When he began teaching at a Bronx high school, Jesse Olsen found the school had a large blind spot when it came to taking attendance.
If a student came to class for the first half of the school day and then skipped out, she’d go down in the official record as being present for the full day. The information holes made it impossible for teachers to know what their students’ true attendance was like, Olsen said.
A new, sophisticated database known as ARIS, for Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, might have been just the thing to solve the problem. But the system only let schools see how many days a student had missed, not how many classes they were skipping.
So Olsen took matters into his own hands, drawing on his computer science training to build an attendance system for his school, Validus Preparatory Academy. In doing so he joined a growing number of teachers who don’t rely on the city’s data tools to track student information.
Brought into the city’s public schools in 2008 as a major initiative of Chancellor Joel Klein, ARIS cost $80 million to make. It debuted at the same time that Klein began to ask teachers to keep close track of student data and use it to adjust their instruction.
To do that, teachers would need more data. But even after recovering from some of its early glitches, ARIS continues to disappoint. Teachers complain that it offers them too little information and parents say it’s hard to access.
To meet the demand for data, some teachers and schools have created their own content management systems and are selling the products to other public schools.
Olsen’s program, called Impact, has an online attendance system that updates instantly and allows teachers to add comments on students’ behavior. Seeing that ARIS only includes students’ final course grades, he added an online gradebook that shows how students did on individual assignments, how well they’ve learned certain skills, and what work they still need to complete.
Impact is now in 21 New York City schools, which pay between $10 to $25 per student for a year of service. Teach for America recently began using it to track how some of its members’ students’ perform.
“I think when tools are made for districts, New York being the superlative example of a big district, they can only be so useful because they have to generalize,” Olsen said. “They have to make it work for the young and the old, the new and traditional.”
“What you emerge with is a tool that works for everybody but it barely does anything,” he said. “Schools should have a choice. The DOE should say here’s a number of recommended partners, we just need the data, you pick the tool that works in your way.”
Olsen’s suggestion comes at exactly the same time that the city is rethinking how schools use ARIS.
Deputy Chancellor for accountability Shael Suransky said the city will begin piloting a new version of the program called ARIS Local in some schools next spring. Teachers will be able to enter data on students’ progress on reading assessments and chapter tests that the current database doesn’t include.
“What we want in the long run is for ARIS to be a platform like the iPhone is a platform, where people can develop applications and they can draw the data from our central system and format it into easy to use ways,” he said. “ARIS is the first step on that path.”
On candidate for app creation might be DataCation, which emerged several years ago from teachers at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn. Created with a focus on the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements, the program allows schools to track students’ progress toward graduation, their schedules, and their grades.
The Telecommunication teachers sold DataCation to a company called CaseNEX, which also bought a scheduling program called Skedula that was developed by a former programmer at Herbert Lehman High School.
Last year, about 30 city schools purchased DataCation, a sleek program that lets schools do everything from scheduling classes and tracking credit accumulation to predicting their results on the federal government’s accountability system. The full suite can cost $8,500, but even in the midst of budget cuts, schools are finding ways to cover the expense.
Most DataCation clients are high schools, and many are struggling schools that the city or state could close if their graduation rates don’t rise. For them, being able to single out a group of low-performing students and focus on them is a matter of survival.
“It’s designed to really catch kids that are not identified using any other tools and to monitor their progress and make sure that info is available in a timely manner, not three semesters later,” said CaseNEX CEO Marsha Gartland. “It’s a pretty simple concept, but it can bring a whole new level of order to a school that’s been lacking it.”
One of DataCation’s most popular features allows parents to log in and see their children’s recent grades, attendance, and missing work. Parents can also do this on the ARIS website through the Parent Link, but there’s less information and it’s older.
In another case, a group of staff members at Leon Goldstein High School in Brooklyn formed the LMG Data Group to sell data management software to other schools. Their clients buy FileMaker, an Apple software product, and then the group sets up a customized data aggregation and display program based on what the school wants. This year, nine schools will use the software.
Goldstein Principal Joseph Zaza said the program began in 2006 as an experiment and a way for the school to know more about its students than the DOE’s software would permit.
‘We’ve done a lot more than just track student data,” Zaza said. “We use it to track student behavior. Deans put in behavioral problems and when a student doesn’t behave — doesn’t have a photo ID or is cutting class — then immediately the system emails that information to the guidance counselors and myself so that everybody is informed.”
The school also uses FileMaker to track how many hours of community service its students have done and the software has cut down on the number of lost books by linking students’ ID numbers to the books’ bar codes.
Schools are charged based on the complexity of their data demands, with one-time prices ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.