S.C. Now Poised to Better Track Student Progress

New Technology Rolls Out With Unique Student IDs, Links to Teachers, Methods

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South Carolina has flipped the switch on the first phase of a new student-information system that officials say takes a quantum leap in technology that can track students' progress and find ways to improve instruction.

A key feature will be the ability to analyze individual students' performance and tie it to the teachers and types of instructional methods that were used in various subjects.

The conversion didn't come without a few glitches, though.

"I received many calls, and I know our principals were working diligently to try and work the kinks out in scheduling," said Lynda Leventis-Wells, a member of the Greenville County, S.C., school board. "It's always like once we get used to a system, the state or somebody changes it, and we have to go to another system."

The new system, called PowerSchool, replaces a system that had been in use for 10 years that for the first time gave each student a unique identification number that could be used to track him or her from one school to another or between districts.

The company that sold the old system is phasing out support for it and is offering PowerSchool to replace it, according to Gary West, the director of data management for the state department of education.

The computer will be able to sort out what types of methods helped students with similar problems and suggest possible teaching approaches, he said. It also will analyze demographic information to try to discern what works best for students of various backgrounds.

"When we put it in place, teachers will have a very powerful tool we believe can have an impact on the creation of learning," Mr. West said. "This is a way to give teachers the tools to become highly effective with their students."

Learning Process

In Greenville County, teachers are spending the first nine weeks of the school year learning the system. In late October, they will start posting grades online; the grades will be available for students and parents to see as soon as they are posted, said Bill Brown, the executive director of educational technology services for the 69,000-student district.

A new parent portal that will go online around that time will give parents information not only from progress reports and final grades, as with the old system, but also from every test grade the teacher enters for their child.

"With new system, as the teacher pushes the button to submit her grades, they show up in the parent portal. Right then, right now," Mr. Brown said. Parents will be able to look at more than one child’s record from more than one school on the same screen, he said.

Teachers will be able to access the Web-based system from mobile devices as well as from their school and home computers, Mr. Brown said.

Complaints have come mostly in the area of scheduling. The district is working with vendors to straighten out the kinks, Mr. Brown said.

The system, originally developed by Apple Inc. and distributed by Pearson Education Inc., has multiple safeguards to secure student information from both internal and external attacks, Mr. Brown said. Social Security numbers aren’t used in the system, Mr. West said.

The system goes beyond academics and includes textbook management, food service, and other systems.

"I can click a button and it will tell me right now what our district enrollment is, in real time," Mr. Brown said.

The system also is being adapted for linkage with higher education, early-childhood education, and social service agencies, Mr. West said.

He said the system also would allow public access to "aggregated data" on student achievement, meaning researchers would be able to analyze the link between teaching methods and students without seeing information that would identify individual students.

The South Carolina education department received a $14.9 million federal grant to set up the system, which will take two to five years to fully implement, Mr. West said. The Greenville County district has budgeted $1.4 million over two years to implement the system, Mr. Brown said.

School board members have bemoaned the fact that the state mandated switching to the new system but didn’t provide districts with any money to do it.

But district trustee Tommie Reece said she has spoken with teachers and principals who like the new system.

"It is a better system. It is an improvement," she said. "It will allow us to have more information, more accurate information, and have it faster."

Vol. 30, Issue 07, Page 9

Published in Print: October 13, 2010, as S.C. Now Poised to Better Track Student Progress
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