Student Grades? The Computers Flunk
The New York Times, March 16, 2005
by Samuel Freedman

Abounding in hope and anxiety, Jessie Streich-Kest started the process of applying to college last week. With all the other juniors at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, she received an information booklet about several dozen institutions and three standard forms for recommendation letters. Very soon, a guidance counselor told Jessie, she should come in for a personal conference. And don't forget to bring a current photo.

There was just one little problem. Jessie had no idea what her class rank and grade-point average were. Like all 4,000 students at Murrow, she had not received an accurate transcript the entire school year. Without that information, part of the genetic coding of a college application, she could hardly figure out whether she really had a chance at Brown and Wesleyan, her two favorite choices.

A few miles away, at Midwood High, Bridget Ritter was still waiting for a transcript showing her grades from the first marking period, which had ended more than a month earlier. The term was her best ever, and she wanted to send the updated record to the half-dozen colleges deciding on her admission.

Her performance was especially striking because she hadn't even been assigned to her advanced-placement courses in English and physics for the first several weeks of class last fall, as a result of computer problems.

The failure to supply students with fundamental information about schedules and grades was not the fault of anyone at Murrow or Midwood, and it was beyond the ability of anyone at either school to repair. Since September, when the Department of Education installed a new computer program for high school students' academic records, problems and complaints have proliferated.

The situation went from fiasco to crisis in late January, when the first semester ended and demands on the flawed system peaked. Thousands of students did not get official report cards. Guidance counselors and programmers often could not connect online. When they did, the computer system sometimes left holes in pupils' schedules, and when school personnel requested technical assistance, they often wound up asking for advice from putative experts who knew less than they did.

"It's been horrendous," said Angela Reformato, a guidance counselor at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and the chapter chairwoman for guidance counselors in the United Federation of Teachers. "We're hindered recommending students for scholarships because we can't get class ranks. Or a whole class appears on a transcript and then disappears. Or the computer won't let you do a program change. And you can't do it by hand. Your hands are tied. It causes complete confusion."

That confusion is a result of the Department of Education's decision not to renew a long-term contract with the City University of New York to produce schedules and transcripts. Under that system, for which the department paid $5 million to $6 million annually, a high school would request the documents and have them delivered a week later. Maybe it was very 20th century, more butter knife than cutting edge, but it worked.

This fall, the department shifted high schools onto a system the department's own programmers developed at a cost of $5.1 million, known by the acronym HSST -- for High School Scheduling and Transcripts. If the program ran correctly, even its current critics acknowledge, it would represent a major improvement from the precursor. Counselors and schedulers could have instant online access to student records and be able to print out whatever was needed with a few clicks of a mouse.

Unfortunately, the system has almost never run correctly. By the admission of the department's chief information officer, Irwin Kroot, the HSST program "wasn't stress-tested appropriately." He meant that nobody thought to simulate the demands on the system when several hundred high schools all needed schedules and transcripts within the same period of a few weeks. And exactly that happened in late January and early February.

The requests overwhelmed the servers assigned to HSST. Some counselors and programmers could not gain access to the system at all. Others found it would not supply transcripts while it was deluged with schedule requests. The Education Department responded by sending school personnel a chart showing the hours for peak use -- not surprisingly, normal working hours -- and urging them to try HSST at less busy times. The department, however, did not give counselors and programmers passwords letting them use the system from outside school.

"I'm supposed to use the system at 11 o'clock at night?" said Maura McGovern, a guidance counselor and assistant programmer at Midwood. "Excuse me, but I'm supposed to be home at 11, not here. I don't have a cot in the basement. I like our custodians, they're nice guys, but I'd rather have the cat at the end of my bed, purring when I roll over."

When counselors and programmers sought help, they went either to HSST programmers who were buried under thousands of distress calls or technical-support aides in regional offices who were unfamiliar with the new system.

It's a major flaw," said Suzanne Donahue, the programming chairwoman at Walton High School in the Bronx. "They have people who did not know this system but were put in charge of fixing it. I knew more than they did. They just did not know."

Parents, school employees and union leaders all brought the problems to the department's attention in the fall and particularly in January and February. Since then, the troubles have subsided. But whether the relative calm means that HSST has been fixed or merely that the end-of-semester crush has passed is an open question, one whose answer won't be known until the second term ends in late June.

"We will alleviate all of the problems for the fall," Mr. Kroot promised in an interview this week. "We've already taken concrete steps." He said that the department had added more server capacity to field online requests and arranged for schedules and transcripts to be handled by different parts of the system. Some counselors and programmers, he added, will soon be authorized to use HSST from their home computers.

Perhaps, then, this year's mess will prove over time to have been a one-year anomaly. Even so, it is an anomaly that many counselors and programmers believe could have been avoided by consulting them in the first place. "They don't ask anyone," Diane Duberstein, a counselor at Murrow, said of the department. "They think they have all the answers."



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