School data system in doubt

Acquisition clouds future of troubled information program

August 16, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

After a series of delays of key student reports caused by the glitch-prone Student Management System, or SMS, Howard County schools officials now face worries that the program might be discontinued.

Chancery Software Ltd., the British Columbia-based SMS provider, was acquired in May by Pearson Education, a New Jersey-based student data programming company. Although officials say that Pearson Education is one of the top companies of its kind, the acquisition has left some uncertainty over the future of SMS.

"We are in constant communication with [Pearson Education]," said Bob Glascock, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who has been the official most involved with SMS. "Our goal is to determine the direction they are going and what type of changes they will make."

SMS likely will be discussed tomorrow, during the afternoon session of the school board meeting, when Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin is expected to discuss technology in the school system. On Aug. 24, Pearson Education and Chancery Software officials will visit the school system and meet with top officials.

In the meantime, system officials are dealing with a problem in the SMS program that has resulted in the delay of 15,000 schedules that were supposed to have been mailed to students during the first two weeks of August. Now, students will receive schedules the week of Aug. 21.

An end-of-the-year data transfer process called a "roll-over" has not been completed because SMS has not been able to process the data of incoming freshmen. For all high school students to have a schedule in time for the start of classes, school officials made the decision to revert to an older data program called Grade Transporter.

Grade Transporter, a temporary fix, creates its own problems, according to Thomas Miller, e-Learning Facilitator for the system.

"It's not a state-of-the-art program," said Miller. He said that Grade Transporter is not a centralized computer program, it is also not Web-based and, because the software is no longer made, it is not supported by a company.

To use Grade Transporter once again, system employees have had to develop a new application so that schedules could be produced, according to Glascock, who also estimated that only 60 percent of current employees were familiar with the older program.

Howard County, like most school systems across the nation, pursued new student data programs to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"It changed the requirements," Glascock explained. "Old tools that we had [became obsolete]."

Glascock said Prince George's County recently has delayed implementation of its new program because of problems.

"All of us are experiencing similar types of challenges," Glascock said.

Since SMS was implemented at all 12 high schools in July last year, the school system has experienced a series of well-documented setbacks.

In the first quarter of the 2005-2006 school year, more than 1,700 report cards had to be reprinted because of a mix-up in grades. Third-quarter report cards for high school students were distributed a week late because of SMS. And final report cards for seniors were distributed after graduation, although school system officials said the delay did not affect college admissions.

The system has spent $803,000 for SMS, which has included $650,000 for contracted technical support for the program; $80,000 for the annual maintenance and licensing fees for a contract with Chancery; $53,000 for overtime costs resulting from SMS; and $20,000 for a network analysis performed to help isolate problems with SMS.

"Initially, when the first reports of problems surfaced, it seemed that staff was getting it under control," said school board member Courtney Watson. "This latest failure is troubling. We have to look at the vendor for redress. The vendor failed. We need to hold the vendor accountable."

Glascock said there are plans to create registrar and data clerk liaisons, which should monitor the effect of student data programs in the schools; and there is talk of forming an SMS advisory committee.

"We're really trying to maintain and keep open various avenues of communication," he said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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