California Lags Nation in Tracking Students' Educational Progress

For Release

January 29, 2008

While California has basic tracking system architecture in place to allow the state's educators to closely follow the progress of students from kindergarten to post-secondary education, officials must overcome political and financial barriers, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study shows that by developing such a data system — known as a “student unit record” data system — California policymakers and educators will be better equipped to create policies and adopt changes that decrease student dropout rates, encourage a smoother transition from secondary to post-secondary education and increase student retention in college.

Despite being the nation's most populous state, California lags much of the country in tracking even though many state legislators want to develop a student unit record-type system.

“Such a system would enable California to answer important questions, such as how to improve course articulation between high school and college, what classes of students may need special intervention, and whether students are prepared to meet future labor demands,” said Georges Vernez, the report's lead author and a senior social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

But the study finds that California would need to overcome a number of challenges to integrate a student unit record system, such as eliminating the protective mindset that each of the state's four education segments has developed.

“Policymakers would need to build a consensus that such a system is desirable, and then determine who would develop the system, who would have access to it, and who would be responsible for operating it,” Vernez said. “It could result in current administrators having to give up some decision-making authority to make this work.”

The study also notes that, given the state's budgetary problems, funding could be a roadblock, although the amount needed to build and run the system would be minimal compared to the billions California spends on education annually.

Additionally, state educators would need to agree on how comprehensive the system would be and how it would be standardized so it could be used by all of the state's education segments. Decision-makers also would need to determine how best to improve the quality of the data collected, select a common student identifier across the segments, and resolve how best to protect student privacy.

“It is a significant task, and it could take several years,” Vernez said. “But the end result could move California to the front of the class in K-20 education.”

Currently, 18 states are able to match individual student records between their K-12 and secondary education systems. These systems permit the tracking of an individual student's progress over time — from the first day of kindergarten to college graduation — and eventually into the labor market.

The study finds that California has the pieces in place to build and maintain a student unit record data system:

  • The California School Information System, a mandated public K-12 system that has limited enrollment and demographic student data.
  • The California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, a mandated public K-12 system now under development.
  • One system for each of California's three public higher education segments: community colleges, the California State University and the University of California.
  • The California Post-Secondary Education Commission student database, a partially integrated system that includes limited student-level data from all three higher education segments.
  • The California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, a voluntary regional system integrating student records from individual schools, community colleges and universities.

The study recommends five specific steps the state will need to take to implement a student unit record system:

  • Complete the design and implementation of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, which is scheduled to be operational in 2010.
  • Identify and engage a “champion” to advocate for a student unit record system; potential candidates could be the governor, a renowned business leader or a legislator. A commission of potential users and committed stakeholders is another possibility.
  • Obtain legislative authority to enable the state to determine who holds decision-making authority, who owns the system and who has access to the data.
  • Build the K-20 student unit record system incrementally, over a course of 4 to 5 years. The sequence might be: integrating the four existing systems “as is”; adding data elements now collected at the school and campus levels; and linking the K-20 student data file to other state and federal data systems, such as preschool, employment and private universities.
  • Develop and adequately fund an “objective” analytical capability that is either within or independent of the organization operating the K-20 system to evaluate and improve the system and distill the results. Experience shows that 10 analysts would be needed.

“Educators need accurate information on student enrollment and retention, the effectiveness of programs and the factors that influence how students move through the education system,” Vernez said. “Student unit record data systems can provide that information and answer the questions that are at the core of educational effectiveness.”

Other authors include Cathy Krop, Mirka Vuollo, and Janet S. Hansen. The report, “Toward a K-20 Student Unit record Data System for California,” is available at

The study was funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which makes grants to address the most serious social and environmental problems facing society, where risk capital, responsibly invested, may make a difference over time. The Foundation places a high value on sustaining and improving institutions that make positive contributions to society.

The study was produced by RAND Education, which conducts research and analysis on a variety of topics, including school reform, educational assessment and accountability, and trends among teachers and teacher training.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.