The Evolution of Student Information Systems


By Robert Darby and Tim Hughes

As PCs and the Internet have become a ubiquitous part of school districts,the education community’s desire for anytime, anywhere access to datahas burgeoned. Can vendors keep up with districts’ changing needs?

Today’s schools can purchase and implement administrative systems that provide easy and secure access to student records, enrollment, scheduling, and attendance; eliminate the need for duplicate data; easily integrate with other applications; and offer an array of online features for students and parents. However, this level of sophistication did not occur overnight. In making an effort to respond first to the changing needs in the K-12 student information system market, we have learned several valuable lessons.

In the Beginning
Computerized administrative systems began as huge mainframes operated by programmers with highly specialized knowledge during the mid-1970s. Since school districts could not afford these massive resources, they had to rely on regional service agencies to develop and time-share those administrative systems. By the mid-’80s, the arrival of minicomputers, which had the computing capacity of a mainframe but without the mainframe’s need for specialized environments and programming, gave districts a degree of autonomy.

However, although districts were busy creating internal IT staff and collecting data, neither school sites nor classrooms were impacted by this technological change. “Flexibility” and “ease of use” were not watchwords in the field of student information systems until recently. Furthermore, even though several vendors were offering student information systems, they were proprietary solutions that only worked on particular mini-computers. In short, districts were stuck with all-or-nothing solutions. At that point, we began to explore personal computer base solutions.

The introduction of PCs provided the possibility for educators to quickly and easily access, input, and modify student information, particularly with the convenience of drag-and-drop technology. According to our records, the ’90s were the “push” years for getting computers into US public schools. At first, PCs were used primarily for instruction, but by 1996-97, districts had added 500,000 computers for administrative use. However, users of DOS and Macintosh computers still had to resign themselves to proprietary solutions until the introduction of cross-platform administrative systems.

Adjusting to Current Demands
As the Internet became more pervasive in school districts, the easy accessibility and flexibility of browser-based information systems made them the major players in the field.The trend was bolstered by E-Rate, which was created by Congress under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to fund schools’ plans to be wired for Internet connectivity. The E-Rate program was so successful that most schools did not have enough applications to use on their new systems and began looking for ways to improve on what they had.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 introduced a further push for anytime, anywhere access to data. The act prompted an explosion of different users who needed student data: federal and state workers, counselors, administrators, teachers, nurses, and probation officers. Also, some districts have made arrangements for home schooling parents to input data that those districts use in their efforts to gain state funding. Even data about teachers (e.g., their certifications) are now made available to appropriate users.

This increase in the variety of users has led to a shift in the industry; namely, offering compatible solutions that unify instruction and administrative functions. A few companies are still using this approach, but with the explosion of different user types, we see the trend moving more toward a best-of-breed approach.With the student information system as the hub, districts want the freedom to choose what they consider to be the best-suited food service management system, transportation system, etc.

NCLB has also made the home-to-school connection an essential part of student information systems. Whether the capabilities are built into the system or obtained via a third-party offering, schools are fulfilling the NCLB requirement for parent involvement by making it possible for parents to access information on their child, including attendance, grades, test scores, disciplinary action, as well as general information like homework assignments and the school calendar.

In addition, next-generation student information systems are Web-based and have an internal message center with access to outside e-mail. This means that the systems contain a list of teachers that parents can use to e-mail individuals without having to worry about details such as e-mail address changes. All a parent has to do is click on a button that says “Send a message to the teacher,”which brings up the message center screen, and then type a message that immediately g'es to the targeted teacher. Teachers receive alerts whenever they visit their home page on the system and can respond from the same self-contained environment.

In districts where the majority of parents may not have Internet access, we have seen schools establish creative partnerships with public libraries, malls, or even grocery stores, and set up a portal to the school system at that partner’s physical location. Parents are then able to go to this central site, log in, and access information while the store or library benefits from the increased foot traffic.

Of course, legislative requirements are not the only forces behind the development of student information systems.We believe that in order to properly meet current demands and prepare for future trends, developers of student information systems should include customer outreach in their processes, as well. For example, Pearson School Systems has regular customer advisory board meetings in the form of quarterly conference calls, as well as holds a National Advisory Board meeting and a National User Conference. We also participate in state user groups that have formed independently, and have an e-mail address for suggestions, which we review and prioritize on a monthly basis.

One example of the results of our customer outreach efforts has been the development of a single sign-on for LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol). Several districts, especially the larger ones, requested that we provide this support for LDAP. Now, no matter what application a district is using, it will only need one username and password to access its computer network’s directory services.

Present and Future Trends
NCLB has also changed the core functionality of the student information system, because educators are now required to track students’ mastery of state standards. In fact,more and more schools are using mastery of standards instead of regular grading to mark student progress— a trend that is a vital part of the future of student information systems.

California is one example of a state that is moving toward showing the progress of standards mastery instead of using percentages or “A, B, C” scores. Yet, while some system developers have only recently caught on to this trend, Pearson has provided technology that allows schools to track and report on a student’s mastery of learning objectives (standards) for 20 years; we are now supplying that data directly to teachers for daily use and insight into student performance. Schools can also decide what data to make available to parents as part of their school-to-home communications.

Another important trend that we see is interoperability. Student information systems now need to take information from different sources such as the media center, special education, or Head Start. In answer to this need, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF;, a nonprofit standards initiative for the K-12 market, is steadily building interoperability among vendors.

SIF has made major headway in four categories: transportation, food service, library, and student information systems. The concept calls for real-time access, shared data, the capacity to easily determine what application is the source of specific data, and the automatic movement of that data to other applications that need it. Several hundred districts are beginning to realize this vision, although still in a limited fashion.

Not all applications and vendors are participating in the SIF initiative, and in some cases, SIF is not yet ready for some vendors or applications. However, the federal government has declared that states will use SIF for reporting data, and this mandate will make a huge difference in how quickly SIF becomes the standard for interoperability.

As for the immediate future,we believe that student information systems should continue to expand their capabilities, becoming systems that can incorporate both student information and performance management. While many districts are still purchasing both student information systems and data analysis as separate modules, accountability requirements and the push for data-driven decision making require that the school information system not only serve as the core for all data gathering and analysis, but it also must be customizable and easily integrated so that it can change as districts’ needs change. That is the next step in the evolutionary process.

Robert Darby is VP of product management for Pearson School Systems. Tim Hughes is senior product manager of assessment/data analysis solutions for Pearson School Systems.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.