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Revamp of state’s broken education information system begins

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Maria Scaloni, director of IT, look at an organizational chart of SAIS, Student Accountability Information System. The computer system is being overhauled to streamline school funding and to make critical information, such as test scores, more accessible in real time to parents, teachers and administrators. (Photo by Paul Dagostino)

As an elementary teacher in Yuma for 28 years, Rep. Lynne Pancrazi says it was common for her to have new students she knew nothing about at the beginning of the year or sometimes at mid-year.

Without information regarding their recent academic past, Pancrazi had to take time to assess students to find out whether they would be able to keep up with the class. Records on incoming students could lag weeks behind, she says.

“I can remember going to the secretary and saying ‘did we get the records on this student? What district did he come from,’” says Pancrazi, an Arizona House Democrat serving on the Education Committee. “It’s hard to place kids if you don’t have those kinds of records.”

The challenge facing Pancrazi and other teachers and school officials across the state is the aging and often inaccurate Student Accountability Information System (SAIS). It is a state-level system used for academic record management and is intended to increase the accuracy of public school funding.

The federal government and state have provided money to begin updating the decade-old system, but it still has a way to go.

“It was built wrong. It’s bad and I’ve fixed it as much as I can,” says Mark Masterson, chief information officer with the Arizona Department of Education.

The inability of the SAIS system to accurately keep track of money has lead schools to purchase and operate their own computer systems to catch inaccuracies in the state’s system. Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal estimates that school districts statewide employ somewhere between 200 and 500 employees that are dedicated to tracking school funding.

“They have huge systems designed to check the state’s systems,” Huppenthal says. “It was imposing huge administrative costs (on school districts) and sucking the life out of them.”

Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Dysart Unified School District, says her district uses its own system to track student achievement, teachers’ professional development and funding, which is necessary to serve the needs of the district’s 25,000 students.  Errors in funding are common, she says.

“We have had situations that a year has gone by before our systems match what the state has,” she says. “It could impact your budget when your data indicates one thing than their data suggests something else.”

According to lawmakers and education officials, the biggest roadblock to upgrading the system is money. “The system has been in place for the last 10 years. But it was not upgraded. Money is the culprit,” says Sen. Linda Gray, a Republican who serves on the Senate Education Committee.

It appears that the much-sought after fix is on the way with the help of a $5 million federal grant and about $7.4 million in state money, according to Arizona Department of Education (ADE) officials. Masterson says the first phase of the upgrade project is already underway using the federal grant.

Masterson is overhauling the system with available money in phases during the next four years. He says funding is at about 38 percent of the approximate $32 million needed to complete the “longitudinal data system,” which will address the concerns of educators like Pancrazi by providing parents, teachers and administrators access to real-time data on student’s accountability, AIMS scores, teachers’ performance and school funding.

“Parents sometimes don’t know to request that their students’ information be sent to the school they will be attending. They show up with the student and want to be enrolled,” Masterson says. “If that information were in a central location accessible to both schools involved, it would be easier to know how best to place the student.”

Pancrazi, other legislators and education professionals say knowing where all students are academically in real-time would speed up the pace of learning and make new students feel more comfortable with their surroundings.

“It would make all of it integrated just like we have done for medical records,” Pancrazi says.

Huppenthal says ideally, the system would allow teachers to “come into school 10 days before school begins and sign on the computer and see every student in the classroom and have instant access to all the tests she has taken all the way back to the kindergarten year.”

Masterson has already begun sharing the plan with the districts and will begin pilot programs with a few to prove the state can link with the school districts effectively. Some districts are willing to look at what the state has to offer even though skepticism remains, he says.

Educators like Pletnick, the superintendent of Dysart Unified, are concerned that shifting exclusively to the state’s system will wipe out the information in the district’s own database. “We want to plug in and not lose all of the system that we have in place,” she says.

Huppenthal says that school districts merely have the option of using the state system, so as not to jeopardize local control. “It’s particularly crucial for charter schools. We want to respect that (local control) inch by inch as we move the computer system forward,” Huppenthal says.

Masterson characterizes the system as centralization of data but decentralization of usage. He says parents could monitor where their child is compared to other children, or where their school is compared to other schools. “That type of information if powerful to parents because then you can make a decision where you send your child,” he says.

There are protections in the system, however, to make sure that parents can only view their child’s specific data.

“A parent cannot see a next door neighbor’s kid’s (data). We have to link that parent to that child, and we’re building a security identity management in order to make sure that we know you are the parent and you can see your children,” Masterson says.

Huppenthal, a long-time public servant with great interest in education, says the fix is long overdue and he plans to see it through to completion. When asked what would happen with the project if he weren’t re-elected, he said whoever took charge should see the benefit to all parties involved.

“Anybody who has a correct healthy attitude at all of getting this computer system working correctly should see that this is the single-most important thing that they can do to make the education system perform better.”

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