Lack of effective state education data system holds students back

April 2, 2019
students with backpacks on UC Berkeley campus

UC Berkeley students on campus.

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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.”

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).

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