By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009
A $12 million project to compile critical information about District schools -- including students' academic growth, teacher quality and graduation rates -- in one database available to policymakers and parents is several months behind schedule, and officials aren't prepared to say when it will be back on track.
The Statewide Longitudinal Education Data Warehouse (SLED), approved by the D.C. Council last year and headed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, is envisioned as a tool to sharpen accountability and decision-making as the District pursues an ambitious program of school reform. It is intended to track each student from early childhood through college, using data now scattered among government agencies, the regular public school system and the public charter school system.
The fragmented and incomplete nature of school information often leaves officials scrambling to answer basic questions about enrollment, attendance, dropout rates and the movement of students between schools. In an era when "data-driven decision-making" is a mantra among education reformers, SLED is regarded as essential.
The office of the state superintendent "sees this program not merely as a technology project, but also as a culture change project," the District said in a document sent to prospective contractors.
The data warehouse system's potential long-term value to the District increased this summer with the Obama administration's introduction of the Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion program of competitive grants to states that can demonstrate a commitment to innovation and reform. That includes closing what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls "the data gap."
"Award-winning states will be able to monitor growth in student learning -- and identify effective instructional practices," Duncan said in a speech last month.
The database system's first two components are in place, officials said: a 10-digit identification number assigned to each of the District's 71,000 public school and public charter school students and those attending the University of the District of Columbia and a centralized listing of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
But officials said the main contractor on the project, Williams, Adley & Co., has missed a series of deadlines since the contract was awarded early last year. Systems to link student identification numbers to standardized test scores going back to 2006, which were expected to be complete this summer, are overdue.
In October, the firm is due to deliver systems to track enrollment, grades and demographic trends. Linkage of student data to detailed information about teachers was planned for February 2010. The ultimate goal is a portal offering school officials, teachers, parents and other community stakeholders "360-degree" data on a variety of matters, including grades, instructional practices, immunization records and the "value added" by teachers to students' academic progress.
But District officials will no longer guarantee the schedule. In a statement issued Thursday, State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs said that her agency is "committed to a world class student tracking system" but that it is also "reviewing the SLED production schedule."
"The ongoing review includes timelines, deliverables, contracts and the vendors involved. When review is complete, OSSE will reengage the education community and share our path forward," Briggs said.
A senior District official, who asked for anonymity because discussions with Williams, Adley are continuing, said one option under consideration is to declare the firm in breach of contract and search for another contractor.
"Some interim milestones were missed, so that's led to a series of conversations with the vendor and all the parties involved to figure out what's going wrong and to what extent the entire schedule needs to be recalibrated," the official said.
Two phone calls last week to Kola A. Isiaq, managing partner of Williams, Adley's Washington offices, were not returned. A phone call to chief executive Tom W. Williams was also not returned. The firm, founded in 1982, has done accounting and management systems work for a long list of federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. From 2000 to the first quarter of 2008, it won $40 million in federal contracts, according to FedSpending.org.
Some states, including Florida, North Carolina and Utah, have developed sophisticated data warehouses to track students' academic growth over time, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a national effort launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to encourage the use of better data to inform education decisions.
D.C. school officials said SLED's struggles have not hindered efforts to improve their own information system, called STARS. But there is agreement that a data system that unifies public school and public charter school records is a necessity.
Community leaders expressed dismay at the delays.
"It seems to be unfortunately one of those vanishing horizon situations where every time you hear about it, there are great things coming but there's still that same distance before you," said State Board of Education member Mary Lord (Ward 2).
Jeff Smith, executive director of DC Voice, a coalition of community organizations, parents and educators that supports a larger public voice in education policy, said there is an enormous appetite for coherent information about schools.
"You want to be able to see retention and attrition information, or who the principal is and how long that person has been there," Smith said.
Without better information, he added, "how would you know that Eastern High School has had five principals in the last six years?"