Programs to track pupil, teacher performance draw fire

Final authorization is pending for a $9.1 million state contract to build upon a trouble-plagued, $34 million program to track pupil and teacher performance.

But questions are being raised as the state is poised to put still more money into the effort. The program has become a political issue, and a candidate for state schools superintendent said it played a role in the state’s loss of Race to the Top funds.

After already receiving $34 million to implement CalPADS, the database that houses student statistics, the computer hardware company IBM tentatively won the $9.1 million state contract bid to construct the online database that would catalog California teachers.

The new teacher data program, called CalTIDES, will build upon the existing student tracking system, CalPADS.

But as IBM begins work on the new program, the original $34 million program has yet to be perfected. After a history of on-going repairs, CalPADS is still fraught with flaws over a year after its original release.

When CalPADS was initially released on schedule, an independent oversight consultant, SAGOT, issued a report saying CalPADS was essentially useless. Soon after, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell announced the project was going back to the drawing board, causing delays in its implementation.

Keric Ashley, director of the Data Management Division within the California Department of Education, said IBM has ironed out the initial flaws in CalPADS.

“In June, the final (SABOT) report said the system was stable,” said Ashley.  “Not complete, but stable.”

But Larry Aceves, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, criticized the system last week.

“Oh good, it’s breathing, but is that the same as ‘it’s working?’” said Aceves, who raised the issue repeatedly during the campaign.

“The current system cannot produce the results we need,” he added. “We cannot afford to have a flawed system if we’re going to be holding schools and teachers accountable.”

Ashley suggested that Aceves’ attention to the issue was an attempt to bolster his campaign.

“He’s using the system as a way to try to reach out to his constituency and maybe it’ll strike a chord with some who are struggling with the system,” said Ashley.

The data system was designed to track the performance and demographics of students and teachers, providing a single state-wide measuring tool for education and allowing California to be competitive among the federal Race to the Top incentive. But with little oversight to ensure that the system’s data is true, CalPADS has been largely unsuccessful in making educational statistics accessible.

“The president pro tem (Senate leader) wanted truancy data included in CalPADS — good luck with that,” said Aceves.

Aceves said the system’s delays had dire circumstances for California’s education funds by jeopardizing the state’s Race to the Top results. “We lost Race to the Top by 16 points. We lost 14 points for not having CalPADS up and running,” said Aceves, who demanded a state audit.

“We are not concerned about an audit,” noted Ashley.

After a series of embarrassing failures with CalPADS, many question whether IBM is fit to construct yet another database, CalTIDES, on top of it’s already rickety foundation.

Students whose information is lost or hard to find are sometimes issued new ID numbers, starting their records from scratch and leaving the old ID numbers to be lost in the system as identification dead ends.

“It is possible to have a child with three different ID numbers in the system…How many schools have to screw this up before the system doesn’t work?” said Aceves. 

The candidate also criticized IBM’s eligibility for the multi-million dollar contracts.

“IBM is not known as a program unit. They’re a hardware producer. Which programs have they developed that are well renowned? There are a lot of software systems out there that have developed excellent tracking systems and IBM is not one of them.”

Ashley said Aceves’ scrutiny of the program raised questions that already were known and were being dealt with.

“We did not hide from the fact that the system struggled early on. When we released (CalPADS) we paid more attention to schedule than quality. And what we found out was that we released on time and there were defects in the system.”

“We went through a period of stabilization between February and May,” explained Ashley, “Now the system has been working and it’s stable…We’ve got the CalPADS issues figured out but there are still others.” Over 1,300 schools have submitted information so far but the entry process is notoriously time consuming and user unfriendly.

And then, of course, there is the economy.

“We’re initiating a new system in a fiscal time in which districts are doing away with employees and if they’re going to choose between keeping a teacher or a technician they’re going to choose to keep the teacher every time,” said Ashley.

CalTIDES is scheduled to develop once schools have finished submitting their original CalPADS information for the student database.

“At this point we’re just waiting for the data to be submitted into CalPADS before building on top of it,” said Ashley.

But that process may take a while.

Every local district has its own system for tracking student statistics like test scores and attendance and very few of those systems are compatible or working. SASI, a tracking product by Pearson Publishing, is going out of business, leaving its dependent districts to find new vendors and adapt to new systems. On top of the public school districts there are 500 charter schools that submit data independently from their districts.

When the process is successful and schools have submitted the needed information, CalPADS will have data on both teachers and students. From there, CalTIDES would facilitate all the teacher information, organizing it separately from that of the students. The program would meld information like where teachers went to college or their history as an employed teacher to administrators like the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Regardless of the series of embarrassing setbacks with CalPADS, IBM is still slated to receive a new contract for the making of CalTIDES.

The project is already behind schedule.

But the Department of Education won’t be racing for the deadline this time around.

“There’s always a balance to be struck between schedule and quality. At this point in time we’re more concerned on the quality than the schedule,” said Ashley.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: