As an educational researcher, I’ve been tracking and accessing student data in California for 15 years. Over the past year I’ve been working with a team at EdInsights to examine California’s approach to gathering and sharing data about students’ progress through its education systems. Students attend multiple schools, colleges, and universities on their way to a certificate or degree and a job—and so we’re examining how California tracks student progress not just within an institution but across them.

To better understand student data relationships in California, we charted the mandatory and voluntary data sharing and reporting relationships for each of the state’s four public education systems (K-12 schools, the community colleges, the California State University, and the University of California) and depicted them in California’s Maze of Student Data (see graphic).

As one would expect, educational institutions are required to submit certain student information to the appropriate systemwide office (as depicted in the center of the graphic) and must also report data to, or receive data from, several state agencies (as depicted along the top). But that’s not the complete picture. Many institutions also participate in voluntary efforts by partner organizations to collect student data from individual schools, colleges, and universities, and to match those data across institutions and sectors. The institutions participate in these efforts primarily because they’d like to know more about the progress of their students beyond their own institutions, and the state does not have a comprehensive system for providing that data. These voluntary relationships likely provide important information to schools and colleges, but they come with costs: institutions invest resources in putting together data files and they often pay a fee. And the data they receive are not comprehensive: institutions gain only a partial understanding of their students’ trajectories because these voluntary efforts cover only a subset of K-12 and postsecondary institutions.

By examining California’s Maze of Student Data, we began to understand better one of our earlier findings: that local educators we’ve talked to would welcome the state’s taking on a leadership role in developing a comprehensive statewide student data system that could help them in their efforts to improve their programs. In general, local educators tend to be wary of state efforts to gather more information from their institutions, due to the burdens that such requests typically entail. But in this case many institutions are already participating in voluntary reporting that adds cost and complexity without providing a complete picture of student progress.

So what did we find out about the existing set of mandatory reporting requirements?
California collects expansive sets of data about students in its systems of public education—data that, collectively, include many elements considered by national experts to be essential in measuring students’ educational progress to support better policy and practice.

But there’s a catch: the data are collected and maintained in systems that are not connected, were designed for different purposes, are subject to different regulations, and often use different data definitions. As a result of these disconnects, important information about student progress across institutions is often impossible to access, share, and use—whether at the state, regional, or local level. 

A significant weakness is that the disjointed systems contribute to fragmented education programming and policy making. As one person said, “We don't think through the movement of students through the various sectors. We just start with, ‘They've arrived, now we can start tracking. Oh, they left. Oh, darn it, that's too bad.’” 

What did we learn about the full set of mandatory and voluntary relationships?
According to stakeholders, the current structure has major disadvantages, including that it reinforces a compliance approach to data, confuses policymakers and educators, and leads to duplication of effort and inefficiency. Most importantly, it leaves the state’s policymakers, educators, and taxpayers unable to answer important questions that are vital to understanding student success across institutions. For example, California is investing millions of dollars in strengthening educational pathways from high school into college. Which programs are most effective, and for which students? 

We’re about halfway through our study of California’s approach to gathering and sharing data about students’ progress. Our next report in this series will examine data sharing among local and regional partnerships, to be published early in 2018. We plan to share our recommendations in a final report a few months later. 

Advancing Research and Policy for K-12 and Postsecondary Education

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