Student Information Systems Demystified

Student information systems, one of the first applications of computer technology in education, are undergoing a significant transition yet again. The first major shift in SIS technologies occurred about 15 years ago when they evolved from mainframe programs to client-server solutions. Now, vendors across the board are offering centralized Web-based systems. These newer products are based on industry-standard database technologies that allow a SIS to share data with other critical administrative applications such as transportation, special education management, or food service. In addition, the latest generation of systems provides options for communicating important academic information to parents and students via the Internet.

Today, the SIS is more central than ever to schools and districts. The changing technology landscape, coupled with the data reporting demands of No Child Left Behind, has compelled districts to evaluate all of their major software systems, including the SIS. However, the lengthy implementation process and large financial investment required of new SIS applications prevent districts from making quick moves. Given the complexity of the technology, the size of the invest-ment, and the importance of a quality installation, selecting the best SIS is among the most challenging-and important-choices a district can make.

All student information systems provide core functionality around tracking student demographic information, attendance, grades, and schedules. The trick is to determine which "unique" SIS features are critical to your district. Despite the promises from sales representatives that their product will do everything you could ever ask, you are unlikely to find a SIS that meets all of your needs. The following questions will help you distinguish one SIS from another and help you find the product that's the best fit for your particular situation.

1. How well does the SIS conform to interoperability standards?

Interoperability provides a means for different types of software to communicate with each other. A district can improve data accuracy and save data entry time if its SIS is able to share student demographic information with software systems that manage bus routing, library automation, or food services.

There are currently two competing interoperability standards for student information systems. The first is the Schools Interoperability Framework, an XML-based standard for data sharing developed by vendors who primarily serve the K-12 marketplace. Competing with SIF is the Open Database Connectivity interface, which makes it possible for applications to access data from a variety of database management systems. ODBC is an industry-wide standard and does not have an education-specific focus.

Advocates of ODBC see SIF as a relatively trivial "education-only" standard that does not allow for deep integration. SIF supporters, on the other hand, believe that data sharing in education is a relatively simple problem that can be solved by sharing key student demographic data. According to the SIS Trends Report, SIF and ODBC are "neck-and-neck as the preferred standard," and they will likely co-exist for some time because they meet slightly different needs.

Going to the Source

In response to the increasing need for quality information on the SIS market, Technology & Learning cosponsored the publication of a report on how the nation's schools are choosing and using these systems. The study, Student Information Systems 2003 Trends & Opportunities Report, was conducted by Headway Strategies and is the first public source of statistically validated information on the K-12 SIS market. This month's Product Spotlight uses the report's statistics and other information as a basis for the key buying considerations listed here.

2. What's the system architecture?

The average age of an SIS implementation is 7.7 years. This means your SIS will probably long outlive the computers upon which it runs. Consequently, it's important the SIS be built upon a solid technological foundation that allows for future growth and expanded functionality.

The key architecture choice is between client-server software and Web-based design. Client-server products require a server for each site and use special software that must be installed and maintained on each computer running the SIS. In contrast, Web-based systems usually have a centralized server that allows users to access student data via a secure Internet connection without special software installations. Some vendors even offer an application service provider option hosted on a server at a remote location so districts do not have to maintain physical servers at their sites.

In reviewing system architecture, districts should be aware of a relatively subtle distinction between Web-based and Web-enabled products. Web-based SIS products are built for the Web from the ground up, and use a database engine to generate HTML pages for the user interface. Users access the SIS with a Web browser via a secure Internet connection. With Web-enabled products, however, vendors use Citrix servers to push traditional client-server software to a Web browser. Web-enabled solutions require special software, additional servers, and high-bandwidth connections.

3. What communication options are available?

An SIS can become a true portal for student, parent, and teacher communication. The majority of SIS offerings allow teachers to enter attendance, grades, and homework assignments directly into the system from their classrooms, data that can then be accessed by parents and students via a Web-based interface. The value of these communication features can be compromised by clumsy tools for managing student and parent accounts. Be sure to determine your communication needs and look for tools that add value to your current environment.

4. How easily can the system be customized to meet your unique needs?

Most SIS technologies won't do everything you need straight out of the box. Therefore, whether you track unique data or have evolving needs over time, it's likely that your SIS will require some level of customization. Customization can range from simple tasks such as renaming a user-defined field to designing complex interfaces that requires expert programming. If you will need significant customization, avoid systems that use proprietary databases and look for an SIS built around standard database structures such as SQL or Oracle. Several of the newer systems, particularly Web-based ones, include user-friendly customization tools.

Regarding customization, the most important requirement of an SIS is a flexible reporting system. A responsive reporting tool can greatly ease the challenge of generating state reports, and many SIS providers offer state-specific reporting modules. If these are not available, look for a reporting tool that does not call for high-level programming experience.

5. How robust is the implementation and support system?

The support needs for a new SIS are intense. Implementation normally requires more than a full year of focused effort on the part of the district. After the initial installation and conversion process, there are periodic events in the school year-grading periods, semester schedule changes, and end-of-year processes-that can present challenges for the SIS. Inevitable changes in data collection and reporting provisions over time will require support well beyond the first year of implementation.

In selecting an SIS, look for vendors with a full menu of support options including specialists that can provide on-site, telephone, and Web-based help. The vendor should also provide a regular schedule of training for both new and experienced users.

6. What integrated applications are available?

The SIS can become the core of a suite of information applications that facilitate more efficient and productive school operations. For example, some SIS providers offer modules or companion products for teacher grade books, IEPs, and student progress reports. Remember, however, that an SIS provider may not be an expert in all areas of data management. Before buying a bundle of student information packages, do a thorough analysis to ensure that your district will use and benefit from the functions being offered by the integrated applications.

Todd McIntire is the vice president of achievement for Edison Schools.

The SIS Players
The following table provides details about products from the top 10 SIS vendors as measured by the Student Information Systems 2003 Trends & Opportunities Report. Together these vendors account for about 70 percent of the installed SIS market. Products are listed in order of market share, beginning with the top player. Cost information is not provided as prices vary widely based upon size of district, specific products included in purchase bundle, and customized services required. Interoperability information comes from vendor sources and the SIF Certification Register. ProductDescriptionNotable FeaturesInteroperabilitySASIxp Pearson Digital Learning (877) 338-3241 http://www.pearsondigital.comClient-server option requires Novell, AppleShare, or Windows NT server and supports Windows and Macintosh clients; Citrix thin-client option requires central Novell, AppleShare, or Windows servers and Citrix servers; Citrix-based hosted ASP approach als· available ·District integration for centralized processing of school information · Report Designer module; home-t· -school communication tool; and Web-based grade book · ABACUSxp software accommodates test scoring and manages standards-aligned curriculum SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: SASIxp 5.5 with Edstructures SIF Agent for SASIxp Student Management Solution Chancery Software Ltd. (800) 999-9931 http://www.chancery.comWeb-based system built on Microsoft .NET technology; runs at the district level using Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server·Teachers access the SIS for roster management, attendance, and grading · Integrates with K12Planet, a school-t· -home portal · Users can create custom database tables with fields and validations SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: Chancery SMS 4.1.1 with Chancery SMS SIF Agent 4.1.1; ODBC compliantPLUS SERIES Student System SUNGARD Pentamation (610) 691-3616 http://www.pentamation.comCentralized client-server option available based on a number of databases including Microsoft SQL Server; ASP option available ·PDA access · Teacher Access Center includes grade book and attendance features · Parental access t· student information · Data warehouse module SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: PLUS SERIES 3.x with SIF Agent for PLUS SERIES 1.1; ODBC compliant STIOffice Software Technology Inc. (251) 639-1851 http://www.ssts.comClient-server design; n· Web interface available·Companion products include bookkeeping, health management, and facilities management · STIDistrict module integrates school data at district level SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: STIOffice 6 with STISif Eagle Software (888) 487-7555 http://www.aeries.comClient-server design based on Microsoft Access and SQL Sever; client requires Windows 98 and Access 97 or higher; the AERIES CS version uses a single central district database·PDA access · District integration module · California state reporting modules · AERIES Browser Interface for parent and teacher access Not a SIF member; ODBC compliant PaC School Management Software Skyward Inc. (888) 753-7435 http://www.skyward.comClient-server option for site-based or centralized installation; ASP option available via Citrix servers; users access the system using client software or via Web browser with Citrix solution ·Several companion products available, including food services and special education · PDA access (Windows CE devices) SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: PaC School Management Software 01.xx.xx.x with SkySIF Agent 1.x.xxxxPowerSchool Apple Computer Inc. (800) 692-7753 student information system built for Windows 2000, Apple Xserve, or Macintosh G4 server platforms; hosted ASP solution als· available ·Integrated grade book and automated attendance · Parents can access student data and receive automated progress reports via e-mail · Students can track grades, credits, and homework assignments online SIF member; ODBC compliant eSIS Administrative Assistants Ltd. (800 668-8486 http://www.aalsolutions.comComplete Web-enabled system with district host, Web server; based on Oracle, runs on Windows 2000, UNIX, or Linux servers ·True district solution with centralized server only · Teacher Assistant provides teachers with at-a-glance perspective on student information · Curriculum Tracking feature SIF member; ODBC compliant; eSIS is not SIF-certified, but the AAL Web site says: "SIS objects identified by SIF in the SIF application version 1.0 will be interoperable with AAL 'SIS' data elements." TSIS2 TIES (651) 999-6000 Outside Minn.: SchoolMAX MAXIMUS Inc. (916) 485-8102 http://www.schoolmax.netClient-server design with Microsoft SQL Server running on Windows 2000; ASP service available; Web-enabled solution available ·Supports the planning of school boundaries, population studies, and routing · Online course request feature available · Interactive individualized education plan builder TIES and MAXIMUS are both SIF members; ODBC compliant Schoolmaster Olympia Computing Company Inc. (800) 733-0922 http://www.schoolmaster.comClient-server design with Novell, Windows, or Linux servers and Windows, Macintosh, or PDA clients; ASP available via Citrix servers ·PDA applications · District accumulator gathers and reports information at the district level · Parent Access Support System SIF member; SIF certified v1.1; certified version: Schoolmaster 5.23 with Schoolmaster SIF Agent 1.01