Problems With SchoolMax Test Students, Parents and Teachers in Prince George's

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

A $4.1 million computer program designed to put Prince George's County students' grades, attendance and discipline data online has been plagued with errors in its first year, leading to botched schedules, an over-count of students and report cards that were delayed or, in some cases, simply wrong.

Since going online Aug. 19, SchoolMax has crashed four times, once for 17 hours, said W. Wesley Watts Jr., the school system's chief information officer. Errors led to the duplication of 3,600 student identification numbers in the 128,000-student system; almost 300 were double-enrolled, leading to an inaccurate count of the student population. The delivery of report cards was delayed last semester, and some students have found they've gotten E's instead of A's. There have been problems doing things as straightforward as printing an alphabetical directory of students.

The latest hit is a six-day delay in the distribution of third-quarter progress reports, which will be distributed Thursday "due to the closure of schools because of snow on March 2 and a recent computer network outage," administrators said in a statement.

"There are a lot of issues with SchoolMax. Some of them are technical. Some of them are data-related," Watts told the school board. "If there is an issue, we need to know what that issue is. Telling us the grade book doesn't work, or it stinks, doesn't help me or our team."

Prince George's is not alone in experiencing problems with a new system. In 2006, a computerized grading system in 52 Montgomery County middle and high schools seized up, overwhelmed as thousands of teachers simultaneously typed in final grades for the marking period. In Charles County, grades were posted online last school year but then taken down this fall after the program inadvertently gave some parents access to the grades of other people's children.

SchoolMax is owned by Harris Computer Systems, based in Canada, and has 76 clients, among them the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the United States, where 300,000 middle and high school students use it. A 2003 story in the Los Angeles Times reported similar complaints about grading and attendance glitches, but they do not seem to have caused as much trouble as in Prince George's.

A Harris vice president contacted last week said that he was not authorized to speak to the media. Calls to Harris's corporate owner, Constellation Software, also based in Canada, were not returned.

Watts said the problems were largely the fault of inadequate training rather than bugs in the system. Only 65 percent of student schedules were entered correctly, leading to delays in getting students' classes straight, Watts said.

"The training that was provided was not what we needed," Watts said.

Now, 91 percent of the schedules are being entered correctly, Watts said. The number of duplicate students is down to 51. And teachers are adapting to the system's nuances and ironing out bugs, he said. Parents are gradually being given access to the system.

On Facebook, though, the mood was ugly as students and the occasional parent or teacher complained of grading delays and errors, often in unprintable or misspelled language.

A Facebook group started by an Eleanor Roosevelt High School student that derides SchoolMax, saying, "I Hate It!!!!" has 2,305 members. Another that says, "SchoolMax Rocks!!!! And I Love It!!!!" has 30.

A handful of students confronted school board members at a community meeting at Parkdale High last week. Angel Dureke, the student government association president, said she had been admitted to the University of Maryland but was worried about getting a scholarship because of SchoolMax-related gaps in her grades.

Kaz Mahmud, an English teacher at Friendly High School and Northwestern Evening High School, said that the system slowed down when many people were using it and that teachers could leave the system idle for only 26 minutes before automatically being kicked off and losing their work.

But Leah Rempert, a reading specialist at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School, said in an e-mail that she likes the program. "As with anything new, it takes a while to get used to operating it," Rempert wrote.

On Thursday, school board members said they were inclined to press on.

"I'm in the Facebook group that we have to have it," said R. Owen Johnson Jr. (District 5). "We should have had it 10 years ago. We'll work the bugs out."

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