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Imagine if Amazon.com were unable to keep track of customer purchases. Imagine a pharmaceutical company unable to tell one pill from another. Or a bank losing track of accounts. In the last few decades, the world has become accustomed to organizations that can keep track of things in large numbers, in great detail.
Education has a long way to go in that regard, especially in California.
Compared to other states, California spends very little on education data systems.
When it comes to education data, California is widely considered something of a backwater, as this evaluation from the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) explains. Compared to other states, California spends very little on education data systems. In 2013 California was the only state in the nation that declined to participate in the Campaign for Data Quality, which gave the state a low rating in 2012. (Other low-rated states have since followed California's lead, opting out rather than face a bad review.)
Data systems to track and support student achievement exist in many states in America. Education data systems increasingly enable students, parents, teachers, and school leaders to see assignments, get access to course materials, view grades, collect feedback and improve communication.
Creating such a system in California continues to be a struggle.
When it comes to education data, California is widely considered a backwater
The DQC is not alone in pointing out the weakness of California's data systems for education. A 2013 report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says that despite some progress building the state’s education data system, the system is unfinished. As PPIC describes it: “In California...a large amount of data has been collected, but K–12 data are not linked with higher education or workforce information, and much of the data remains inaccessible to educators or others who might use it to improve the functioning of the state’s education programs.”
The most basic requirement for an adequate state education data system is to assign a unique identifier to each individual student in the state. California took a big step in that direction through its development of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, commonly known as CALPADS. Once operational (which took a number of bumpy years) CALPADS improved the accuracy of graduation rate data and improved the possibility that California could eventually follow students’ collective progress in more sophisticated ways. Meanwhile, however, a companion data system to do the same for teacher data has stalled indefinitely.
According to the PPIC report, California lags other states in using data to build local educators’ capacity to serve students. Unlike many other states, California’s data systems are not set up to follow students from preschool to K–12 to higher education and even through their first years in the workforce. This kind of coordinated data system, often referred to as a P-20 database, is essential to determine whether schools are producing good long-term results.
"The result is that we have a large collection of data with a lot of wasted potential," PPIC concludes.
Some attempts to create linked data systems across sectors have occurred in California, thanks to local effort. Doing this work, however, requires that local districts assemble (and pay for) their own proprietary data systems. No standards have been created for how such systems should communicate with one another, with the "Tower of Babel" result that systems are often unable to talk to each other.
SARCs. School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) demonstrate the deep limitations of California’s data approach. For their SARC, schools in California are required to collect a wide variety of information, some of which the State Department of Education provides and some of which is generated locally. The State provides a sample template for the SARC, and school districts have the choice of using it, creating their own, or contracting with an outside vendor. School districts can use whatever approach they wish to make the SARC available to the public, but must also include a link on their web site and submit the SARC to the state Department of Education. The state does not summarize the data from SARCs, but it provides a site (SARConline) to help provide some level of transparency.
LCAPs. Since 2014, districts and charter schools have been required to create an annual Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). Each district is expected to use the LCAP to “tell its local story.” The LCAP template requires specific kinds of information but does not include the kind of consistent data definitions that would make it possible to compare one district’s approach to another’s or to assess how well newly flexible state funds are being used across the state. Although the data included in LCAPs ought to be consistent the data in SARCs, there is no mechanism to facilitate or enforce this consistency.
SPSAs. The LCAP, in principle, is meant to align with the information in SARCs as well as each school's separate Single Plan for Student Achievement, a document required under federal and state law.
In an effort to be thorough and comply with state and federal requirements, these documents go on for pages and pages. They are comprehensive, but frequently incomprehensible.
A mess of reports /
a muddle of data /
It might get better... /
Check back later.
With the right data system all of this accountability reporting could be accomplished in a way that would be more accessible for the public, more straightforward for districts, and more consistent in approach across the state. But that kind of data infrastructure does not appear to be part of the state’s plan, at least at this writing. Instead, districts are left largely to their own devices to create what for some will be a Herculean data management and reporting task.
In its 2013 report, PPIC calls on the state to take a stronger role in providing support to local educators and making data more accessible and useful. It also recommends that California create an agency to coordinate access to education data and to help educators use the data to improve local practices, precisely the goal of the LCAP system.
It seems inconceivable that this data weakness can continue forever in California, but data systems are expensive, especially in such a large state. Wonkish data issues rarely fire up the passions of politicians, education activists, or parent leaders. In addition, privacy concerns sometimes put constraints on the design and use of data systems.
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