Our review of the high school graduation and dropout data highlighted the following:
The California Department of Education (department) designed the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) to gather student-level data from public schools statewide so that it could comply with state and federal reporting requirements and more accurately calculate graduation and dropout rates. Unlike the California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS), which the department used in the past to extrapolate graduation and dropout rates, CALPADS allows the department to track certain data, such as enrollment status, for individual students from the time they enter high school until they exit. Thus, it allows the department to calculate more precise graduation and dropout rates for a particular cohort of students by tracking them through all four years of high school. Although CALPADS' high school graduation and dropout data are currently published only for the class of 2009-10, the department, school districts, and other stakeholders can use this first cohort's data as a baseline against which to compare future graduation and dropout rates.
In August 2011 the department published its First Annual Report on Dropouts in California, which reported that the State's graduation rate for the 2009-10 cohort of students was 74.4 percent and that its dropout rate was 18.2 percent. (The remaining 7.4 percent of students were neither graduates nor dropouts.) CALPADS' data show that graduation and dropout rates varied for different demographic subgroups. Specifically, African-American students and Hispanic or Latino students generally dropped out at higher rates than their peers, as did students who were English Language learners (English learners). Further, white and Asian socioeconomically disadvantaged students were more likely to drop out than white or Asian students who were not socioeconomically disadvantaged; however, socioeconomic status did not have that same inverse relationship in the Hispanic or Latino student population. Finally, students who failed the California High School Exit Examination on their first attempt were significantly less likely to graduate than students who passed on their first attempt, although 94 percent of the cohort did eventually pass the examination.
Although CALPADS represents a significant improvement in California's collection and reporting of graduation and dropout data, school districts continue to face challenges in implementation. Specifically, our review of student records from six school districts suggests that schools have inconsistent practices for verifying the reasons students exit high school. The department requires that schools select from a standard list of exit codes whenever students leave high school. However, the degree to which school personnel verified and documented these codes varied depending upon the reasons that students left; consequently, the data on some students may be less accurate than they are for others. Although the department has provided school districts with clear guidance regarding the codes, including through the CALPADS Data Guide, the districts have not always fully aligned their procedures with this guidance. In addition, several districts reported that the process of uploading information from their local systems into CALPADS can be time-consuming. However, according to one district administrator, this particular challenge can be mitigated by frequently updating the system with enrollment changes rather than waiting to send large batches of data at once. Finally, some districts stated that maintaining and updating CALPADS has required significantly more resources than previously required to report data to the State.
Furthermore, we found that CALPADS' current capabilities may not allow the system to fully carry out the Legislature's goals of evaluating its educational progress and investments over time. Although the department provides data from CALPADS to researchers for certain projects, CALPADS currently does not provide the same robustness of data that certain other states' systems offer. For example, some states' systems can or will be able to track students' success through college and even into the workforce. Because the funding for CALPADS is primarily focused on meeting state and federal reporting requirements, the State may risk missing opportunities to be more innovative in using its longitudinal data.
Despite these limitations, CALPADS has long-term potential for enabling school districts to identify and develop effective strategies for reducing dropout rates. Although recent budget cuts have affected school districts' ability to provide dedicated dropout prevention programs, we found that the six districts we visited all have programs and strategies in place to help students who are at risk of dropping out. CALPADS does not currently track student participation in specific programs; however, its data should enable school districts to identify those schools that are able to reduce their dropout rates over time through best practices and innovative programs. This should create an opportunity for schools throughout the State to allocate resources and adopt practices that may effectively serve their at-risk students.
To increase consistency, the department should remind schools and school districts of the importance of aligning their procedures for recording pupil enrollment and exit data with the CALPADS Data Guide.
To improve efficiency, the department should inform school districts of the value of frequently updating the data they transfer from their local student information systems to CALPADS. Also, to the extent that the department becomes aware of ways that schools and school districts can perform CALPADS-related activities more efficiently, it should provide written guidance to schools and school districts on these best practices.
To improve the utility of CALPADS and fulfill the legislative intent of the system, the department should work with the Legislature, the State Board of Education, and the governor to identify priorities for building upon the system when funding is available. These priorities could include tracking student participation in dropout prevention programs or strategies to measure the effectiveness of those programs or strategies over time.
The department agrees with the report's recommendations and outlined its plans to implement them.