Making Sense of Student Information

A district discovers the unexpected while implementing a statewide system for reporting and accessing student data by Beverly I. White and Christina Winter

Replacing a long-established statewide system for tracking K-12 student enrollment and attendance with a web-based student information system had a more far-reaching impact on our school district than we had envisioned.

We had fully anticipated increased technology requirements, staff resistance to change and the challenges of a developing system. What we hadn’t counted on were the serious security and privacy implications of accessible online student data. We also believed user training would be more effective than it turned out to be. And the demands on the district’s network necessitated aggressive monitoring and managing.

The new statewide system eventually will store data for all students in North Carolina in one collection of databases that will be accessible from each K-12 classroom, allowing teachers to record student grades and attendance. But our experience in Wake County suggests that school districts that intend to make inroads in building a useful student information database first will need to contend with security, training and computer networks.

Surprising Hurdles

Without excellent security processes, the student data would be at risk of access by unauthorized individuals. Because the database includes protected information about minors, access by persons without a legitimate need to know would violate federal privacy statutes. We realized we had to increase our vigilance and ensure all users were aware of their responsibilities.

User training for the new system provided information about the software features, but users really wanted details about how to accomplish their daily tasks as teachers and school administrators. The initial training failed in that regard.

Our district network was in good shape, although we experienced some instances of student online activities slowing down Internet access. Because these events were infrequent, they had limited impact until the new system required all teachers to use the network for reporting daily attendance. Then the problematic use of the network by some students carried serious implications and had to be addressed more aggressively.

The abundant effort and financial resources to address these student database needs might seem questionable in an environment where every expenditure focuses on student achievement. But the $200 million state-level costs are proving worthwhile. We are moving rapidly toward integrating data from disparate sources into meaningful information that will enable teachers and administrators to better align school district resources to meet needs as they arise.

The Pilot

Four years ago, Wake County Public Schools volunteered to participate as one of six pilot districts when the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction inaugurated a statewide student information system, known as NC WISE (North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education).

In Wake County, we had an established process for integrating student data with other operational data and used the data for student assignment, discipline, testing, special education, accountability reporting and other applications. But we also knew the existing statewide system was woefully outdated. We believed by participating in the pilot, we would have input to the decisions being made and could increase the likelihood of NC WISE being able to meet the business needs of our 114,000-student school system.

Pre-rollout training used a “train the trainer” model with seats for two individuals from each school who subsequently would provide training for all users in their schools. The data manager, previously the only person at each site involved daily with student enrollment, membership and attendance, was designated (along with a second person from the school) to participate in the training.

Yet under NC WISE, every teacher enters his or her own attendance information and accesses student records. This meant the data manager, once fully trained, was expected to instruct the school’s teachers. This put the data manager in an uncomfortable role, and teacher training was not consistent across the district.

The training focused on the software capabilities and options. Our users, though, were more interested in specific instructions for accomplishing their work. So we developed materials and posted updates on our district’s Intranet site. Our focus is on job-related how-to’s rather than on comprehensive information about what the software can do. We devised procedures for routine activities like taking attendance.

We delivered the training to job-alike groups with the aim of developing job-related skills. Because our schools handle student scheduling in a variety of ways, we brought in school teams for training and enabled each team to work on its own school database. As follow-up training activity, we offered a “safe” place for real work by allowing school groups to come to an open lab and work uninterrupted on their own school schedule with a trainer available for assistance and feedback.

Separate Hosting

NC WISE rolled out in Wake County according to plan, hosted on the state’s computers and accessible over the Internet. We soon discovered that centralized hosting, while addressing the state’s need for reporting data, made our school district’s operational initiatives more difficult since our real-time data was inaccessible.

Security issues also began to emerge. Teachers, experiencing delays when trying to log in to the web-based application at the beginning of a class period, left their systems logged on to avoid delays when they needed to re-access NC WISE. We couldn’t alleviate the delays because they were outside our district network, but unattended computers constituted a security risk.

A high school student in our district, using a program to log keystrokes, was able to obtain usernames and passwords for NC WISE access. Working from home, the student accessed NC WISE and learned how to use it. The student bragged about his newfound ability and offered to change the grades of his classmates for a fee. He was caught after another student turned him in. Following this incident, a decision was made to house NC WISE at our central office and to apply more stringent security measures for access.

We were truly unique in the pilot. We are by far the largest district participating in the pilot. We rely heavily on the ability to integrate data from multiple sources, and our district database resides on its own servers distinct from the other pilot districts’ databases.

Cultural Change

NC WISE brought major changes to the culture of school data. Data that previously was “owned” by one person at each school now originated with every teacher. Statistical reports that once were generated by the central office where they were checked for accuracy now were pulled directly from the school’s raw data. The reports we were producing at the site level revealed problems with data accuracy.

One school user made creative schedule modifications to address a unique need. As a result, a state report calculated class sizes that were inaccurate and showed that school with an average class size of eight students.

We address unique problems school by school. We document expectations and provide standard approaches to problem solving. Newly devised reports are run centrally against each school’s data to isolate anomalies and check the reasonableness of the data. Data accuracy is emphasized by requiring site administrators to sign off electronically on completed reports. Workshops have enabled principals to become more knowledgeable about the content of reports because each school is ultimately responsible for its own data.

Schools found their latitude to create their own report card options curtailed by the consolidated database. Previously, each school controlled a menu of narrative comments for inclusion on student report cards. Now such comments had to be created in a central bank and were available to all schools in the district. Consolidating each school’s options would have resulted in an unmanageably long list of comments with much redundancy. An ad hoc committee reduced the exhaustive list to a manageable set of options to be placed in a drop-down menu.

Top Security

With NC WISE in place, our operational data is available to integrate into other applications. We have developed software to determine whether entering students are coming from private schools, charter schools, home schools or other public schools, using student enrollment data gathered by our schools as students enter. We also record the destination of the student who withdraws so we can determine the nature of student movement into and out of district schools.

Our instructional management program links teachers to the students in their classes using NC WISE data. Our standards-based report cards use student data from NC WISE. High school students can make their course selections online using NC WISE course data. Our district uses commercial software for special education, attendance calling and emergency parent contacts and real-time, operational data is essential to the proper operation of these programs.

Strengthening security was an immediate priority when we brought NC WISE in-house. We required password changes every 60 days and disallowed trivial passwords. We changed program parameters to automatically log out users after shorter periods of inactivity. We denied access to NC WISE from non-district locations. Still more protection was needed for the large amount of real-time student data that could become accessible via the Internet.

We reviewed the district’s technology security procedures and policies. We revised policies for student and staff access and placed tighter controls on data access by external vendors, assorted volunteers and partnering organizations. This was new territory as neither the state education agency nor any school district in the state had addressed the impact of the changing environment on data security.

Wake County ’s new Electronic Information Security Policy acknowledges data as a resource and provides the basis for the acceptable use policies. Like most school districts, we had acceptable use policies for students and employees, but these didn’t necessarily emphasize the seriousness of violating the agreements. Both policies now describe expectations and address consequences for deliberate data invasions.

The policies also place restrictions on access to data by non-employees (members of community groups and vendors). Vendors hosting software outside the district or implementing software within the district, in the course of their work, may require access to data. In such cases, responsibilities for data are described in the policies.

We began a communications campaign to increase awareness of the importance of security, targeting all stakeholders. We made presentations before various groups. We created and distributed security brochures. We posted reminders on our Intranet site. And the campaign is ongoing. We tell our users that we are our own biggest security risk--by writing down our passwords in obvious places or sharing them with others.

The capability and viability of the district’s network has become a crucial consideration. We purchased hardware and software to expand our ability to detect attempted intrusions and monitor network usage. We improved our web access filtering process (blocking specific sites) and implemented more stringent spam filters.

In one school, access problems persisted. We assessed the school’s network traffic and discovered students were regularly accessing streaming audio and video and downloading large music and video files. These activities were not curriculum-driven and the educational value appeared to be minimal. Students were using school district resources to download files for personal enjoyment. By adjusting the filters for that school, we reduced network traffic. Accessibility to NC WISE no longer is an issue.

A more durable networking solution was replacing existing network connections with cable access for all district schools. This change in configuration represents a commitment of scarce funds, but the return is more reliable access to essential operational applications and increased ability to support technology initiatives of educational importance.

Future Possibilities

While teachers and administrators in the other five pilot districts have been able to access NC WISE from home (their databases are hosted on the state’s servers, which allow remote access), our teachers have not had access to NC WISE from non-district locations. Because of our deep concerns about security, we have denied remote access until we are confident we can provide it securely. We have implemented a web portal that enables secure remote access and will slowly phase in our “@Home Access” for teachers.

As Wake County teachers and administrators access data for over 114,000 students, student achievement will be supported in new ways. Selected student academic records will move in real-time with a student who transfers from one school in the district school to another, eliminating delay in delivery of appropriate instruction and services.

The statewide NC WISE implementation will be most valuable when the records move with students who transfer from one district to another within North Carolina. To accomplish that for Wake students will require collaboration between district staff and the state education agency to devise a method of reintegrating our district’s data with the data of other districts.

This reintegration of Wake’s data is our greatest challenge. We believe it is essential for a district of our size with our complex technology environment to have our data in-house, but we also recognize the value of a consolidated statewide data depository.

Wake County ’s participation in the statewide pilot of an electronic student information system has created many changes in the district. We are poised to increase our capacity to make informed, data-driven decisions as access to student data supports innovative and enhanced delivery of services to our students and teachers.

Beverly White is chief technology officer of Wake County Public Schools, 3600 Wake Forest Road, P. O. Box 28041, Raleigh, NC 27611-8041. e-mail: bwhite@wcpss.net. Christina Winter is director of communications for NC WISE in Raleigh, N.C.

Board Policies on Data Security

The school board in Wake County has taken a most cautious approach to sharing of student data. As a result, the board has adopted several policies in the last two years to ensure the fullest security possible.

These board policies can be accessed at www.wcpss.net/policy-files/ using the following policy numbers in the search engine:

  • 2314, 3014, 4014 and 6447 are locations of the Electronic Information Security policy;

  • 2313, 3013 and 4013 are locations of the Employee Acceptable Use of Electronic Resources policy (including the Employee Acceptable Use Agreement); and

  • 6446 is the Student Acceptable Use of Electronic Resources policy (including the Student Acceptable Use Agreement).