getting data right

New student data system for parents aims for simpler, less costly approach

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Screenshots of the city's new mobile web site where parents can see basic school data for their children.

Parents will soon have a new, mobile-friendly way to check up on their children’s progress in school.

The Department of Education has developed a website for parents that will replace parts of the defunct Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, a costly and unpopular data warehouse that had been in use since 2008. The new offering, called NYC Schools, is emblematic of the de Blasio administration’s approach to school and student data, which is focused on making the systems understandable to families, not evaluation.

Officials unveiled the system to reporters on Tuesday, which features a simple interface that officials touted as an improvement over ARIS’s more complicated set-up. Parents who log into their account this summer will be able to view their student’s report card grades and daily attendance for this school year. By August it will include class schedules and state test scores, and eventually will include historical data so that parents can track a child’s progress.

“We really started building a tool that was based on what parents asked for, which is simplified navigation, basic information that can be accessed quickly,” said Hal Friedlander, the department’s chief information officer who oversaw the project. Parents have to sign up at their child’s school, which will start registering parents on June 8.

Until December, all parents and teachers had access to basic information about their children through the ARIS system, which launched in 2008 under former Chancellor Joel Klein. Though glitches delayed its rollout, the system included big improvements to data storage for the nation’s largest school district, consolidating information that had been hosted in separate databases for decades. Previously, teachers had to use a variety of data systems to figure out which school their students used to attend, what their test scores were, or how often they missed class.

But the city’s more ambitious goal for ARIS — for its data to be used to improve teaching and learning — never quite materialized. Teachers complained that the data was too limited to guide their instruction, while parents complained that it was difficult to access and did not provide anything more valuable than what they got at parent-teacher conferences or on quarterly report cards. All told, the price tag reached $95 million for the project. In 2012-13, just 3 percent of parents and 16 percent of teachers had logged into ARIS, according to the city.

With participation rates low and maintenance contracts expiring, Fariña announced in November that the city would develop a replacement system internally.

Friedlander said the project is expected to cost no more than $6 million to develop and update over the next four years. The work was completed by developers on staff, who unlike outside contractors weren’t being paid by the hour.

“We’re not trying to make revenue on top of what our costs are,” Friedlander said.

The NYC Schools accounts will be competing with a host of online products that have cropped up in recent years — many in response to frustrations with ARIS — and which provide schools with extra features the city’s tool won’t include. PupilPath, for instance, keeps track of attendance and scores on class tests, and provides students with an instant messaging system to communicate with teachers. Engrade, other product now owned by McGraw-Hill, provides much of the same features.

“Delivery of information online to parents is becoming more commonplace in districts all across the country,” said Peter Bencivenga, president of CaseNEX and DataCation, the companies that developed PupilPath. That product has been used by more than 500 city schools, Bencivenga said.

As the de Blasio administration scraps systems developed by the Bloomberg administration, which used student data to build new accountability systems, officials have emphasized their focus on making that information more family-friendly. Last year, Fariña replaced school progress reports, which included A-F letter grades used to rank and evaluate schools, with “School Quality Snapshots” intended for parents and more detailed “School Quality Guides.”

The department is still working out the precise balance useful and overwhelming. Proposed overhauls of both the guides and the snapshots include more detail than last year’s versions. And some elements of the city’s Where Are They Now reports, which disappeared last year, have reemerged in new data tools developed for principals.

Officials said those tools will also allow teachers to view their students’ data soon, which is something that they haven’t been able to do as easily in the months since ARIS folded.

Some teachers say they have missed having that access since ARIS folded in December. Mark Anderson, a special education teacher in the Bronx, said he now has to retrieve data reports from his school’s secretary, who must print out raw data from another city system he cannot access on his own.

“Before, it took me one minute to pull it up on my laptop,” Anderson said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.