'Unpardonable': Faulty IT system vexes college-bound County seniors
Now is a crucial time for parents and their college-bound high school seniors, but problems with a new high-tech student information system Albemarle unveiled last year have added more stress to the process. What's more, County school officials have known about the problems since last year.
Last November, in preparation for a meeting with the central office about the new system, staff from Monticello High School brought with them dozens of complaints, one of which predicted the spring debacle.
"We can't print transcripts [with the system]," wrote one student councilor. " In January we will need to send updated transcripts to colleges that list the grades earned by seniors. Transcripts were supposed to be useable by Wednesday November 3, but that didn't happen."
According to frustrated parents, problems with the systems have adversely affected the college application process, causing transcripts to be sent out late and with mistakes.
"I was told my son's transcripts were sent out incorrectly," says Cydney Simko, whose son, Alex, a senior at Monticello High with a 4.7 GPA, has already submitted applications to 12 colleges. "I was told the tech system was new and is still being programmed as they go along."
"When I found out the first week of March that mid-year transcripts had not arrived at the colleges, I was stunned," says another Monticello High parent, who is also a County elementary school teacher. " No student’s application should have been missing a transcript at that point."
As a parent preparing for the final, and perhaps most important stage of her child's student life, that was not welcome news. Indeed, a school councilor working with Simko called the mistake "unpardonable."
In July 2010, the County implemented a system called GradeSpeed, provided by a company called SchoolNet, for an upfront cost of approximately $47,000 and an annual maintenance fee of approximately $48,000. That's in addition to the County's existing contract with SchoolNet for other information services, which was purchased at an up-front cost of $750,000 in 2005 and comes with a $150,000 annual maintenance fee.
The new GradeSpeed system is supposed to track student performance by allowing teachers to create schedules, enter grades and other data, track progress, and communicate with parents.
In February 2010, County School Superintendent Pam Moran, who earned a national "Tech Savvy" award last year, touted SchoolNet's "exemplary service" and said that the system would "add significant performance value."
That assessment may need modification. Asked if there were issues with the new system, Maury Brown, Communications Coordinator for the County school system, didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," said Brown."The Board has been monitoring the problems closely."
Brown admits that dozens of students and their parents have been affected. A report on the myriad problems with the system can be found on the Albemarle County Schools website.
"There have been some serious problems with our new student information system," admits Steve Koleszar, chair of the Albemarle County School Board, who says that while the Board became aware of the problems last fall and worked hard to address them, "There are still a number of outstanding issues."
As one MHS teacher remarked, it took four hours to mark 125 students excused from school for a field trip.
"You have to switch between SchoolNet SIS and GradeSpeed to access student information," the teacher said. " This takes three extra clicks for each student."
Retied Western Albemarle teacher Mark Crockett takes it a step further, not only calling the SchoolNet system ridiculously expensive and of "little practical utility to teachers," but a money-making tool for SchoolNet.
"SchoolNet is more of a management tool than it is an instructional tool," says Crockett.
Crocket has argued for years that SchoolNet is inextricably linked to Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which requires schools to collect student performance data.
Indeed, according to one of the company's own press releases, in the first five years after NCLB was passed into law revenues shot up 1,781 percent.
According to Brown, only 45 percent of the system's functionality was operating properly when the school year started; after months of fixes, it's up to 60 percent. Problems have included grade point averages reported as lower than they actually are, excessive or missing absence reports, duplicate academic histories, and incorrect information about immunization compliance.
Last summer, Simko's son studied at a program at prestigious Stanford University, one of his college choices, but she says she learned the wrong institutional ID was sent out, indicating that her son had instead attended a small Bible school in New Zealand.
With the system failing to provide accurate transcripts, some schools held off on mailing them out to colleges in an effort to make sure GPA calculations were correct. However, Simko learned that Monticello waited until March 1, too late for colleges that need midyear transcripts. Transcripts were then hastily emailed and faxed to colleges that might still be considering students.
Additionally, as Simko found out, the system does not include all SAT scores on transcripts, just the most recent ones. However, most colleges "superscore" by taking the highest reading, math, and writing SAT scores from different test dates and combining them. While colleges still require students send in “official” score reports from the College Board, Simko thinks the omissions could confuse busy admissions deans.
Albemarle advisory staff have been scrambling with emails and faxes to make colleges aware of the mistakes, but as Simko points out, many institutions have already made their decisions.
"Did this affect my son's applications? I don't know for sure," says Simko, "but my son has worked very hard, and he doesn't need a glitch in a computer system to get in the way of his chance to get into the college of his choice. "
"I will be furious if my son gets a number of “denies” over a faulty system that the county bought," says the anonymous teacher and parent. "And I hold the Superintendent’s Office and the School Board accountable for making such a haphazard purchase."
Updated 3/15/2011Read more on: albemarle county schools