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NC schools dealing with problem-plagued state computer system

By T. Keung Hui
khui@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH A new state computer system for keeping track of student information has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.

State education officials and Pearson Inc., the company that owns the PowerSchool system, say they’re working hard to resolve the running list of software problems that have affected schools across North Carolina. Both groups say the system is improving, but schools say they are still experiencing problems such as the inability to tell students their current grade-point average or their current 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 Thursday.

But educators like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison have recently said the rollout of PowerSchool has been “a train wreck.”

Until this school year, the state’s public schools used the 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 they said 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 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 DPI’s website, along with a list of “successes” for issues that have been resolved.

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

Pinette stressed that the statewide implementation of PowerSchool has been “one of the most ambitious and comprehensive rollouts in the nation.”

“While we have encountered some issues, they are to be expected in such an ambitious undertaking,” Pinette said. “When issues occur, we work very closely with state education officials and local district leaders to correct them as quickly as possible.”

Inaccurate transcripts

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

The Johnston County school system hasn’t sent 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.

Peedin Jones said Johnston officials hope the problem will be fixed this week.

None of Wake County’s high schools can print transcripts with updated GPAs and class rank, according to Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for school performance. PowerSchool can’t calculate mid-year GPAs for students in yearlong courses. Moore said that if a school can’t calculate an accurate GPA for one student then it prevents it from calculating rank for the entire class.

“We’re asking students to work with their schools,” Moore said.

Multiple districts have provided a letter for high schools to send to colleges and universities explaining the transcript problems with PowerSchool. DPI’s Jeter said the state and Pearson are working to resolve the issues with the transcripts.

A deficiency in the system makes 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.

Moore said that it’s been more of a problem for elementary school teachers.

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

Sports eligibility

A more recent problem has been the inaccuracy of information PowerSchool has reported for student athletes. Schools need to make sure all the athletes are eligible or face consequences such as having to forfeit their victories.

Rick Strunk, an associate commissioner for the N.C. High School Athletic Association, said schools check eligibility by looking at records from the previous semester. He said it wasn’t a problem for fall athletic eligibility because the data from last spring was from NC WISE.

But Strunk said that when schools around the state checked the PowerSchool records from the fall semester, they found a number of athletes whose GPAs and absences were incorrect. He said schools have had to take additional time to recheck every student’s spring eligibility, a daunting task at some schools where as many as half the students play sports.

“The people who have been calling me have been extremely upset,” Strunk said.

Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said PowerSchool is “worthless” if school districts still can’t generate reports showing how many students they have enrolled. He quipped that it would be more reliable for schools to use “paper and pencil.”

If and when the bugs are fixed, PowerSchool’s supporters say it will be a superior system to NC WISE.

“I see great potential in PowerSchool,” said Moore, the Wake deputy superintendent. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Charlotte Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534
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