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NCLB Outrages

Student Tracking System Has Fans and Foes

Ohanian Comment: Although No Child Left Behind is not mentioned in this article, this kind of data warehousing is at the heart of the act and the expense of such data collection and storeage should be counted as an NCLB expense, not to mention atrocity.

After seven years and $12 million, the state has created one giant computer system containing the names and whereabouts of Arizona's 900,000 students.

The Arizona Department of Education is declaring victory, but few schools are celebrating.

The promise of the Student Accountability Information System was to make it easier for district and charter schools to track student enrollment and send the information to the state.

Instead, to feed student information into the system, schools have had to spend additional millions of their own dollars to buy software, hire technology specialists and train front office staff.

District officials say they are doing double work and have yet to see any return on their investment.

"No matter what the price tag they put on SAIS, I can tell you it cost 10 times that," said Mike Ruppel, Tempe Union High School district's technology chief.

Districts as small as Tolleson Elementary, with 2,200 students, had to hire a full-time information technology specialist.

Paradise Valley Unified, with 34,000 students, spent $120,000 on software and had to hire two full-time employees who do nothing but generate, track, clean up and send information to the statewide computer program at least every 20 days.

State officials said they are thrilled because each student now has a state identification number and can be tracked from school to school, assuring more accurate state payments, about $5,000 per student, to districts and charter schools.

Districts said that may be the intent, but it's hardly the reality and not nearly enough to make SAIS worthwhile.

In the years it took to build the accounting system, technology and the state's education philosophy have left the system behind.

Technology specialists said the financial accounting system is out of date and unfriendly, slow and prone to errors.

For example, the system shows that 55,882 students are enrolled in two schools at the same time and that 740 students are simultaneously enrolled in three schools.

SAIS cannot explain why; it doesn't even know if the 740 students are also counted in the 55,882 students. There could be many reasons for the system to show concurrent enrollment.

If a student is enrolled in one school on June 1 but isn't taken off the rolls of his or her former school until June 3, the state system will show the student as enrolled in two schools at one time and create an error report.

Even if it worked well, knowing exactly how much to pay a school for each student is no longer adequate. Educators need a system that helps them target state money that goes to improving individual student learning, test scores and teacher performance.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has sunk time and money into the Student Accountability Information System just to get it operating.

Horne said a few more million dollars and a few more years could make the system capable of generating detailed student and teacher information.

Some experts disagree. They said the state's long-awaited and still struggling student information system is too old to be stretched and patched to integrate additional details about student and teacher achievement.

Scott Thompson was once in charge of fixing the Arizona Department of Education's SAIS computer system before Horne took charge. He is now business and technology director for the growing Dysart Unified District in the West Valley.

"SAIS is capable of doing one thing and one thing only - and has problems doing that - and that's counting student attendance," Thompson said, who suggested it could be time to dump the program and recommended an independent review of the system. "Is it efficient? Is it a way to do business in 2004? Absolutely not."

Reporting the numbers

Just about everyone agrees that SAIS was flawed from the beginning, when the state allowed schools to link to the statewide system via a dozen commercial programs or create their own.

The original reason to build the system was to end the practice of schools sending the state their own estimates of student attendance. Lawmakers, led by then state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, did not trust the numbers schools were sending, believing a more accurate count would save millions of state dollars.

Allowing different vendors to feed into the system has cost the districts big money and state trainers are having trouble keeping the assorted vendors and district programmers informed about the system's quirks and changing guidelines for entering data.

"I think they (districts) realize that having different vendors of different quality affects the functionality of the system," Horne said. "But I believe it's too late to put that horse back in the barn."

But Horne still sees advantages. Having individual student state identification numbers has put Arizona ahead of many states and rebuilding a different, centralized system would be too costly, he said.

Tempe Union's Ruppel said the state could have selected one vendor or built a centralized program itself, but at the time SAIS was being built, state and district officials didn't want to disrupt existing district vendor contracts.

"It's a commercial deal, they didn't want to make 20 vendors angry," said Ruppel, a former information specialist in the insurance business.

Ruppel said tracking students as they travel around the state from school to school is valuable and necessary, but Arizona's SAIS is poorly designed and implemented.

"If it was an insurance company did as poorly as the Arizona Department of Education has done with SAIS, they wouldn't be in business," Ruppel said.

Only in the past two years has the system been able to produce reports, and those have been late and plagued with errors.

The 2002-03 school year was the first year every school was required to enter the name of every student with about 23 pieces of information, such as date of birth and gender, into the state system. Then they were required to update it every 20 days.

The computer system crumbled under the massive load, and the information it generated was too late to help districts build their budgets.

"So they were just screaming very loudly," said Hayford Gyampoh, who manages the State Department of Education's information systems.

Last school year things went better, and, as Gyampoh put it: "They really understand the system right now, so the screaming has gone way down."

But understanding the system hasn't made district officials much happier. Now, they must learn to clean up errors quickly on their end. Rules on how to enter information were once vague; now they're complex and change regularly.

This year, school districts still have the option of reporting their own student count, the way they used to do, as well as reporting it through SAIS. State officials will consider both. But, next year, the state will not accept any count outside of the SAIS system.

Getting accurate data

Many policymakers and researchers are calling for an independent review of the Student Accountability Information System and a summit on collecting education data.

They said reliable statewide information about students and teachers is not only required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it's critical to improving Arizona's education system.

An Arizona State University study released in May said statewide information on such important issues as dropout rates and teacher licensing is weak or does not exist and that the few electronic systems the state does have are not built to talk to each other.

The Arizona Business & Education Coalition's executive director, Susan Carlson, said SAIS set up the expectation that it's tracking student achievement, when it's a basic accounting system.

"There is not one single meeting I go to that accurate data isn't an issue," Carlson said. Without better data, Arizona can't complete several initiatives, such as dropout prevention and merit pay for teachers.

"We can't, as a state, wait much longer for a system that is consistent, accurate and timely," Carlson said. "No business can make an effective plan without effective data."

John Kelly, community affairs director for Intel, said SAIS is not a failure; it is simply old.

"It basically works, but its function is extremely narrow," Kelly said. Politicians aren't willing to consider a new information system because so much has been invested "emotionally, politically, and financially" in the old one.

"I don't think you can build on an architecture that's 12 years old," Kelly said. "It creates a vast number of problems."

Kelly said the state must move quickly before each district pours more money into its own system to get the student and teacher performance data it needs.

Instead, districts and commercial vendors, policymakers, politicians and business leaders should be working together to build a simple, Internet-based, detailed information system that would work much like an online banking system.

"This is not a simple assignment," Kelly said. "We need to get districts excited about working with the department and building collaboratively."

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.

— Pat Kossan
Arizona Republic


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