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Lesson 9.5

Education Data:
Keeping Track of the System

When it comes to education data, this state is flying blind.

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Imagine if 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 the idea that big organizations should be good at data.

Education has a long way to go in that regard, especially in California.

California’s data tangle

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. Compared to other states, California spends very little on education data systems, and it shows.

The national Data Quality Campaign (DQC) gave California a low rating for the quality of its education data in 2012. The following year, California "addressed" this low ranking... by declining to participate in the survey. Then-Governor Jerry Brown, a declared skeptic of the value of education data systems, consistently opposed, blocked, or defunded many efforts to build or improve the quality and availability of education data, preferring to leave the matter to individual school districts.

In 2019 the Data Quality Campaign reported that there are only two states in America that do not systematically measure growth in individual student learning: Kansas and California. In the report's colorful national map of state data quality, these two states are blank.

The potential usefulness of education data systems is enormous. Education data systems can enable students, parents, teachers, and school leaders to see assignments, get access to course materials, view grades, collect feedback and improve communication. Attendance systems connected to community services can help support attendance. Data systems can support research, shedding light on the effectiveness of educational materials. Data can help to identify extraordinary schools, teachers, and programs. But only if the systems are set up to collect and connect.

California's data systems for education are so basic that the national conversation about how to use data to support learning has moved on to other states. It takes a certain amount of basic data infrastructure to try interesting things and learn from them.

When it comes to education data, California is widely considered a backwater

The DQC was an early critic the weaknesses of California's data systems for education, but hardly the only one. For example, a 2013 report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoes many of the same themes, as does a 2017 publication from the Education Insight Center titled California's Maze of Student Information.

California's major data system for education is the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, commonly known as CALPADS. The core element of CALPADS is a unique identifier for each student that remains consistent even as the student advances through grades and moves from one school to the next. The state has begun the work of linking systems between K-12 education and higher education, but it is very difficult to draw useful conclusions about the long-term impact of investments.

This infographic from the Data Quality Campaign describes some ways data can contribute to the quality of teaching and learning. This infographic from the Data Quality Campaign describes some ways data can support teaching and learning. A related infographic emphasizes the value of data for school leaders.)

Districts struggle to make sense of their data

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 data systems. Few standards have been created for how such systems should communicate with one another, so they mostly don't. When data moves, it's usually with a lot of trouble and delay. When we need answers for Ed100, it can be worse than finding a needle in a haystack, because it isn't even clear which haystack to look in.

SARCs. School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) demonstrate the deep limitations of California’s data approach. This report, published by school districts, is meant to satisfy both state and federal requirements for public access to information about each school. Some of the data in the report comes from the State Department of Education. Other information must come from the school district, and some information can only come from the school.

The State provides a sample template for the SARC; 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 result is a separate PDF file for each school each year. The state does not audit or summarize the data from this field of digital haystacks. Determined researchers can bring their own pitchfork to the job by visiting SARConline, which at least might save the trouble of finding the SARC files.

LCAPs. Since 2014, districts and charter schools have been required to create a document known as the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). Each year, each district is expected to use the LCAP to "tell its local story." The LCAP template requires specific kinds of information — but as with the SARC, the end result is a haystack of PDF files, often with multiple versions. The template does not "expose" data digitally, in a way that would make it easy to use. For example, to compare data from one district’s LCAP to another’s involves hand-copying it into a spreadsheet. Although the data included in LCAPs ought to be consistent with 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 with each school's separate School Plan for Student Achievement, yet another document required under state law.

In an effort to be thorough, and to 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, used consistently, all of this accountability reporting could be made more accessible for the public, more straightforward for districts, and more consistent. But that kind of data infrastructure does not appear to be part of the state’s plan, at least at this writing.

One obstacle to improving the state's data structure is to get everyone using the same systems, or at least systems that treat data in compatible ways. Another is the complexity of ensuring that the systems effectively protect the privacy of students and teachers. Big businesses and government organizations face these issues all the time -- they can be solved, but doing so requires leadership and work. Finding the leadership to sort out California's education data haystacks is a complex problem. For one thing, it's unclear who is in charge. School districts are substantially left to find their own ways of solving data problems. Getting them to do things the same way, or even use the same data definitions, can run afoul of California's laws against creating state mandates.

Data issues may seem wonkish. They rarely fire up the passions of politicians, education activists, or parent leaders. But it seems inconceivable that this data weakness can continue forever in California, the home of Silicon Valley.

A New Beginning?

In 2018 Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned for office pledging change: "Overarching all of this work — from prenatal to college and career  — is my promise for California to reassert itself as an education data leader. The public deserves to know whether all students, regardless of background, have access to good schools and equitable funding."

Several studies in the 2018 Getting Down to Facts II project (GDTFII) focused on what California needs to do to improve its data standards and data systems so that programs and investments can deliver better results for kids. Among the headline findings is the importance of leadership: "Developing a comprehensive statewide data system requires leadership and commitment."

Past education advisory committees such as the Governors Committee on Education Excellence have recommended that the state establish a temporary data commission to facilitate decisions about standards and points of integration, including data from social services, teacher-related systems, employment systems and higher education.

Updated March 2018, November 2018, Feb 2019.


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. Compared to other states, California's state-level education data systems are:

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Leigh Boghoussian February 5, 2020 at 11:13 am
I found this only somewhat helpful - representative of the data challenge outlined in this lesson.
This lesson was one of the most discouraging for me to read - representative of short-sighted thinking and the impacts thereof.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 22, 2019 at 4:01 pm
Ah, I consider the ineffectiveness of our data systems to cost CA a bundle by lost opportunities, lost proof that you need Federal $$ and so on! I'm not sorry that I picked the "wrong" answer because I'm still so horrified by the implications of then Gov. Brown's denial of the merits of big data. I was astonished that our local HS had and perhaps still has no idea of what happens to its graduates (did they go to college? did they graduate? etc). And I come from a field in which you can hardly do statistical work because the data is so meager (Middle Ages, literally)!
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 7, 2019 at 3:41 pm
I agree. Stating that California’s education data systems are not costly for the state is a bit misleading.
user avatar
francisco molina March 1, 2019 at 1:48 am
After the 2008 recession Jerry Brown creates 3 big disasters: Destroy the budget system under district hands , He never support an effective data system and never said anything about school counselors.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 24, 2018 at 11:09 pm
Another report documents the willful blindness of California to data about results in education: ‪ ‬
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 4, 2018 at 12:41 pm
California has extraordinarily weak systems for data about teachers. The blindness makes good policy very difficult to develop, as EdSource explains: Renewed Call To Create Statewide Database on Teachers
user avatar
Gloria Lucioni January 6, 2019 at 10:06 pm
Really bad news. I was first certified in VA, where they keep microfiche data for years. They include evaluation from Beginning Teachers Evaluations, re-certifications ( Every five years ), merit points, disciplinary problems ( if any ) and even union data and absent days. It seems that in CA the system is rigged to favor teachers who do not remain current or seek professional development regularly. Am I correct?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 18, 2018 at 6:46 am
This report--A Hunger for Information: California’s Options to Meet its Statewide Education Data Needs-- adds to this discussion.

It finds that the fragmentation of California’s education data systems makes it nearly impossible for the state to assess how well its students are progressing from high school, to and through college, and into the workforce.

Read the report.

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 24, 2018 at 3:15 pm
The prospects for faster compilation of deeper data about the operation of school systems in America continue to look very remote. The US department of education (IES) just released findings from a pilot study to collect and compile school-level education finance data in 12 states. Six were able to successfully complete the test. California? Nowhere to be found. The approach didn't accelerate data delivery or improve its reliability. The premise that states will adopt new data reporting standards and systems just because they make sense, with application of neither carrot nor stick, is hereby declared unlikely to succeed. Faster, better data flow requires leadership and money.
user avatar
Iris December 1, 2017 at 7:02 pm
I'm really shocked at the irony of CA having such a data limitation....given all of the tech innovation, it seems like a problem that could be solved.
user avatar
Caryn-C September 15, 2017 at 8:56 am
Way to go California! You don't like the DQC grade so you...decline to participate in their survey? Wow.
We are lucky to participate in a district with pretty solid education data systems, at least from this parent's perspective.
I loved the infographic showing "what could be". In an underfunded classroom of 30 plus students, sorry Joey--no way would you get that kind of intervention.
user avatar
g4joer6 April 22, 2015 at 11:31 pm
This is so right on:
"Imagine if 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."
©2003-2021 Jeff Camp
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