Teaching Profession

California Data System Struggles to Clear Hurdles

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 11, 2010 4 min read
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California’s effort to build and upgrade the nation’s largest student-level data system has taken a rocky path, and that has made the system a target in this fall’s state superintendent elections.

The California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, or CALPADS, is designed to allow a comprehensive look at student data across California that can be used to create targeted efforts to improve student achievement.

In addition to test-score data, the system will include, among other things, demographic data, teacher assignment by course, and each student’s course enrollment and completion. When fully implemented, the state and local school districts will be able to chart students’ progress every year as they move toward high school graduation.

The state is also building a companion system, the California Longitudinal Teacher Information Data Education System, or CALTIDES, which is designed to track teacher characteristics over time and give the state the ability to match teachers to students in an attempt to measure student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

“The successful implementation of such a system is critical to increasing student achievement and better identifying and addressing our current achievement gap,” Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, wrote to school administrators earlier this year.

Shortly after CALPADS was launched a year ago, however, school districts found technical roadblocks in the IBM-built system that hampered their efforts to enter data.

The system was in such bad shape that in February, Mr. O’Connell, citing what he called “unacceptable system performance issues,” ordered a halt to any changes to the system while it underwent a “top to bottom” review.

Fixing Problems

An independent firm was hired to take a deeper look at correcting the problems that had plagued CALPADS since its launch. A private contractor was hired to identify issues for IBM to correct.

The two candidates to replace Mr. O’Connell, state Assemblyman Tom Torlakson and Larry Aceves, have discussed CALPADS repeatedly while on the campaign trail.

“We ought to have a system that doesn’t ... bother the schools,” Mr. Aceves, a former superintendent, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mr. Torlakson, who is also an educator, said it is important to figure out what went wrong and who should pay, but a good thing to slow down implementation to get it right.

State officials don’t disagree with the candidates that the system has had problems, but they say progress has been made toward fully implementing it.

“There’s no question. We were very upfront about the fact the system was not working very well when IBM released the system last October,” Keric Ashley, the director of the California Department of Education’s data management division, said in an interview last week.

Mr. Ashley said data is being added to CALPADS in four separate batches over the course of the 2010-11 school year. By spring, the system should have all its requisite data.

“CALPADS is stable and working efficiently, and we are ready to move forward,” he said.

IBM officials agreed, saying the work is now on course.

“IBM and [the California Department of Education] have worked in partnership to resolve issues quickly and meet the ambitious scope and schedule of the project. Current CALPADS functionality is available to more than 1,200 school districts ... that are entering data into the system,” Lia P. Davis, an IBM spokeswoman, said in a statement last week. “The project is in the final phase, and IBM and [the department] are working together to deliver updated data and functionality in time for the 2011 school year.”

Cost in ‘Race’

The Obama administration has put a priority on states building strong education-focused longitudinal data systems as part of an emphasis on using the information not only to improve student achievement but to use student data as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

California, which lost out on both of its bids in the federal Race to the Top contest under the economic-stimulus program, received low scores from judges when it came to student data. In the second round of the grant competition, it was awarded 31 of 47 possible points for its data efforts, even though lawmakers had passed legislation last year that removed a so-called firewall that was seen as preventing the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. (“States Change Policies With Eye to Winning Federal Grants,” Jan. 6, 2010.)

The state also had hoped by now to have launched CALTIDES, the teacher database. But that system will be built upon CALPADS and cannot be started until state officials are certain the first data system is in tip-top shape.

IBM has been awarded the contract for the CALTIDES project as well, but the contract has not been signed yet. Going forward, Mr. Ashley said, is contingent on IBM’s ability to make its first data project fully operational.

Mr. Ashley said one lesson learned is that states and vendors need to understand the complexity and cost of building data systems.

“[W]e do think that resources are critical to not only doing it on schedule but doing it of quality on schedule,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as California Data System Struggles to Overcome Initial Hurdles

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