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Community Colleges Lead in Educational Reform: Linking K-16
Institutions in Instructional Improvement Through Technology

Brad C. Phillips and William E. Piland

Today, educational reform often equals testing. This overreliance on testing has come about because of a belief that a paper-and-pencil or computer-based test can truly measure student learning and that results can be used for punishment, reward, and accountability purposes. Such a simplistic approach to reform is viewed as a quick fix to long-seething problems in our educational system, especially in the K-12 system. How do we really know that students have learned?

Furthermore, tests have many well-known and documented problems. Some of the major issues include the time involved in test preparation and test taking, misalignment of standards and the tests, high-stakes impact on student performance, and validity concerns, to name a few. Despite these problems, politicians, an uninformed public, and policymakers who are determining issues beyond the levels of their expertise have grabbed on to testing as the Holy Grail of reform. Unfortunately, this approach to reform is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There is a better way.

The Role of Community Colleges in Educational Reform

Community colleges are well positioned to lead educational reform in the K-16 arena. They play a distinct role, straddling their K-12 partners on one side and their university partners on the other. This places them in an enviable but difficult spot: While community colleges, as the saying goes, serve the top 100 percent of high school graduating classes plus community members, they are singularly positioned to influence and bring together their K-12 and university partners to solve regional education problems.

A community college district in Southern California has taken a leadership role in implementing a technologically based reform to improve education from a K-16 perspective. In the San Diego region more than six years ago, a data-sharing partnership was formed between the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and San Diego State University. Faculty starving for information about the success of their students after they left the community college and shifted to the university formed the basis of this data-sharing partnership. This initial data-sharing effort has now spread statewide. Community colleges are organizing K-16 educational institutions regionally to share data about their students in a program known as Cal-PASS (California Partnership for Achieving Student Success). These data are used to track student cohorts as they make the transition from one educational segment to the next. The information is fed back to intersegmental, discipline-based faculty teams to examine curricula and instructional practices and make recommendations for improvement.

Technology Facilitating Cooperation

Several forces have kept this type of cooperation from happening in the past, but recent advances in computer hardware and software have enabled this effort to take place. A few short years ago, sifting through millions of transcript records could have taken an afternoon of computer time on the college's mainframe computer, as data storage and processing speeds made this type of analysis difficult on all but the largest college mainframes. Additionally, the software needed to process the data was extremely complicated and was mastered only by the high priests in information systems departments.

Since that time, the price of high-powered computers has been drastically lowered, and processing power as well as storage space can be had for pennies on the dollar, compared to what existed only a few short years ago. Furthermore, advances in the World Wide Web have enabled secure connections and accelerated downloads, providing a viable way to exchange large amounts of information.

The Structure of Cal-PASS

Cal-PASS is organized around regional consortia wherein the majority of students move between the local K-16 institutions. Typically, the community college within a region serves as a convener of feeder K-12 institutions and nearby universities to introduce the Cal-PASS concept. After agreement is reached to form a Cal-PASS consortium, a Memorandum of Understanding is signed by all cooperating institutions in the region. Next, a data-submission schedule is developed and approved by all institutions.

Today in California, there are almost 50 community colleges, 15 universities, and 50 K-12, high school, and K-8 districts participating in or developing their Cal-PASS regional consortia. New consortia are being formed throughout the state at a rapid rate.

Types of Data Collected

Each Cal-PASS file is relatively small in the number of elements collected. Three files are populated: (1) a student basic file that holds demographic and transition information, such as number of units or credits earned at the previous institution; (2) a course enrollment file that includes all information related to courses and student performance, such as course name and student grade; and, (3) an award file that includes any achievements earned by the student, such as diplomas, certificates, and degrees. Each file is linked by an encrypted identifier and includes both a primary key, e.g., Social Security number, where available, and secondary key created by a combination of data elements.

Technology Underpinning the Cal-PASS System

The Cal-PASS data warehouse resides on a scalable NCR Teradata server that employs Teradata database software. With its current storage capacity of over 700 gigabytes, it has the resources to hold all of the designated student records and operates with dual processors running at 2.8GHz. It is designed to interface with a variety of business intelligence tools such as Crystal Analysis and the Teradata Analyst software. The server will enable consortium partners to download student information from the data warehouse to their local computers to conduct further manipulations beyond the standard questions answered as part of the web-based interface. Specifically, data are accessible in two different ways: (1) through a web-based query tool to produce standardized reports, and, (2) through web applications enabling downloads of a consortium partner's authorized raw data.

Cal-PASS has evolved from a few educational institutions sharing data to a statewide effort. As participation increased, such, a database dictionary needed to be created for each segment K-12, community colleges, and public and private universities in order to better standardize information and to maintain data consistency and integrity. The core database is standardized; however, consortium partners have an opportunity to define additional elements that help to serve the needs peculiar to their region.

Each institution can submit data through a secure web-based application, where syntactical edits are run against the submission to ensure validity. A unique key is assigned, and any personally identifiable information is stripped from the database, ensuring student confidentiality and meeting Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements. Data are submitted annually, but an initial five-year submission is encouraged to provide sufficient data for immediate analysis.

Educational Reform and Uses of Data

Reform imposed from above tends to have very little effect on student outcomes. Rather, from a treatment effectiveness standpoint, the actor with the most power to influence student outcomes is the classroom faculty member. With the Cal-PASS system, intersegmental, discipline-based faculty discussions about curriculum, teaching practices, instructional materials, and performance measures can be shared and reviewed in light of transition data. When faculty members work together with their intersegmental colleagues to understand the barriers to successful student transition, solutions to these barriers are proposed and implemented in the form of a more seamless curriculum and improved instructional strategies.

Our experience has indicated that vast differences exist between the education segments. These differences can only be overcome through cooperation and collaboration based on reliable and accurate student transition performance data. The Cal-PASS system provides this vehicle, and community colleges are the linchpins that make the system a reality.

Brad C. Phillips is Senior Director, Institutional Research, Planning, and Academic Services at Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (CA). William E. Piland is Professor Emeritus, San Diego State University (CA).


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