It seems like a simple question: How many African-American boys scored proficient on California’s math test?
Go ahead, Google it.
You’ll probably end up at the California Department of Education’s snazzy (by state government standards) website, which provides a litany of bar graphs, charts and filters to help inform the public how California’s students fare on standardized tests. If you’re a persistent nerd, you might even end up on the research files page, where the state posts some of the underlying testing data in large downloadable datasets for researchers and advocacy organizations to dig through.
But although you’ll be able to find how all black students are performing (a dismal 18 percent passed the test), or how boys in general are performing (37 percent passed), you won’t be able to find the combination of the two. Nor could you look up in which schools African-American boys performed the best or worst.
This isn’t just an exercise. Imagine you’re the mother of African-American boys trying to enroll her sons in the best possible school district in the region. Or an academic researching the interplay of race and gender in education outcomes. You might be able to make some simplifying assumptions and guess. But, as a mother or a researcher, you would rather just have the data.
That’s just one example of several data points you may be surprised to learn that California doesn’t provide at your fingertips-even if you stretch. Below you’ll find five more, gleaned from interviews with advocacy organizations, researchers, and my own experience as a data journalist trying to fetch numbers from the state.
Who Gets Thrown Off Welfare?
The Missing Data: There are about 430,000 California families on CalWORKs, the joint federal-state program that provides cash payments and work training for needy families. While the state keeps tabs on the ethnic mix of families receiving benefits (about 54 percent are Latino), we don’t know much about those families that are kicked off the program for fraud.
Why It’s Important: Advocates for low-income families suspect there could be bias in how county welfare administrators investigate program abuses in CalWORKs. Caseworkers have considerable discretion in investigating fraud, and advocates fear explicit or implicit prejudices could factor into which families must re-pay benefits or are kicked off the program entirely.
“We know implicit bias can have a strong impact on case by case decisions,” says Jessica Batholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “You may have different races and cultures colliding, and you can have a misunderstanding of what people are saying and why they’re saying it.”
Why We Don’t Have That Data: The Department of Social Services, which oversees CalWORKs at the state level, does not require counties to report demographic information on its fraud cases.