Student Information Systems Are Integrating More Functions

With advanced technology, it seems, comes more and more paperwork. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of the "paperless society" predicted for years. Fortunately for educators, there are some products available right now that help ease paperwork-intensive tasks.

Keeping detailed records of each and every student's grades, class schedules and personal information ¬ including medical, parental and disciplinary information has long been the bane of educators everywhere. Now add the monumental task of keeping all such records updated district-wide.

And every year seems to bring even more regulations and laws that, in turn, bring even more paperwork. To keep track of this plethora of data, software firms have responded with a wide range of Student Information System (SIS) programs, gradebook software and miscellaneous administrative packages.

Cross-Compatibility

SIS packages come in many different formats, but there are, like most categories of specialized products, several key elements that are visible throughout the entire range.

One key element that generally, but not always, is used in a SIS is the client/server system architecture. One big advantage to client/server architecture is that different operating systems can often access the same server and, therefore, the needed information. This cross-platform compatibility is well received in the multiple-platform arena of education.

One example of this trend toward compatibility is the Schoolyear 2000 initiative in Florida. The project is taking the cross-platform concept to a new level, with software developers creating standards that will allow virtually any SIS and other educational software system to seamlessly transfer data with each other through the Internet.

Student Information Solicited

While it could be argued that all SIS packages do basically the same thing, each product has functions that set it apart. With some, it may be its ease of use, with others, their district-wide compatibility.

One system that demonstrates a true all-around functionality, School System, from McGraw-Hill, is a Windows-based SIS that helps track demographics, health, discipline, enrollment, scheduling, attendance and student progress data.

Designed as a district-wide system, School System gives educators access to student, class, or site information regardless of the window they have open.

McGraw-Hill also has data conversion programs and software that assists users in migrating from DOS to Windows. The firm is a Microsoft Solution Provider and has worked closely with Microsoft in developing a SIS that takes advantage of the power of Windows 95 and Windows NT.

Pinnacle, from Excelsior Software, lets administrators, instructors and parents access student roster, course and schedule information.

Administrators can use Pinnacle to view, summarize and evaluate student assessment from any client computer on the network. Students also have controlled access to assessments, teacher comments and other learning progress information.

The program collects period-by-period attendance directly from instructors' class files and automatically distributes and maintains class rosters (see the Application story on page 61 of this issue).

Given the multi-part nature of SIS software, modules are popular. For example, both Win School SIS and Mac School SIS from Chancery Software utilize such an approach to educators' information needs. Schools can purchase only the modules they need today and "plug-in" new modules when required.

Modules offered include: Student Demographics; Discipline; Teacher Information; Attendance; Report Cards & Transcripts; Scheduling; Report Manager; Query; ASCII Import/Export; and Scanning.

Data entry is made easy through the ASCII Import/Export utility that allows student, teacher and course information to be transferred to and from other mini, mainframe or micro platforms. This data is then immediately available to other modules in the Win/Mac School product line.

A program that lends a "multimedia" air to the SIS field, SASIxp, by MACRO Educational Systems, features a unique graphical interface: a seating chart layout with pictures of the students as they are arranged in the classroom. The system's cross-platform design lets any number of users access and update a single database simultaneously from any combination of Macintosh, Windows and Power PC-based computers.

The user interface is powerful and customizable, and switching between various information types and screens is accomplished with a single mouse click. Teachers can add art, sound, and even video clips to their records, creating a personalized environment.

Another SIS designed with a modular approach, Nordex School, from Nordex International, has mail-merge capabilities built-in, supporting most popular word processors such as MS Word and WordPerfect.

The program is available in both Windows and Macintosh formats, and the firm offers outside services such as data entry with automatic computer updating.

Because many school districts utilize a district-wide system, updating records quickly and efficiently becomes a concern. Skyward's Student Management Software allows educators to work online in real time. They can access the program from any computer on the school or district network, changing information and seeing instant results.

With Skyward's SIS, a district can purchase one software packet and then give all its schools access to the server where the software is located.

On the other hand, some schools prefer autonomous control of their data. NCS MicroCIMS (Comprehensive Information Management for Schools) for Windows enables individual school administrators to "own" their student data, rather than the district office controlling it. This fits with the trend toward site-based management in education.

The system tracks demographics, attendance, grading and scheduling information. It offers an unlimited number of fully user-defined screens that allow custom information tracking. The program also offers modules for Human Resource Management, Financial Management, Application Control and Fixed Asset Inventory, among others.

Future advances in SIS packages are also in the works. For example, TRG is developing a system based on an enterprise-wide, relational database. Information about a student is placed in the database. Any subsequent information that is later entered about the student is automatically associated with the existing data.

Those with appropriate authorization will have comprehensive, unified information about the student at their fingertips. Students will also have access to relevant information in the database, through the World Wide Web.

Two Specific Trends

Even programs that aren't SIS-specific are beginning to incorporate SIS functions. For example, Lancaster, from COMPanion, which is primarily a computer lab management tool for Macintosh, will automatically collect and organize student class work into Electronic Portfolios that can be used to demonstrate student progress to parents, administrators and students themselves.

And the latest version of FileMaker Pro (3.0) from Claris includes education-specific templates for SIS use. Daily administrative tasks such as attendance and grade sheets can be automated, or a complete SIS can be created with grades, attendance, health records, parental information and student photos.

One rapidly spreading trend in higher education is the use of campus-wide information systems (CWIS). These are usually touchscreen kiosks located throughout the campus. They allow students to access general and personal information and conduct transactions ranging from transcript requests to financial aid matters.

TRG's Intouch CWIS helps alleviate long lines for financial aid and registering. The system displays information in a combination of text, graphic, animation and video formats. Kiosks may also include a printer that will print out class schedules, unofficial transcripts, tickets and receipts.

Integrating Grading

Many companies with SIS programs also offer grade book modules, interacting closely with the firm's SIS. Some of these packages can also be used as a stand-alone program, with no need to own the related SIS.

One of these is InteGrade, by McGraw-Hill. It scores student test, assignment and objective information, and calculates student grades and statistics. The software will automatically transfer class lists, selected demographic data, grades, summary attendance and comment codes between the school office and the teacher.

Grade Quick, by Jackson Software, is a gradebook program that adapts to a teacher's personal method of doing things, offering multiple customization options, all with a click of the mouse.

Teachers can control the design and content of reports or use included standardized reports. The same gradebook files work on Mac, DOS and Windows PCs.

Grade Quick provides graphic visual aids such as full-color graphs, which can present grade distribution information for any grading period, category or assignment. One can even create graphs to illustrate a single student's progress.

For a program that is designed to integrate with the Pinnacle and other SIS packages, check out Excelsior's grade2. It has no limits on the number or length of the personal information items that can be defined. This customizable data can be quickly transferred into the program from most SISs and out of grade2 to other packages.

The program also features simultaneous numeric grading and learning outcomes tracking, and allows curving and extra credit grades. It uses an advanced formula-driven grade system and lets one choose from a set of pre-defined calculation methods such as averaging, percentage, summation, etc.

SASI Gradebook/Portfolio, from MACRO Educational Systems, allows teachers to design their own record-keeping formats ¬ from traditional to outcome-based assessment ¬ and automatically post the results to the school's SASI Grade Reporting files.

The program runs in the firm's SASI Classroom, interacting with SASIxp to create a comprehensive record of students' achievements.

Media-attach notecards allow instructors to save comments, text, speech, pictures and even digitized video of a student's actual work alongside the grade, making assessment easier to understand and more meaningful.

Suited for educators that aren't hooked into a network, 1st Class, from 1st Class Software, is a stand-alone Windows product that places no limits on the number of students, activities or classes that can be entered.

The program provides "canned comments" for report cards, and teachers can add their own comments to the comprehensive list. 1st Class easily handles missed activities, and also features special data loss-prevention measures and free technical support.

Administrative Assistance

Besides SIS and grading software, other niche products can help administrators with various tasks, from scheduling to staff training.

Desktop Solutions provides two unique Macintosh-based programs for higher education. The Co-Curricular Transcript Manager provides graduates with transcripts of their non-academic activities during their college years. It combines a database with page layout/word processing functions to make customized reports and transcripts.

College Relations Manager 3.1, the other program, suits typical college/public relations offices in higher education. It consists of several individual files called "data managers" that address specific tasks a college PR office faces in its daily routine.

Data managers include a Press Release manager; Media Contacts manager; Mailing List manager; Publication Production manager; and a Photo Archive manager. Both products can be used stand-alone, or in conjunction with other programs, utilizing their student data.

Mitchell Humphrey & Co. offers its F/S Warehouse and FMS-ONRAMP to those who need quick and easy access to practically any type of information that is storable in an electronic format.

Part of the firm's FMS-DSS (Decision Support System), this client-server based product allows one to view and manipulate retrieved data in many different dimensions and detail levels. Pie charts, multiple-line graphs, correlation graphs, stacked bars and crosstab reports are just a few of the ways users can work with data.

Other FMS-DSS functions include integrating with popular database, spreadsheet, word processor and e-mail applications.

Go For The Goal, by MC2, is an administrative task/objective scheduler for DOS-based systems.

It utilizes the Management By Objective (MBO) concept to track goals and objectives by using due dates and responsibility assignments.

The software's features include: easy searching of an MBO database; reports of objectives for one or all employees; and printing of a booklet with cover, preface and table of contents that includes all of the assigned goals and objectives.

OnTrack for Training, by DKSystems, is a Windows-based client/server product that integrates six training administration and management functions for human resource, training and MIS departments.

One of the package's functions is Instructor-Led training, which enables one to create course catalogs, schedule class sessions, assign rooms and equipment and identify qualified instructors. Registration duties are also handled.

Curriculum Designer, from Tudor Publishing, promises to make the job of curriculum developers easier. Using the software, educators can produce detailed reports at any time during the development process, choosing from one of four basic report templates: Main Curriculum, School Guide, Parent Guide and Student Guide.

The program includes state curriculum standards and frameworks, and correlates with standardized tests. It also incorporates national standards and manages and utilizes feedback from instructors, committee members and specialists.

Available in Windows and Power Mac versions, Curriculum Designer provides educators with structured and focused curriculum design guidance.

All-In-One

Although some of the packages mentioned are specialized for one or two areas, the trend is to combine SIS, gradebook and administrative functions into one complete package that utilizes client/server architecture and can service more than one site.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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