Is It Time for Iowa to Adopt a State-Wide Student Information System?

I’m going to preface this post by saying that this is a topic that I’m absolutely passionate about, but I realize that it’s something that most educators have not considered deeply if at all.  The process of sending electronic data to the State DE has an extraordinary impact on everyone at Prairie. But, up to this point it’s pretty much an invisible process.  It does take a great deal of resources to make it happen, and it touches us all.  I really think we are at a critical juncture with our relationship with the State DE on how this process works.

What I’m suggesting is that all schools in the state of Iowa should be compelled to use the same student information system.  We use Infinite Campus.  While I think Campus is the best fit in that they have a proof of concept that their product works for large scale deployments (they are used state-wide in Kentucky, Maine, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), I would support switching to another product if everyone else in Iowa did so too.

I see two paths ahead.  One route is visionary, highly efficient, but politically more difficult to achieve: a state-wide student information system.  The selection process should be open and transparent.  A state-wide system would allow both the DE and local districts for focus more resources (time, talent, and treasure) on getting results with students instead of allocating resources required the process-overhead of moving data between different systems.

The other path is one that is the one we are currently on: local control of student information systems and integration of the data at the State DE.  This is highly inefficient, resource intensive, but is politically easy to achieve.  It forces local districts to divert resources from kids in order to ensure that accurate data is sent to the state.

I’m not alone in my belief that the State needs to look at a new model for managing student data.  At the last UEN meeting (Urban Educator’s Network – a group of the 18 largest districts in the state), the Technology Directors’ job-alike group drafted the follow resolution to Jason Glass

We believe it is an inefficient use of state financial resources for each district to maintain their own student information system. Statewide network infrastructure has reached the point that we feel it is time for a statewide, centrally hosted, student information system.

The core benefits of a state-wide student system would be reduced cost for both districts and the State.  This assumes that some sort of volume licensing agreement could be reached with the company providing the product.   So, it would cost local districts less.  The State would be able to spend less on personnel to support the data exchange process (more on that below).  This type of setup would also give both the State and districts faster, more efficient access to student data.

State Data Map

The screen shot above is directly from a presentation from the DE on the central role that Student Information Systems (SIS), i.e. Infinite Campus, plays in school districts.  All of the white boxes represent data collections from the DE.  Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if we were all using the same program?

The UEN resolution has been nearly unanimously endorsed.  It’s a step in the right direction.  But, it probably won’t be enough.  Last December, I was invited to be part of an advisory group to help set the educational technology agenda for the 2014 Iowa legislative session.  I advocated strongly for this idea with Jay Pennington and Vic Jaras, the DE representatives.  My guess is that it will take a grassroots effort as well to get this done.  I would encourage each teacher a Prairie to contact your local state representative and senator and promote this idea.  I would think this would be a very appealing notion to legislators on both sides of aisle:  an idea that is good for kids and saves the state money.

Here is some additional context.  Read on if you want to see how “the sausage is made” for getting data to the State…

When I started at Prairie in 1999, I worked with the high school guidance office to electronically submit our student data file for Project EASIER.  EASIER was the unfortunate acronym the Iowa D.E. used to describe student data transfers from local schools to the DE during the fall and spring.  As the years went on, the EASIER acronym became the very definition of ironic.

At that time, fourteen years ago, we submitted data just for high school students.  Each student had thirteen data elements associated with them.  So, for the entire district, that was roughly 15,000 data points submitted twice a year.  The data itself was frankly not all that important – post-graduation intentions for exiting seniors, etc…  However, with the ascension of No Child Left Behind, Project EASIER began to grow in scope.  The total district student population was required (no longer just high school aged students).  Numerous data elements were added (well over 120 per student now) and an additional collection period (winter) was put in place.  So, that means we submit well over 750,000 distinct data elements to the State three times a year.  Each file must come out of Campus completely error free.  If there’s one error, we must locate it Campus, correct it in Campus, extract the 750,000 data elements again, and resubmit the file to the State site (and keep our fingers crossed that no one across the rest of the district has changed something else in Campus that may result in an other error).  Sounds kind of painful, right?  It is.  In fact, I don’t think the DE could even say the name Project EASIER with a straight face anymore.  So, last fall they rebranded it to be SRI – State Reporting in Iowa.

Our three annual SRI submissions (fall, winter, and spring) filter data into the following DE accountability systems:  Certified Enrollment – this program calculates the per student funding for the district; AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) – this program calculates each building’s No Child Left Behind status; Graduation Verification – this program determines the district’s graduation rate; and CTE/PSE0 (Career and Technical Education/Post Secondary Education Option) – these programs determines supplemental funding for career tech and reimburse us for all the classes students take at Kirkwood or other higher ed institutions. But, the real kicker is that if error is found in any of these “feeder” applications (CE, AYP, CTE, PSEO), which are often not even available to look at until weeks after SRI certification is done, we need to uncertify the SRI file, fix the error in Campus, re-generate the SRI extract (750,000 error free data elements), resubmit it to the SRI application, recertify SRI, then look at the feeder application to see if error is still there or not.  Again, Campus is an ever-changing system, so it’s always possible something else has changed in resubmission process to cause a different error.

Just to give an idea of what’s at stake…  Missing just one student in Certified Enrollment costs the district over $6,000.  Having an incorrect enrollment date for just one student can mean that AYP is off for a building – that can mean the difference between being on or off the Building in Need of Assistance list.  In addition to all of this, the State is also moving toward a total electronic exchange of transcript data between high schools and state regent universities that will come from our various local student systems.   Clearly, over my time with the district, electronic record submission to the State DE has gone from being a low impact and low accountability item to being arguably the highest impact and highest accountability activities in the district.

Not all data related problems go away with a state-wide system.  We’ll replace on set of difficulties with another.  But, the path we are on right now is unsustainable and worst of all it’s bad for kids.  The DE’s current response to my type of objection is SIF.  That’s a completely different rant, and I won’t go into that here.  But, in my opinion, SIF will add another layer of complication to an already highly complex process — further accelerating the inherent unsustainability of our current system.  It’s time to simplify.  It’s time do what’s right for kids.  It’s time for one student system for the State of Iowa.


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6 Responses to Is It Time for Iowa to Adopt a State-Wide Student Information System?

  1. 21jessmartin says:

    What you describe is absolutley right. The state should consider what is best for the kids, but also what is best for its staff. The entire system seems far too complicated and instead of focusing on their job, it would seem that the staff is more concentrated on inputing the right data so as to not be fined. Am I correct in this assumption?

    • Craig says:

      Thanks for the thoughts. I’m glad this post made sense to someone else! I don’t think that this type of data fatigue is impacting teachers directly, yet. But, as a district, we are talking about adding non-instructional staff to do nothing but maintain these systems for data integrity. I know we are not the only district having these types of conversations. Adopting a state-wide student system should make this a moot point. We are diverting resources away from kids to what is essentially, meaningless busy work. I have a real problem with that. I’m also concerned that at the State level, we are not being served as a local district as well as we could/should be because the DE is struggling with the same types of inefficiencies. I’m not naive enough to believe a single, centralized state-wide system would solve all problems related to data exchange (and I am all for collecting and using data to help kids by the way), but it would make a very positive difference.

      • 21jessmartin says:

        Do you know what platform/program the state is currently using for their student information system or is each district using their own?

        • Craig says:

          Currently each district is using their own product. That’s the core of the inefficiency. The state DE is right in the middle of a SIF implementation in the hopes of linking these disparate systems together for reporting purposes. My experiences with SIF lead me to believe this will add more overhead to the entire process not less, but we shall see.

  2. edusmith says:

    I would suggest taking time to speak with end-users in other states like Maine and Wisconsin who are happy with their current SIS and have no desire to switch. This is particularly true for districts who have changed systems in the past few years.

    This topic came up a while ago as Wyoming began to consider this idea. A lot has changed since I first came across this, but I think the points are still valid: I would add that now, the advent of web APIs such as Clever ( and LearnSprout have largely solved the data problem.

    Finally, it is worth noting that systems like PowerSchool and Infinite Campus are 16 and 17-years old respectively. That’s ancient in our world. True that both systems have evolved over the years (in fact, IC is set to release a new HTML 5 grade book this summer), but their underlying data models and front-end UX for admins is largely unchanged.

    • Craig says:

      Thanks the read and your thoughts. Here’s some additional context, we use IC for our SIS and have a great relationship with that company. College Community was the first district to adopt IC outside of Minnesota and their thirteen overall customer. I’ve served a “Campus Champion” — a group of about 6 or 7 educators from across the country to provide product development feedback. So, I’m very familiar with what IC can and cannot do for large scale implementation. It’s true that IC has not significantly changed its database schema since 2006. And, while that is a long time, it seems to have worked well. In fact, I’m not sure it can’t be argued that this type of stability in not a product strength. They’ve had a state-wide product in South Dakota since at least 2002 as well. So, they have some longevity with this type of work. I’ve collaborated with educators and CIOs from both Maine and Kentucky on IC related topics — both states that have had the IC State addition for several years. It’s clear to me from my conversations with these folks that a state-wide SIS is not a panacea, but it does indeed focus data issues at the local level — which dramatically reduces overhead. Thus freeing resources that can be dedicated to core-work — improving student achievement.

      I realize that all of this makes me sound like a total IC homer — and in fact I am. I really like their company and their product. But, I’ll say it again, if Iowa choose something other than IC for a state-wide SIS implementation, I would totally support it.

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