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Audit Finds Limited Use of City's Data System

Monday, January 23, 2012 - 01:47 PM

Many New York City teachers and principals are not using the city’s $80 million student information database, according to an audit released on Monday by the comptroller, John C. Liu.

The information system, known as ARIS, for Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, has been controversial since its introduction in 2008, when technical glitches drew complaints from teachers and principals.

Last March, Mr. Liu, a presumed mayoral candidate and a longtime critic of the Education Department’s technology contracts, began an audit of the program to discern its effect on student performance. But the comptroller’s conclusions were disputed on Monday by city education officials.

About 42 percent of teachers, assistant principals and principals did not log on to the program last year or the year before, according to the city’s usage data, Mr. Liu reported.

“This costly tech program was much touted by the D.O.E. to help principals and teachers track progress and thereby improve student learning, even as longtime educators questioned its cost and effectiveness,” Mr. Liu said in a statement, concluding that “$83 million later, there is little discernible improvement in learning and many principals and teachers have given up on the system.”

The system can also be used by parents to track their children’s attendance and their performance on diagnostic and state tests. The comptroller’s audit did not examine how frequently parents used it.

City education officials pointed to some of the comptroller’s own survey results to support their claims that the database represented a net gain for the schools.

The survey was distributed to more than 25,000 of the roughly 75,000 teachers in the school system. Of about 280 teachers who responded, 71 percent supported this statement: “In the long run, the use of ARIS will assist significantly in enhancing student performance.” Similarly, in 2009, 60 percent of principals who responded to an ARIS survey by Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate at the time, said it would improve teaching and learning.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, said the comptroller’s survey garnered too few responses from teachers and principals to be taken seriously.

“Comptroller Liu paints a picture of ARIS that is inconsistent with the facts and his own survey findings,” he said. “More teachers and parents are using ARIS, a large majority of principals and educators say it helps students improve, and New York City students are doing better by every measure.”

The number of school employees using ARIS increased to 89,000 in the 2010-11 school year from not quite 47,000 in 2008, according to the city’s records.

But Mr. Liu’s audit said most of that increase came not from teachers and principals, but from superintendents and school support staff members.

Developed by I.B.M. and a group of subcontractors, ARIS was a central part of the city’s plan for teachers to use student data to guide their lessons and for parents to have access to attendance records and test scores.

Last week, Mr. Liu opposed the Education Department’s decision to transfer the contract for ARIS, which is a month away from expiring, from I.B.M. to Wireless Generation, a company largely owned by News Corporation, where the former schools chancellor Joel I. Klein is an executive vice president. Wireless Generation helped develop ARIS and has been working on the database since 2007.

In response to the department's emphasis on data, many schools have sought out and paid for their own data systems. New Visions for Public Schools, which manages more than 70 public schools in the city, pays for all of its schools to use Datacation, a program designed in part by staff at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology. It allows users to see students’ grades, attendance and class schedules.

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