State education data system, CALPADS, makes critical turn

The state's much-maligned student longitudinal data system still has many critics and a long road ahead before fulfilling its many promises - but there appears to be strong evidence the program is finally working as designed.

Targeted for extinction by two governors and widely blamed for the loss of big federal grants under Race to the Top, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System has in recent months functioned well enough to allow school districts to perform critical information uploads on enrollment, graduations, dropouts and course assignments - mostly without incident.

This week, schools will be wrapping up the required spring data run tied to counting disadvantaged students and English learners - and so far, CALPADS is doing its job - something almost no one thought possible two years ago.

I think things are going pretty well," said John R. Novak, CALPADS coordinator at Long Beach Unified School District. "There are still some growing pains as new modules are rolled out, but we seem to be going through all that in an efficient and painless fashion."

Although development of the project began more than 10 years ago, CALPADS has had a bumpy ride toward functionality. Conceived as a statewide deposit of individual student and educator information as required under No Child Left Behind, the system proved far more complicated to build and to operate than anyone expected.

The system's 2009 failings attracted headlines and delayed for months the collection of required data from districts, creating headaches and frustration among administrators statewide. The program contractor, IBM, was threatened with default by the California Department of Education at one point, and the muddle became an issue during the 2010 campaign for state superintendent.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sought to use his line item veto to cut funding for the program in October, 2010 and last year Gov. Jerry Brown called for suspending the project in his revised May budget.

Advocates for the system, however, somehow prevailed and program managers at the CDE are looking forward to the rollout in the coming months of two new operations - an end of year collection which will include individual student grades, credits and disciplinary data; and the loading of student assessment data from test vendors by the CDE.

Keric Ashley, director of CDE's Education Data Management Division, said both his office and district operators are growing increasingly confident in the system as each milestone is passed.

"I doubt there are very many programs that have ever gone through opposing vetoes from two different governors from either side of the aisle and been able emerge with something of a success story," Ashley said. "We feel very good after a very rocky start."

He noted 99 percent of districts have been able to submit their data on time and that his department recently has been able to move up the release date of information in some cases.

Officials at the California School Information Services agency, who provide the help desk for schools having problems with CALPADS, confirm Ashley's observations.

"Early on, we had a lot of problems where people reported they couldn't access the system or were having problems with responsiveness," said Nancy Sullivan, Deputy Operations Officer. "Now, a lot of the questions we get are about unique data scenarios, specific questions about circumstances within the district. They're more content-type questions rather than I'm having problems with the system-' type questions."

While that's good news, there remain some big challenges facing CALPADS - especially from the state budget.

L. Russ Brawn, Chief Operations Officer of CSIS, noted that one of the major continuing problems is that many districts lack adequate manpower to do all the operations required to collect and process the data reports.

"The districts and the charters are really challenged to provide the resources they need to do effective data management," he said, noting district layoffs have hit the clerical and technical staff hard.

"It is becoming an increasingly big job starting with identifying data, capturing it and storing it, managing it - and making sure it's accurate," Brawn said. "It has to be usable at a local level and something that can be reported to CALPADS."

Ashley agreed: "I think resources at the local level [are] absolutely an issue. People are having to cut personnel, and when it comes between a teacher and a technician, they're going to choose the teacher every time, as they probably should."

There's also an ongoing debate over the project's mission, especially in the context of data goals set by the Obama administration.

Brawn noted that CALPADS originally was constructed to fulfill the state's compliance obligations under the No Child Left Behind Act - not necessarily to give educators, researchers and parents a deep dive into data to help shape better classroom instruction.

"CALPADS does the macro-type of measurements of what's going on in education in terms of how many kids are enrolled, how many graduate, those kinds of things," he said. "It's doing those things quite well, but it's not a system that's designed to help local education deal with the daily learning of their students. It's not a teaching and learning tool."

The Obama administration has tied federal grant money to states developing more robust data systems that can be used to improve instructional strategies. There are also many advocates in the California education community who want to see CALPADS expanded to meet and perhaps exceed federal goals.

Gov. Brown does not appear to be one of those advocates. Although he reluctantly restored money needed to complete the current development of CALPADS, he killed funding for its companion program, the California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System.

The governor has been very careful about making any new spending commitments given the state's fiscal problems, and there is a general sense Brown will resist any costly proposal to enhance education data collection - at least for now.