DODEA working out the bugs in its new electronic grading program
Stars and Stripes March 12, 2006
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — There was the time last fall, when teachers at many Department of Defense Dependents Schools had to switch back to doling out paper report cards. When it came to managing student data, there was the slower online access, the frustration of lost information, the doubling of efforts to re-enter records.
Most of all, teachers and administrators from Pacific schools said last week, there was the loss of dependability and flexibility — and in some cases, tempers. At issue: maintaining student records while adapting to the first full school year of using a new, worldwide computer management program for all schools in Department of Defense Education Activity.
But those growing pains, the same educators said last week, slowly are coming to an end.
Initially, “it was pretty inconvenient” for teachers, said Nathan Brewster of Nile C. Kinnick High School at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. “Grades would disappear and have to be re-entered. We’d have to redo things over and over.
“Overall, it’s getting better and, as a testament to our school, I think people have a good attitude about it,” added the ninth- and 10th-grade history teacher. “I just wish they would have tested the program and removed some of the bugs before it went worldwide.”
The program, called Student Management Solution, is meant to collect electronic records once kept at each individual school and feed them into an international network, according to Frank O’Gara, a spokesman for the military’s educational system headquarters in Virginia.
That upgrade provides more options for tracking individual, district and even continent-wide student progress. SMS should reduce the time teachers spend figuring grades, tracking behavior problems and maintaining student profiles, O’Gara said. The system also could speed class registration and should let parents and students check their class standings anytime via the Internet.
But making that technological leap has been filled with mishaps that can be traced to slow computer servers, mis-entered data and, most aggravating, troubles inherent in the system itself, O’Gara and other educators said last week.
No student data has been lost permanently, teachers said. But satisfying the need for report cards and student transcripts has meant circumventing the new system by using other programs and tediously hand-correcting errors in transcripts, teachers and officials said.
O’Gara admitted DODEA’s leaders were “overly optimistic” about the expected speed and success of the new program.
A fall 2005 memorandum from DODEA director Joseph D. Tafoya apologized for the problems and another message on the agency’s Web site last week talked about the transcript challenges and current tests for printing registration data.
“We know that our teachers are frustrated,” O’Gara said in a phone interview. “We regret those inconveniences but we are working aggressively with the contractors” to fix those problems.
SMS will cost $7.4 million in a five-year contract with Consulting, Services and Solutions Group Inc. in Fairfax, Va. The program was developed by Chancery Software Ltd., which also devised the previously used Win School program that SMS replaced.
“We’re confident this is a good system,” O’Gara said. “It’s painful getting there.”
For instance, one teacher at Edgren High School on Misawa Air Base, Japan, said that with SMS, an instructor in one subject area no longer has the ability to track a student’s performance in other subjects.
“Last year, I loved that every week … we could check grades, and we can’t do that with this system,” said an English teacher who requested her name not be used.
“If I had a kid just sitting there in seminar, I’d say, ‘Don’t you have work?’ If he said, ‘No, I’m getting A’s in everything,’ I could go on and see, ‘No, you’re getting a D in chemistry, you need to get extra help in chemistry,’” she said.
“We can’t do that so far, but I think they’re trying to work it out that we can,” she said.
In general, most teachers interviewed last week said fewer system glitches occur now than at the start of the year. With the bugs gone, teachers are finding SMS more helpful than the older program.
“It took a little time for us to warm up to it,” said Dana Carey, a second-grade teacher at Yokota West Elementary School in Japan, who guides other faculty members on the use of SMS. “But they made the appropriate updates. We’re very happy with it now.”
Detailed progress reports issued recently were printed in a matter of minutes, Carey said. In the past, that process was time-consuming and often had to be done by hand.
Several teachers at Kinnick in Yokosuka likewise said they see the light at the end of the tunnel, though they worry about how long that tunnel might be.
“I think part of the initial frustration had to do with how comfortable everyone was on the old system,” said physics and geometry teacher Ryan Goodfellow. “Some questioned why a new system was needed at all.”
Kinnick began implementing SMS last year but, while all teachers now store basic attendance and grade information online, problems still are encountered with SMS grade books, the teachers said. Halfway through first semester, many teachers switched back to paper grades or to the school’s former program, they said.
Stephen Choate, a video-communications and computer-science teacher at Kinnick, said he believes the frustration partly is caused by the program and partly is proportionate to how long teachers have been using paper grades.
“Our faculty is young and computer-savvy,” Choate said. “But half of the teachers in DODDS are my grandmother’s age — and I wouldn’t do this (SMS) to my grandmother.”
But the second version of SMS launched in January appears to be getting better, the Kinnick teachers said.
And in the long run, SMS will improve accountability and transparency of teacher grading and student performance, they said. Plus, parents and their students can check their standings, anytime, from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, they said.
DODDS-Korea Assistant Superintendent Peter Grenier said registration for classes should be easier, too. The goal is to have class schedules completed for the next year before the current school year ends, he said.
“All high-school students should have tentative schedules before the summer,” he said this week. “That is a significant improvement from what we had in the beginning of the year. I think we’re coming out of the woods.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Vince Little and Jennifer Svan contributed to this story.