CA Budget: Cutting Student Data Systems Would Harm Parents, Educators

CA Budget: Cutting Student Data Systems Would Harm Parents, Educators

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Over the past decade, Californians have learned a lot about the academic performance of our students, thanks in large part to data collected from school districts. We now know, for example, that the achievement gap between African-American eighth graders and their white peers has increased statewide over the past seven years in English Language Arts; that Asian students, in general, are high-performing, but that certain subgroups of Asian students, including Laotian and Samoan students, are silently struggling; and that in certain school districts, Latino and African-American students have equitable access to college-ready coursework, while in other school districts they are disproportionately being denied access to the courses that public universities require.

All of this data has armed parents, community members, advocates, and policymakers with the information they need to make better decisions on behalf of students. And this kind of information is just the beginning. With new and better ways of collecting data, we now know our state’s dropout rate is 21.5%, at least 8 percentage points higher than we previously thought. And this year, we will know for the first time the state’s true four-year graduation rate. Yet, if Governor Jerry Brown's most recent budget revision is adopted, the future collection of such data is at risk.

Over the last eight years, the state has been building a longitudinal student data system known as CALPADS. This system is being built in response to federal requirements that each state be able to track enrollment history and achievement data over time for individual students. Since 2005, each student in California has been assigned a unique, anonymous identification number that school districts use to submit data to the state about each student’s enrollment, demographics, achievement and more. All of this student-level data will ultimately be housed in CALPADS, which is now nearing completion. This year, almost every district used CALPADS to report their enrollment, and will soon use it to report the other data as well.

CALPADS represents a major shift from previous data collection efforts, when school districts reported data about groups of students instead of individuals. Statewide longitudinal data is the only way to consistently know whether a student dropped out of school, or whether he simply transferred to a school in another district and ultimately graduated. Longitudinal data can also tell us which schools produce the strongest academic growth for their students, and which programs are most effective at raising the achievement of English Learner, or low-income students. And once CALPADS is linked to the state’s preschool and higher education data systems, we will be able to use data to better understand school readiness, as well as how students are being prepared for success in college and careers.

Unfortunately, the future of CALPADS is at risk because of opposition to the system from Governor Jerry Brown. The Governor has questioned the value of CALPADS and dismissed the benefits of collecting statewide student data. In his May budget revision, he completely defunded the system, threatening the state’s ability to accurately and reliably collect, store, and make use of longitudinal data.

In collaboration with advocacy groups ranging from PICO California to the California State PTA, we at The Education Trust-West have strongly urged the Governor to change his mind. Without funding for the CALPADS system, Californians’ ability to know about the academic performance of our students will be severely limited. For example, educators would lose the ability to access enrollment and academic background information for highly mobile students, who may change schools multiple times each year.

Consider a student who transfers from a district in Northern California to a district in Southern California. That student may have a history of chronic absence, may excel in English but struggle in math, and may be eligible for the free or reduced price lunch program. But unless the first district sends this data to the second (and oftentimes, this does not happen) the student’s new school will not have this information. In contrast, a statewide data system would house all of this information at the state level so that no matter where the student moves in California, his new school will be able to access this data and tailor instruction to his needs.

The potential elimination of CALPADS also has major implications for parents and community members. There are 1.5 million English Learners in California. Parents of these students should be able to access information on which schools have a track record of helping English Learners achieve English proficiency as quickly as possible. But without CALPADS, it will be much harder for parents to find out how long schools take to bring students to English proficiency.

California's schools—once the envy of the nation—are now failing to adequately serve our students. But for Governor Brown to point the finger at the state’s data systems is the equivalent of blaming the messenger. Data helps illustrate the problem, it doesn’t cause it. Governor Brown’s proposal to cut funding for CALPADS would bring an end to the transparency and accountability that is vital to empowering educators and communities to act on behalf of their children.

Arun Ramanathan is Executive Director of The Education Trust-West