Pearson Data System Hits Bumpy Ride in North Carolina

Technical problems frustrating schools

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A new computer system for keeping track of student information in North Carolina has run into so many technical problems that the accuracy of transcripts, school enrollment statistics, and other records remain uncertain.

State education officials and Pearson Inc., the London- and New York City-based company that owns the PowerSchool system, said they are working hard to resolve the running list of software problems that have affected schools across North Carolina. Company and state officials say the system is improving, but schools were still reporting problems recently, such as the inability to tell some students their current grade-point average or class rank.

"We are confident the system is working better every day, and that the majority of the users are satisfied with the new capabilities they have," Pearson spokesman Brandon Pinette said in a written statement.

But educators, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison, said the rollout of PowerSchool has been "a train wreck."

Until this school year, the state's public schools used the North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education, or NC WISE, system to manage student data.

But in 2010 Pearson bought NC WISE and phased it out. The state said PowerSchool would be more secure and would provide more information to parents and teachers.

State officials said implementing PowerSchool is costing $7.1 million a year, but the state saved at least $2.1 million by putting the system in place this school year instead of waiting another year.

"I understand that it's been difficult," said Vanessa Jeter, a spokeswoman for the state department of public instruction. "We've been spending a lot of time on it just like a lot of other people have been spending time. The truth is we were going to have to make the change from the NC WISE software at some point."

The rollout of PowerSchool has produced a lengthy list of problems posted on the state education department's website, along with a list of "successes" for issues that have been resolved.

"They've corrected a lot of problems," said Terry Stoops, the director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think tank. "But every time they correct a problem, two more pop up."

The state is working closely with Pearson to fix problems or find work-arounds, said Philip Price, the chief information officer/chief financial officer for the department of public instruction. In an email, Mr. Price wrote that the frustrations of those using the system are "real and need to be addressed." He said additional problems are likely to surface as the transition to the PowerSchool system continues.

Inaccurate Transcripts

It's critical that statewide data systems work properly to help district leaders make informed decisions about everything from what courses students should take to which students, even early in their school careers, are at risk of dropping out, said Dakarai I. Aarons, a spokesman for the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates using data to improve student achievement. "That data won't be usable if people don't trust that it's accurate and is providing them with the information they need to make decisions for kids," he said. Educators "are trying to make decisions in real time and they need access to a system that allows them to do that."

A lingering problem has been that the system is not able to produce updated, accurate student transcripts, something high school seniors need in order to apply for college admissions and scholarships.

The 33,300-student Johnston County school system, for one, could not send out transcripts because many of them did not reflect the correct GPA, according to district spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones. She said PowerSchool was not properly counting grades for honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Ms. Peedin Jones said Johnston officials were hoping the problem would be fixed soon.

None of Wake County's high schools could print transcripts with updated GPAs and class ranks, according to Cathy Moore, the 150,000-student Wake County district's deputy superintendent for school performance. PowerSchool could not calculate midyear GPAs for students in yearlong courses. Ms. Moore said that if a school can't calculate an accurate GPA for one student, then the system prevents it from calculating rank for the entire class.

According to Mr. Price, the PowerSchool software does not permit grades to be included on a transcript until the course is completed, so a midyear GPA can't be calculated, nor can a class rank. The department is working with Pearson to figure out a way to do this, but had not fixed the problem by late last week.

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Multiple districts have provided a letter for high schools to send to colleges and universities explaining the transcript problems.

To make matters worse, a deficiency in the system made it difficult for teachers to enter grades in the new electronic gradebook. The system has been sluggish, with teachers reporting issues such as the program freezing, causing unsaved data to be lost. This problem is slated to be fixed by March 11, Mr. Price wrote in an email.

Ms. Moore said that has been more of a problem for elementary school teachers.

The challenges of entering and saving grades caused school systems around the state to delay releasing report cards earlier this school year.

Vol. 33, Issue 23, Page 8

Published in Print: March 5, 2014, as Pearson Data System Hits a Bumpy Ride in North Carolina
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