Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

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A major upgrade last month in the state’s primary student data collection system, CALPADS, has caused disruptions and data errors for many districts at one of their busiest times of the year. Statewide leaders representing districts told the state that some of the districts considered the system “unusable.”

The California Department of Education has acknowledged the frustration the rollout has created and says it is working to resolve the problems. But, voicing a common complaint, an administrator at one Southern California district said the severity of the glitches goes beyond time-consuming fixes and inconvenience. Rick Roberts, executive director of educational technology services at Grossmont Union High School District, said the problems are affecting the ability to administer the Smarter Balanced testing to some students and are undermining confidence that CALPADS will process information accurately in coming months.

“The end of the year (schedule) is at risk,” he said. “This sure looks like a year where data is suspect, at best.”

CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, has been the data workhorse since 2009. It houses much of the student information that the state collects, including attendance, courses taken, test results and accountability data that the federal government and the state require. But it has been laboring under the increasing data load, and the state has been planning a retrofit that it promises will substantially improve system performance and decrease how long it takes for uploaded data to be posted to the system.

It’s unclear why the department chose mid-April, during the Smarter Balanced testing, a peak period for using CALPADS, for the conversion.  A spokesperson for the department initially said the U.S. Department of Education had been pressuring the state to get the work done, but the state department later clarified that was not the case.

In an April 22 letter to district, county office of education and charter schools, Jerry Winkler, director of the department’s Educational Data Management Division, wrote that the department “recognized the risk of implementing such significant system changes during the middle of the assessment season” but that it was critical to have the upgrade in place before the end-of-the-year data submission period.

“The CDE also apologizes for the larger than desired number of defects currently in the system. Some of these defects relate to the complexity of migrating many years’ worth of data into a new data structure,” he wrote.

Districts started filing complaints after CALPADS was put back in service on April 18, two weeks after it was taken down for the upgrade – a week longer than forecast. After continuing to receive reports from districts, Vernon Billy, CEO of the California School Boards Association, and Edgar Zazueta, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, wrote State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who oversees the department, on May 9 expressing their “deep concern.”

“Our members report experiencing significant challenges with CALPADS in recent weeks, to the extent that some consider the system as it currently stands unusable,” they wrote.

Among the issues they cited:

  • Districts could not keep up with changes and updates to special education students’ individualized education programs that dictate accommodations for taking Smarter Balanced tests. This could impact special education students’ ability to receive the correct accommodations when taking the tests.  
  • Students transferring schools or districts were receiving multiple student identification numbers, delaying testing or, in some cases, requiring students to repeat Smarter Balanced tests.
  • Districts reported numerous errors in uploading data to the revised system, requiring lengthy manual fixes.

“These challenges have reached critical mass far beyond IT departments’ capabilities and are affecting operational functions at the district and school level,” Billy and Zazueta wrote. Small districts without the staff and expertise to address the issues were the most impacted, they said.

Two days after the letter was sent, top department officials met with the organizations to discuss the issues and held another meeting this week in which they detailed how they were addressing the problems.

Roberts and David Feliciano, superintendent of La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools, said school districts are worried that the data problems with student ID numbers and special education students could jeopardize their ability to meet the required 95% participation rate on the Smarter Balanced tests, invoking federal penalties. Just a handful or a few dozen students who miss the tests or decline to take them over could push a district under the threshold, they said.

But waivers from the U.S. Department of Education are unlikely, the department told administrators at this week’s meeting.

“We remain in dialogue with CDE, and hopefully districts can avoid penalties beyond their control,” Troy Flint, chief information officer for the school boards association, said.

Flint and Zazueta said this week they appreciated that the department responded quickly to their letter and are dealing with the issues with urgency. But they are still hearing complaints daily from districts.

“We understand that technology updates can take time and create challenges, but problems remain,” said Flint.

Roberts and Feliciano are pessimistic.

The department “hears it from us, but they are not close enough to students to understand what the impact really is,” said Roberts. “We’re told things are getting fixed, but they’re not really fixed.”

Feliciano, who was a technology administrator before becoming a superintendent, found it “disheartening” that the department didn’t revert to the existing system after finding significant problems with the rollout.

The department’s approach was “cavalier, brushing aside concerns and issues,” he said.

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  1. Tim Taylor 6 months ago6 months ago

    John, thanks for this article. This really has been a nightmare for districts in the midst of a tough school year.