When Mainland Regional High School had a power outage Dec. 11, the school lost more than electricity. The outage damaged the Power School database that houses the school's Student Information System, and a backup system was also faulty, resulting in the loss of attendance and grade data for the first and second marking periods just as many students were applying to college.
"It was more than nerve-wracking," said the schools' technology supervisor, Dorsey Finn. "I was ready to jump off a bridge."
More than a month later, most data have been recovered, though it is expected to take until the end of the month to complete second marking-period data and reactivate the Parent Portal that gives parents access to their children's information.
The incident was local, but the problem has state and national repercussions, as schools are not only required to collect more data but must make sure it is protected, preserved and complies with student privacy and confidentiality laws.
"This is a huge undertaking," said Finn, who oversees a staff of three technicians with 14 servers housing about three terabytes of information. "And I'm not really sure most people have wrapped their heads around it."
In 2006, the state Department of Education began using its NJSMART data collection system to collect information on every student. Data provided by individual school districts were used to create unique student identification numbers in 2007 to track every public school student in the state. In 2010-11, the state also began collecting information about more than 260,000 school staff members.
State Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple said the state collects only a small amount of what local school districts maintain. He said districts manage data through their own contracts, but the state requires them to have policies and procedures in place to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
He said the state provides assistance in meeting state reporting requirements, and on average the NJSMART help desk records more than 24,000 contacts per year.
In addition to the data provided to the state, local districts have archived information sometimes going back decades, plus attendance and disciplinary records used by guidance and other departments. Transcripts and college applications at Mainland were saved from the crash because they were stored in a different system. Even student projects may now be submitted and stored via computer.
One option for off-site protection is cloud storage, in which information is kept in massive off-site server farms. But the security of that data has not been proved, and it can be expensive.
"It may end up being a series of tradeoffs of privacy versus the cloud, and different groups may make different decisions," said Paige Kawalski, director of state policy for the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign. "The cloud is not perfect."
Kawalski said ideally states could take a leading role in providing a centralized storage site with the necessary level of IT expertise to manage it. But, she said, district officials must still address how data are being collected, who is doing it, how it is being protected and who has access to it. That conversation is not happening in many states, she said, citing New York as one state that has begun seriously addressing the issue.
"It's just not that high on anyone's radar yet," she said.
She said training of all staff is crucial so they understand the importance of accurate and secure information.
"That goes right down to teachers thinking about what is up on their computer screen in the classroom," she said.
The use of student data to evaluate teachers is a huge concern of the New Jersey Education Association, which has questioned the validity of using student data for that purpose.
"Our concerns go much deeper than the accuracy of the data," NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. "The test scores the state intends to use are only partially valid as measures of student learning and aren't considered valid measures of teacher effectiveness."
Finn said everyone wants secure and accurate data, but it comes at a price. Technology gets outdated quickly and requires regular updating.
He said with tight budgets, districts will hire teachers before adding another IT person, at least until there is a problem. He said Mainland is lucky in that IT technician Mike Rivera was savvy enough to be able to identify the specific problem in the school's backup system, which helped convince a data recovery company to assist Mainland in the recovery.
"But the data requirements just keep growing," Finn said. "And each district is just dealing with it on their own."
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