight of the system and its builder, IBM. But unlike Schwarzenegger, who believed in CALPADS’ mission, Brown is skeptical of the value of  collecting extensive data on schools and individual students’ achievement and of standardized testing itself. He wants to use the hiatus, he says in a summary of the proposed education budget (page 7), by “carefully reforming testing and accountability requirements to achieve genuine accountability and maximum local autonomy.”

Brown says his administration (presumably through the State Board of Education) will involve parents, scholars, teachers and administrators to develop policies that will reduce the time devoted to standardized testing, eliminate data collecting that’s not useful to local schools, and “restore power to school administrators, teachers and parents” (whatever that means).

Brown’s ambivalence, which he expressed to the State Board during an impromptu visit in January, comes at a time when the State Board must decide how to renew the contract for the California Standardized Tests and whether to join either or both consortiums of  states designing new assessments for the Common Core standards in English language arts and math.

The suspension of work on CALPADS and CALTIDES will eliminate nine jobs funded by about $3.5 million in federal money. CALPADS was established as a way of collecting accountability data required by the federal government. That job will be done by another data system, the California Basic Educational Data System, that existed before CALPADS.

Many advocates of reform had high hopes for the research that CALPADS would provide. Oakland-based Education Trust-West said it was “deeply concerned” about the suspension of funding for the system.

“Without an education data system, it is impossible to make informed decisions on behalf of students as we spend scarce education resources,” the organization said in a statement.  “A step away from CALPADS is a step away from the increased transparency and accountability that is vital to ongoing community support for our public schools.”

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.

One more stab at P-20 data structure

Call him Senator Sisyphus. With two years before he’s termed out, Sen. Joe Simitian keeps pushing against inertia and bureaucratic resistance to create an effective education database that can track students from preschool to the workplace.

Other states without Silicon Valley savvy have already done so. California committed to establish such a system when it agreed to accept nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus money two years ago. The failure to make progress may have cost the state a chance for Race to the Top money last year.

The problem is unrelated to troubles with CALPADS, the K-12 data system that’s a year behind schedule. The immediate issue is governance: getting all of the disparate parts of California education – the Department of Education, which oversees K-12; CSU; UC; the chancellor’s office of the community college system; the Commission on Teacher Credentialing; and the California Postsecondary Education Commission – to share the data that they’ve already compiled.

Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, has sponsored bills that have moved the process along: one authorizing a database on teachers, which will track education, training, and classroom success; another clearing the way for researchers to do their work. Two years ago, he proposed a governance structure for a P-20 (preschool to workplace) database, but it was changed to a working group, led by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. It didn’t manage to get too far. As Simitian puts it, One of challenges is everyone wants to be in charge but no one wants to be accountable.”

But the working group’s report did recommend creating a joint powers authority, with representatives from the education system, the governor’s office, and the Legislature, that would establish procedures and regulate data sharing. It would hire its own staff and operate independently – and thus potentially override turf wars.

Simitian’s SB 885 would create such a joint powers authority.

There is already precedence for cooperation in the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS), in which some K-12 and higher ed institutions have been sharing data for research for more than a decade. But Cal-PASS, while useful, is voluntary.

Simitian says a data system is essential, in asking for additional money for education, to assure taxpayers that dollars are well spent. “We need to make informed choices,” he said, to answer questions like, Did our Head Start investment pay off in college enrollment? Did community college programs lead to employment? Should a school district invest new dollars in teacher training or smaller classes?

There’s no money now for linking the approximately 150 databases that would comprise the P-20 system or for training the people to run it. But creating the governance agreements would put the state in a better position to apply for federal money and move ahead when there are dollars. The state lost out in competition for $250 million in federal data grants two years ago.

The first hearing on SB 885 will be April 27.

Data milestone for foster care

Researchers have linked two California databases in a rare undertaking that holds promise for helping the state’s 62,000 foster youth. The cross-pollination, announced earlier this month at the California Foster Youth Education Summit, connects California’s Child Welfare Database with Cal-PASS, the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success.

Cal-PASS partnered with UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research on the pilot project, which matched students in foster care with those not in the foster system by grade, disability, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Researchers say the initial goal was just to see if it’s possible to connect the databases. Once they succeeded at that, they ran some numbers on educational outcomes for foster youth.

“It’s our hope that policy makers will use this to help inform policy development; they seem really hungry for this information,” said Lauren Davis Sosenko, associate director for special projects at Cal-PASS. Although participation in Cal-PASS is voluntary, it has sizable support: Every community college and 75 percent of school districts and public universities supply data. For this first attempt at linking, however, they studied just four counties: Fresno, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Diego.

Unexpected Outcomes

Despite the size of the sample, Sosenko said they were able to draw three major implications:

  • Foster youth not only scored lower than the general student population on the California Standards Test (CST), they also did worse when matched for key risk factors that hinder school success, such as disabilities, poverty, and certain ethnicities. In eighth grade math, just 19 percent of foster youth reached proficiency compared with 22 percent of similar students not in foster care and 34 percent of all students tested. This disparity held for all years of high school in English and for grades 9 and 11 in math.
  • Resources can make a world of difference. This may seem obvious on the surface, but the actual numbers are overwhelming. Foster youth in California’s community colleges who received financial aid were 136 percent more likely to remain in school than those who didn’t get money. So, you’d think they’d all be gobbling up the assistance, but that’s not the case. Many weren’t aware that the aid existed, and teachers and counselors, dismissing them as unlikely candidates for college, failed to provide the information. In a finding Sosenko called “criminal,” of the 5,492 foster youth in community college surveyed, only 16 percent received financial aid.  
  • Certain groups of foster youth are more academically vulnerable. Again, it’s the numbers more than the fact of the disparity that makes this so alarming. Disabled foster youth are 75 to 85 percent less likely to achieve proficiency on the California Standards Test than non-disabled foster youth.

Their findings weren’t exactly shocking news. Numerous studies have already shown what’s not working. But by connecting the dots, educators will be able to more accurately target services to specific groups of foster youth at different stages of their education, such as when to start talking about college, and to understand their unique challenges, such as how the number of times a child is moved from home to home affects their success in school.

“I worked with a kiddo yesterday who’s been in 21 schools and he’s 14; it’s hard to put together his educational history,” explained Michelle Lustig, coordinator for foster youth and homeless education in the San Diego County Office of Education.

The county office has had its own copyrighted data-sharing system in place for nearly five years (“September 19, 2006,” as Lustig precisely remembers), known as FYSIS, the Foster Youth Student Information System. Each of the 42 local school districts uploads academic data, which is matched electronically on a daily basis with information from juvenile court, probation, and the Child Welfare System/Case Management System.

The Challenge of Privacy

Access is carefully controlled only to those departments that are legally entitled to it, such as juvenile courts, which are required to monitor the academic process of students in foster care. Judges can pull up a student’s record and see in real time if the child has a lot of absences or is failing classes.

Privacy is a critical issue. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) contains strict regulations on who may see a student’s education records. But it’s also interpreted differently by different jurisdictions. The San Diego County Office of Education reads FERPA to say that information can be exchanged to comply with a judicial order or subpoena for health and safety, and for child welfare. However, that excludes data on discipline records like suspensions and expulsions.

FERPA proved more challenging for the Cal-PASS and Child Welfare System project. To make sure the project fell within the law, each student received a unique code that was not linked to either database; those codes were then encrypted before being sent to the researchers. But it proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, no one’s privacy was compromised; on the other hand, there’s no way to check back in a few years to see how the students are faring. That limitation won’t change in the next phase of the project, when Cal-PASS and UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Service Research expand to a statewide and longitudinal study.

Complement Not Compete With CALPADS

The promise of these data systems comes as problems continue with the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, the statewide student database known as CALPADS, which is way behind schedule. But neither Sosenko nor Lustig sees it as a competition. CALPADS will have a more robust data set, said Sosenko, because it’s a state-mandated system, and will collect more information from kindergarten through middle school, while Cal-PASS focuses more on the transition from high school to college. Moreover, CALPADS will provide a big-picture look at how foster youth are doing in school, while local systems like San Diego’s can pinpoint which individual students need help.

“I think there’s always been a tension in California around state-level data vs. local data, and at times that feels like it’s been put at odds,” said Lustig. “I don’t think it’s either/or; we need to see across the board how these students are doing rather than just how is Johnny doing, so I think both are great and needed and I hope that it happens.”


Did you know?

  • There are 62,000 foster children and youth in California
  • Three-quarters of foster youth work below grade level in school
  • Nearly 50% drop out of high school
  • One in four foster youth earn a GED instead of a high school diploma
  • More than a third of foster youth who “age out” of the system do not complete a GED or earn a high school diploma
  • Of the 4,000 foster youth who age out of care, 20% will attend college, but only 5% will graduate

Within the first 2 to 4 years after emancipation from foster care:
51% are unemployed
40% are on public assistance
25% become homeless
20% are incarcerated
Source: Child Welfare Dynamic Report System
American Bar Association, Center on Children and the Law
California Alliance of Child and Family Services
California College Pathways Program
California Foster Youth Education Task Force
Child Welfare System/Case Management System
County Welfare Directors Assn. of California Children’s Services
Fostering Media Connections
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (part of ABA)
National Center for Youth Law
The National Center for Homeless Education
UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)