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NC on troubled school data system: Give us money back

By T. Keung Hui and Ann Doss Helms
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com khui@newsobserver.com

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  • CMS PowerSchool woes

    At the Observer’s request, CMS produced a summary of ongoing problems with PowerSchool.

    •  Transcripts: Cannot produce transcripts for mid-year graduates. System maintenance has wiped out some data for other students.

    •  Athletic eligibility: PowerSchool cannot generate eligibility reports. CMS created a local system.

    •  Driver’s license eligibility: Can’t create reports that verify students’ eligibility.

    •  Graduates and dropouts: Reporting systems on retention, promotion and graduation don’t work; there is no dropout reporting system.

    •  School activity reports: CMS has created work-around systems because of flaws in reports that track teacher qualifications and student-teacher ratios.

    •  Enrollment: Monthly reports that tally enrollment at each school have had glitches. The September report is used as the official snapshot of statewide enrollment. The state reported that this function was fixed in February.



State education officials are trying to get money back from the company whose computer system has created problems such as flawed student transcripts across the state.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported this week that ongoing problems include the inability to check athletic eligibility, produce accurate student transcripts, generate dropout reports and create monthly enrollment reports.

North Carolina is paying $7.1 million a year to Pearson Inc. for use of the PowerSchool student information system that was implemented statewide this school year.

Philip Price, chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, said this week that state officials will try to get credit from Pearson that they can use to reduce costs.

Eric Moore, a fiscal analyst at DPI, said credits usually represent discounts on payments. Price said he didn’t know how much DPI might get from Pearson.

Brandon Pinette, a spokesman for Pearson, said the company is willing to make up for the times when the system was down.

“We apologize for any inconvenience these incidents caused and are working with state education officials to determine the proper amount of service credits,” Pinette said in a written statement. “Pearson overall maintains a very high level of service and works very hard to ensure PowerSchool is available.”

Until this school year, North Carolina’s public schools used the NC WISE system to manage student data. Price said that people who are complaining now forget how much they didn’t like NC WISE.

In 2010, Pearson bought NC WISE and phased it out. The state took Pearson up on the offer to transition to PowerSchool in one year instead of over two years.

Price said the state paid $3.6 million in transition costs this school year. He said it would have cost an additional $2.1 million to wait another year.

In retrospect, Price said, the state could have provided more training to school systems on using PowerSchool.

CMS officials warned in November 2012 that the one-year rollout was likely to cause problems. “The risks are big, the concerns many,” CMS data administrator Jay Parker told the school board at the time.

Superintendent Heath Morrison said he asked state officials to slow the timeline and help with local costs, but was refused on both counts.

In mid-February, Morrison described the persistent problems as “a train wreck.”

Transcript issue

Since the start of the school year, school districts have reported issues such as inaccurate athletic eligibility records and crashes when teachers enter grades into the computer system.

CMS has yet to report school-by-school enrollment and district demographics, information that is normally released in September or October. District officials say the monthly reports those tallies come from have been delayed by PowerSchool problems that weren’t fixed until late February.

Spokeswoman Kathryn Block said Thursday that CMS still has accuracy concerns but hopes to produce the reports soon.

One of the most worrisome issues has been with transcripts.

School districts such as Wake County provided high school seniors with letters explaining to colleges and universities that school systems couldn’t provide an updated transcript with grade point average and class rank because of PowerSchool issues.

CMS also struggles with transcripts, including those for mid-year graduates.

“At the last maintenance weekend, many of the corrections to course history that were made by counselors were lost in the weekend,” said a report from Parker. “This means we have not been able to run new grade point averages in high schools.”

Price said the state has been working hard with Pearson to resolve the transcript issues. For instance, Johnston County school officials said Wednesday they can now print accurate transcripts after not having been able to do so as late as last week.

For districts such as CMS and Wake whose transcript issues are caused by PowerSchool not calculating an updated mid-year GPA for students taking yearlong courses, Price said the state and Pearson are working on a fix.

Price said he understands the frustrations that schools are having. System maintenance in March should catch more of the issues, he added.

“Once things settle in, we’re going to be in a much better place than we were in NC WISE, which took 10 years to implement,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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