Should California develop a statewide student data system?

Should California develop a statewide student data system?


California’s system for reporting student data is, well, not really a system at all. As has been chronicled in a series of briefs by Colleen Moore and Kathy Reeves Bracco, California’s public schools, colleges, and universities are collecting robust sets of student data, but these data are housed in a “maze” of separate systems that are not connected to each other. As a result, California can’t answer basic questions about how students are transitioning from high school, into and through college, and into the workforce.

Should California develop a statewide education data system? What purposes would such a system serve? What kinds of data would be tracked and shared, and with whom? What might be the unintended consequences, for students, families, and education institutions? Are there ways to balance accountability, continuous improvement, and support of equitable opportunities and outcomes, without creating negative incentives or undue burdens? These are some of the questions that the education professionals in the California Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP) considered during their final convening in June along with several state education leaders who joined in the discussion.

John Fensterwald, editor-at-large at EdSource, shared his thoughts on the use of data for the public good. He said that now is the time, with a new governor taking office in January 2019, for those interested in developing a state data system to establish the rationale for and purposes of such a system. Those supporting such a system, he said, would need to answer clearly: “Data for whom? Is this about increasing equity for students, or is it about informing parents and supporting teachers, or is it for legislators?”

Cindy Kazanis, director of the Analysis, Measurement, and Accountability Reporting Division at the California Department of Education, described the key shifts in California’s accountability approach for K-12 schools, emphasizing multiple measures, equity, and support for local decision-making. She cautioned, however, that data provided to the state for accountability purposes must be seen in the context in which they are collected. These data are “not an early warning system. They are data that are gathered at the end of the year. It’s a starting point for a conversation, not an end.”

Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, associate director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, explored some challenges with using data for continuous improvement, from a research perspective. He suggested that data tools are very good at helping practitioners solve technical problems, but when the problems involve building support for changing the norms of an institution, data tools tend to be less effective. He said, “We need to be both patient and more creative about how we use data to inform inquiry among broad groups of engaged stakeholders.” And “There’s a debate currently about what schools are for. How can data inform reasoned conversation about that debate?”

Ed Eldridge, director of strategy and innovation at Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) spoke from his experience in using data for continuous improvement within a school district. He described the extensive analyses of student data that SCUSD performs to understand the relationship between grade-level readiness in high school and graduates’ transition to college. He said that SCUSD cannot wait for a state data system: “We know that the system is inequitable by design, so how do we fix that? What can we do now, within our locus of control?”

California EPFP provides a structured space for Fellows to advance their understanding of major issues facing California education, but the program is agnostic about solutions. In that vein, the EPFP Fellows discussed a range of ideas associated with developing a statewide data system, including:

  • The emergent nature of learning, the value of stability in school and college settings, and the inevitable messiness of “continuous improvement.”
  • The need to move beyond anecdotes about how students transition between education systems.
  • The importance of identifying who would benefit from a state data system. How would the data be used to help students in their educational journeys, and to shrink opportunity and equity gaps?
  • The complexity of the state’s data dashboard and the capacity of school districts to build out their own dashboards based on local data.
  • The important of school districts asking for data from colleges and universities about their high-school graduates’ course placement and progress.
  • The upcoming use of performance-based funding in the community colleges.
  • The risks and privacy issues associated with collecting and sharing data through current systems vis-à-vis through a statewide student database.

Fellows also took on the challenge of determining what steps California should take, given the tradeoffs inherent in developing a statewide data system. Some of their key concerns were aligned with those addressed by Moore and Bracco in their series of data briefs—namely, where would such a system be housed, and who would manage it? Several Fellows suggested that the technical issues associated with database design are not the most significant challenges. The higher hurdle, they said, involves finding consensus among policy and education stakeholders about how to better understand and improve student progress—a challenge they may face as education leaders themselves.

California EPFP is administered by the Education Insights Center (EdInsights) and the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State. This year’s graduating cohort doubled the number of California EPFP alumni, from 19 to 39. The 2018-19 Fellows will be announced in August.