When the school board and superintendent of the Matanuska-Susitna, or Matsu, Borough School District in Alaska decided in 2002 to have the district's information systems audited, they found that the district had insufficient data about student attendance, grades, test results, graduation rates, and other measures of student and teacher performance. The system that the district was using to track what was happening in its classrooms was inadequate to perform such tasks, says Marie Burton, the district's technology director.
Administrators in the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama had similar problems. "We were having a terrible time," says Darryl Burroughs, director of student information systems, or SIS. The system did not keep information accurate and current, and enrollment records listed the same students in multiple schools, he says.
Now, prompted largely by the reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, the Matsu and Birmingham districts have sophisticated student information systems that allow them to efficiently collect the data they need and save staff resources.
Both districts use SchoolMAX, a Web-based SIS developed by Reston, Va.-based MAXIMUS, a provider of program management, consulting, and information technology services to government agencies, including more than 2,000 public school systems.
By using SchoolMAX and other software or Web-based systems developed by other companies, teachers and administrators can quickly enter, access and report accurate, real-time information about all aspects of student performance by grade, school and district levels. SchoolMAX users have online access to a single database that contains timely student, family and school information for the year, as well as historical data. In the end, the life history of student progress is available.
Before NCLB, it was common practice for every school to collect student information in its own way. "They had different ways of reporting it," and district offices had difficulty putting it all together, says Lou Chappuie, SchoolMAX project manager in the Los Angeles Unified School District and vice president of MAXIMUS.
Now districts can quickly collect data in the same format from all schools and generate the reports they must submit to comply with NCLB and other state education agency requirements.
In Birmingham-an urban district with about 29,000 students in 66 schools and an 85 percent poverty rate-one server was in every school, and each worked independently of the others. "To create a system-wide report required extracting data from every location and pulling it all together," recalls Burroughs. "It was horrible." Another problem in Birmingham is that families "move constantly, so we have a lot of kids moving from school to school," Burroughs adds, and other students move out of the district altogether.
When NCLB was implemented in early 2001, administrators scrambled to devise quality and thorough reports that were mandated under the law. "We almost had to shut down everything else and focus on NCLB to get the information from the schools so that we could create the reports that we needed," Burroughs says.
Until it installed SchoolMAX, the district had no centralized way to keep up with enrollment changes in its schools and often found that the same children were listed in different schools. A central database now allows administrators to quickly spot and correct situations like that, Burroughs says. "Now we can do in two or three hours what would have taken weeks, maybe a month, before," he says. "I feel like we have moved into the 21st century."
Districts that contract with MAXIMUS get extensive on-site training in how to use SchoolMAX. When Birmingham installed the system, "they had 25 to 30 people in our district for about two weeks, going from school to school to help us get the system up," Burroughs says. MAXIMUS trained the eight members of Burroughs' staff and helped them install SchoolMAX in every school and train teachers and other school staff how to use it.
Another Alabama district, in Oxford City, with 4,000 students in six schools, selected a different system, InformationNOW, developed by STI, based in Mobile, Ala.
"We were doing multiple programs for grades, attendance, special ed and other things, and pulling the data together manually," says Eric Burrage, the district's director of operations and technology. Now Oxford City teachers enter data on student grades, attendance and other key areas into computers on their desks. Each school office correlates its teachers' reports, and the district office uploads the school reports into a centralized database every night, Burrage explains.
InformationNOW integrates the data to allow users to create reports with the information they need. While school principals can get daily attendance updates on their home pages when they log in, the district curriculum director can quickly access assessment data.
District administrators say that one issue they faced in implementing the new systems was getting teachers to accept them. "We got some pushback from teachers; this was a paradigm shift for them," says Burroughs.
Burton adds that teachers in the Matsu district had to "change their mindset" and adapt to entering live data on their computers in a common format, instead of keeping records in their own way which was sometimes on hard copy on their desks. They had to learn that it was imperative that they enter the data regularly, she says. Now that they are used to the system, "they can go into it and look at past and present test scores and see what direction a child needs to go in reading, math and the language arts," Burton says.
Meanwhile, principals can use a software program called Principalm to download information from SchoolMAX into Windows mobile/pocket PCs and other handheld devices at any time, Burton says. That is particularly helpful in high schools, where "a principal who sees kids lingering in the hall can pull up their schedules and be sure they are where they should be," she says.
In addition to helping districts manage NCLB reporting requirements, SchoolMAX improves communication between districts and parents on their children's school performance. If a student fails to arrive at school or a particular class on time, or is in an emergency situation, the school instantly notifies parents by e-mail as well as by phone. The system can also trigger automatic evening phone calls to parents to deliver general information or conduct surveys.
Parents with Internet access can also enter the system anytime to check their children's schedules and academic progress. "We even have parents serving in Iraq who are checking their kids' grades," says Burroughs. This reduces the need for parent-teacher conferences because parents know how their children are doing before they get their report cards, he continues.
And the ease of gathering information is particularly helpful in economically distressed districts like Birmingham, where working parents sometimes have to choose between "going to the school during the day for a conference and losing pay versus staying at work and being able to pay their rent," Burroughs says.
Administrators in districts using state-of-the-art student information systems say they have made all the difference in the world. "It was third-world-type technology that we were using before," Burroughs says. "Now it's a whole different ball game."
Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Maryland.