Support builds to create longitudinal data system to track student progress in California

August 8, 2018

Students walk along Bruin Walk at UCLA.

California needs a statewide system that tracks student performance from pre-school to college and beyond, several experts and lawmakers said at a state Senate hearing on Tuesday.

The state, which trails most states in providing such a system, needs to be able to answer questions about education quality and how students progress from K-12 to college and the workforce, speakers said.

The current information available is “all very disconnected, and there are gaps,” said Sen. Steven Glazer (D-Orinda), who conducted the hearing as the chair of the Select Committee on Student Success. Educators and the public do not have data that “in my view greatly improve students’ performance and their ultimate employment.”

The committee was created in early 2017 to explore best practices and innovation to improve student success.

The hearing reflected the urgency that many researchers, educators and advocates feel about the importance of establishing a way to track the progress of California students throughout the state’s public education system and beyond. Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted efforts to set up such a data tool. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has expressed strong support for one, and backers of the data system will be looking to him for action on this issue should he be elected governor in November, with recent polls showing that is likely.

“This is profoundly important, and it gets lost because you don’t usually get celebrated for your IT upgrades,” Newsom said at a public forum in March. He reiterated his enthusiasm for such a system in a response to an EdSource questionnaire published in May.

Representatives of California’s public agencies for K-12, community colleges and the universities expressed varying degrees of support in creating that statewide data system. Speakers offered ways for California to link information collected by the state’s K-12 public school system, its public colleges and universities, and the workforce.

For Nathan Evans, a senior advisor to California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, a statewide data system “really has to be focused on benefiting students.” He supports a data system that provides data “as close to real-time as possible so that we can have meaningful interventions with the students that are with us today.”

According to a report by the Education Insights Center, a research group at CSU Sacramento, such an approach which provides information that can immediately be used to help students would require timely updates and would be costlier than a data system that captures a few snapshots a year of how students are progressing within and across the systems.

Pamela Brown, vice president of institutional research at the University of California warned that such a project  “can be costly, they can be delayed.  Having patience with it is important.”

Still, Brown added: “Whatever you choose we’re here to partner and support that.”

The University of California alone spends about $3 million a year on its efforts to track high school, college and workforce data about its students, Brown said. That sum is higher than what a June report predicted such a statewide system would cost. The report estimated the cost at about $2 million annually.

Senate staff outlined in a report the information the public could obtain if such a system existed:

California’s four major public education agencies — K-12 schools, California Community Colleges, California State University and the University of California —  each have robust data about how their students perform. And they make much of that information public.

The UC and CSU central offices, for example, show the number of students who enroll and graduate from individual high schools. A UC website makes public average earnings by popular majors. The community colleges offer typical wages by program through its Salary Surfer. However, the public could learn much more if these systems were linked to each other, officials testified.

“But the data are maintained in systems that are not connected, and are generally inaccessible for addressing the information needs of policymakers and education leaders,” reads a handout prepared for Tuesday’s hearing by Education Insights Center, which has published several reports about California’s incomplete education data system.

Major advocacy and research groups have for many years pressed for such a longitudinal data system. But while lawmakers in the past have proposed laws to develop one, those bills either stalled in the Legislature or were vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been described as skeptical of a statewide data tool.

“The hurdle has been lack of support by the administration,” said Paula Mishima, administrator of the California Department of Education’s K-12 data system known as CALPADS.

Experts and some lawmakers — including Sen. Glazer, whose bill to create a statewide longitudinal system stalled in the Legislature this year — are hopeful that the next governor will be more supportive of such a public data tool.

Mishima said the data would be valuable to the CDE because “the success of our K-12 system ultimately is measured by outcomes in terms of student success in college and the workplace.”

Erin Gabel, a deputy director at First 5 California, an early education advocacy group, echoed the role better data can play in public accountability. “Starting to track children when they enter either childcare or preschool will allow California to see how effective our early learning investments are,” she said.

Laura Metune, vice chancellor for external relations at the California Community Colleges, said “today’s hearing to establish a longitudinal data system very much supports” the goals that the California Community Colleges adopted in its 2017 “Vision for Success” document, which among other things stressed the role of data about the success of students after they finish their studies at community colleges.

And though not a formal participant in the hearing, Erica Romero, vice president of external relations for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities — which represents 82 private nonprofit colleges — said during the public comment period that “we’ll be happy to work with you.”

“We educate almost as many undergraduates as the University of California,” she added. “So any longitudinal data system really should include” California’s private nonprofit schools.

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