CREDIT: Alison Yin / EdSource
University of California at Berkeley students on campus on Sather road in Berkeley, Calif.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed building a statewide data system to track students from pre-K through college and into the labor market, the empirical researcher in me said: “Finally.”

Headshot of Michal Kurlaender

Michal Kurlaender

Not because the new system, once established, will link between data sets that I can analyze — though that’s a welcome development for scholars everywhere — but because it’s an asset that California students can no longer do without.

A state data system, done right, is one of the most important investments California can make in helping more students finish college.

Education data on students, such as courses taken in K-12, test scores and credits earned, is essential to understanding student progress from “cradle to career.” Right now, however, students regularly fall through the cracks navigating between high school and college — and the disconnected data systems of each.

Exhibit A: Students now have multiple options to get a head start on college through taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and enrolling in dual enrollment courses at community college while still in high school. But without connected data systems, the onus is on students to make sure these additional units count toward their college degree. Unless they speak to one another, California’s K-12 and higher education data systems can’t ensure that students take with them the credits they have earned to the next level of the education system. As a result, many students regularly repeat or forgo these valuable credits — a result neither their families nor taxpayers can afford.

Exhibit B: When students register for college courses they are asked to demonstrate academic readiness. The California Community Colleges (CCC) and the California State University (CSU) are rightly shifting from a single placement test to relying on “multiple measures” showing how students did in high school to help students’ avoid getting placed on a remedial track when they get to college, which has been quicksand for many. But in order for this important reform to be effective, colleges need to have access to the other measures — such as a student’s high school GPA or successful K-12 course completion — to help them make better placement decisions. That means access to K-12 data without requiring students to deliver it themselves and to be their own placement advocates.

Exhibit C: The lack of alignment between higher education systems fosters further frustration and inefficiency. Our research suggests as many as 40 percent of students enroll in more than one system on their journey toward a BA. Many who travel between California’s community colleges and four-year universities face a maddening array of requirements: courses that count for a two-year associate degree but don’t for transfer to a four year university, courses that satisfy CSU graduation requirements but don’t at UC and courses that count for transfer but not toward a BA. Although the recent Associate Degree for Transfer pathway (ADT) between California’s community colleges and CSU campuses is an important and welcome reform, too many cracks remain.

All of these are examples of valuable time and resources lost. Several studies have demonstrated that the average transfer student enters the University of California or CSU with nearly 80 credits, 20 more (the equivalent of over a semester) than necessary for junior-year standing. In the words of a community college president who responded to a recent UC Davis survey: “College is too often a maze.”

Not surprisingly, the burden for students to manage their own educational trajectories is unevenly distributed and falls most heavily on those students whose families aren’t in a position to help them navigate. By asking students instead of institutions to bear that weight, we run the risk of enabling the persistence of educational inequity.

A real data system could allow California’s public colleges and universities to access valuable information about students’ educational trajectories to more effectively communicate with K-12 about college preparation, more efficiently account for credit accumulation and, ultimately, help more students graduate.

From my office window at UC Davis, I can see backpack-bearing students moving with purpose across the quad. Though the extra weight is invisible, we’ve asked too many of them to carry their education data along with their books and aspirations and to be their own compass through the labyrinth that might lead to a degree. It’s past time for California, the technology capital of the world, to relieve them of that load.

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Michal Kurlaender is a professor of Education Policy at the University of California, Davis and Faculty Director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. SD Parent 8 months ago8 months ago

    I agree with the author that comprehensive K-12 (and beyond) tracking would be beneficial to understand where and how students are falling through the cracks and how to better support them. It will also highlight areas where students of similar demographics are succeeding and finally get the state to start sharing best practices (instead of letting every school and district "wing it" with varying degrees of success). Viewing from the inside, I notice … Read More

    I agree with the author that comprehensive K-12 (and beyond) tracking would be beneficial to understand where and how students are falling through the cracks and how to better support them. It will also highlight areas where students of similar demographics are succeeding and finally get the state to start sharing best practices (instead of letting every school and district “wing it” with varying degrees of success). Viewing from the inside, I notice that our school district is generally only interested in evaluating information that is required by the state, so I’d put that K-12+ tracking on the CA dashboard. This would include percentages of students who entered and completed college and/or were gainfully employed, because isn’t this what we are really trying to do with education?

    As for the transfer of credit, students should be told how to compile the transfer credit information needed before graduation and helped by high school counselors in this task. College/university intake should include each student meeting with an academic counselor to discuss transfer credit along with undergraduate plans (e.g. majors, minors, etc.), rather than leaving students fending for themselves. I agree with Eric that every school and major has different requirements, so tracking transfer credits in a K-12+ matrix is likely not realistic. These transfer agreements (MOUs) exist, but they are generally buried inside a department at the university or dealt with on a case-by-case basis (without tracking the information for the next student who comes along). What is realistic is for the state to mandate that the UCs and CSUs post all transfer credit information (AP/IB/CC)–including transfer information for each major–in a standardized format on dedicated pages on their websites, which would make it easier for everyone involved.

  2. Kathy Gonnella 8 months ago8 months ago

    Exactly!
    Thank you for succinctly writing what I have felt, thought about and been frustrated with in my many years as a K-12 educator.

  3. Eric Premack 8 months ago8 months ago

    As a former research geek, I fully understand the desire for ever-larger and more comprehensive data systems. Given California's horrendous track record for implementing large-scale data systems, however, it seems first worth exploring whether this "Mother of All Education Data Systems" (MAEDS) is feasible, both technically and practically. California's state government has a deeply troubled track record for launching complex information technology projects--ones that are likely much simpler than a MAEDS. A … Read More

    As a former research geek, I fully understand the desire for ever-larger and more comprehensive data systems. Given California’s horrendous track record for implementing large-scale data systems, however, it seems first worth exploring whether this “Mother of All Education Data Systems” (MAEDS) is feasible, both technically and practically. California’s state government has a deeply troubled track record for launching complex information technology projects–ones that are likely much simpler than a MAEDS. A MAEDS presumably would need to tie-together information from 2,500+ local education agencies, hundreds of public and private colleges, and universities. It would be a massively complex and costly project and one that would require significant cooperation among and across institutions that have little incentive to do so.

    It’s also worth exploring whether there are lower-tech solutions to the problems that Professor Kurlaender seeks to solve. The credit transfer problems among higher education institutions, for example, stem largely from the dizzying array of campus- and department-level requirements. Whether a MAEDS could overcome the underlying problems (e.g., department-level faculty fiefdoms) seems unlikely.

    California’s current K-12 data systems suffer from major problems that present much lower hanging fruit than a MAEDS. The development of the CA School Dashboard, for example, has laid bare the fact that there is precious little data available regarding key indicators of student achievement. Even where we do have data (e.g., standardized testing data), the quality and utility of the data is very shaky (e.g., we’re likely years away from having sound gauges of growth in student achievement and we have no data on roughly half of the students).

    Others on this website have asserted that a MAEDS would allow the state to “diagnose its challenges in education” and allow the public to “understand how students can equitably access quality postsecondary opportunities statewide,” etc. This mentality reflects an enormous leap-of-faith in the quality of the data available and the capacity of researchers, policy-makers, and the public to analyze and digest it. A dose of humility seems in order.

    Even if a MAEDS were technically and practically feasible, the cost is likely to be substantial, both in terms of developing and maintaining the system and its infrastructure, but more so in terms of data entry and staff time at the school, college, and university levels. Whether this cost is worth it relative to other potential investments also needs to be explored.

  4. Angela 8 months ago8 months ago

    I 1000% agree with you; I am working as an apprentice/counselor at a community college. I see this every single day and it breaks my heart. Some students either don't have access to their transcripts or it will take much longer to get it from one school to the next, so they just want to ignore it and start all over again and waste another 3-5 at the community college before transferring to a 4-year … Read More

    I 1000% agree with you; I am working as an apprentice/counselor at a community college. I see this every single day and it breaks my heart. Some students either don’t have access to their transcripts or it will take much longer to get it from one school to the next, so they just want to ignore it and start all over again and waste another 3-5 at the community college before transferring to a 4-year college.

    If we have a Data System, it will safe so much time and money not only for students but also for colleges and universities. Also, in order for community college students to be successful and graduate in a timely manner of 2 years, they need to hire more college counselors and give graduate students like myself who already have a Master’s in Educational Counseling opportunity to help students to reach their academic goals on time.