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Florida, N.Y. Building State Records Systems

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To transfer student records from a school in Tallahassee to another one across Florida can take as long as six weeks, a time-lag that officials say is bound to increase as the state's school-age population continues to boom.

But if the Florida Information Resource Network goes into operation as scheduled early next fall, such transfers will take place electronically--and almost instantaneously.

Florida has mandated that each of its 67 school districts become part of an electronic network to share education records, statistics, and other data.

It is a multimillion-dollar venture that several other states--notably Texas and New York--are undertaking, as an era of accountability makes information a prime educational commodity.

To David Brittain, administrator of Florida's educational-technology office, it is also "a monumental task and not one that is easily done." The state legislature first approved the concept of such a network, he says, in the early 1980's.

When it becomes fully operational next fall, says Mr. Brittain, "instead of having summary information, we'll have the detail; we'll be able to look at the snapshot we took at the most recent time."

He predicts that the move toward electronic linkages between school systems will eventually be adopted in some form by state education departments across the country.

"No state, as far as we can tell, is trying to do it as comprehensively as we are," the Florida specialist adds. "We are maybe the only state foolish enough to do this. But we believe there's no question they'll all have to get into it."

Those involved in developing the elaborate electronic record-keeping systems say the advent of rapid-transfer computer networks connected through telephone lines has spurred the move toward centralized data collection and greater information coordination by states.

In New York State, for example, the planned Technology Network Ties System will connect school districts, regional computing centers, libraries, and the state education de4partment. Eventually, schools will also be linked to others in their area through local computer networks.

The tnt system will allow teachers in particular disciplines to hold "electronic conferences," give administrators a wider and faster means of communication, and provide "instructional databases" for teachers.

"We're talking about rebuilding the information structure of New York," says Michael Radlick, director of planning and development for the state education department. Originally envisioned as a five-year, $7-million project, he says, it has subsequently become much more complex.

The state's four largest districts, including New York City, are among the first scheduled to be linked into the Student Information System, a component of tnt that facilitates the collection of attendance, scheduling, biographical, and other data.

In Texas, the three-year-old Public Education Information Management System is geared to providing data on student performance to legislators, who have backed substantial funding increases for improvements in the state's schools, says George McCollough, director of the peims division of the state department of education.

"It really is an outgrowth of the reform movement," he says.

But Texas has taken an approach different from that of Florida and New York. Districts there are generally free to produce the data required by the state in whatever form is convenient, from magnetic tape to floppy discs. They then take the data to regional computing centers, where it is collated and sent on to the state department.

"The fundamental difference is that Texas is basically a rural state that has 1,100 school districts," Mr. McCollough explains.

For other states, the political reality of paying for such a project--and of forcing cooperation from independent school districts--has complicated networking efforts.

"We have plans to do something with a statewide database, but what we don't have is the funding," says Mark Moody, director of the office of management for the Maryland Department of Education.

That state's 24 school systems now provide summary data to the state on a regular schedule, but it is not as detailed or timely as the kind of information an electronic network could provide, according to Mr. Moody.

"It would be very handy to make a legitimate comparison of schools,'' he adds. But the legislature has yet to support the purchase of the equipment needed to do the job.

A commission appointed by Gov. William D. Schaefer, however, has again put the question of educational accountability into the spotlight. And many predict that it may provide the impetus for planning alarge-scale data-collection system.

It's "our one hope on the horizon," Mr. Moody says.

But Stephen M. Raucher, director of management-information and computer services for the Montgomery County district, claims that school systems in the state may not be as anxious to meet such a data-collecting mandate as those in states where there is greater reliance on state funding.

He says that Maryland districts have "taken the position that we do not want to supply the state with that kind of detailed information" if it could be used to make invalid comparisons of student--and district--performance.

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