New computer protocols being developed by a U.S. Department of Education task force soon could make it easy to exchange student transcripts and other information electronically from one school district to another, from a school district to a college, or from a school district to a state or federal government agency.

Currently, it can take up to two weeks for schools to receive the transcripts of students who transfer to another district or state, school officials say. The delay often means school officials don’t have the information they need to place students in the appropriate classes right away, and valuable education time is lost.

But cutting-edge information sharing environments like those used in the federal Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) program can make possible the near-instant transfer of this information, regardless of what type of student information system a school district uses, according to Ray Yeagley, superintendent of Rochester, N.H., School District and chairman of the National Center for Education Statistics’ EDI Task Force.

“I think this type of thing is inevitable,” Yeagley told eSchool News. “We all want to cut down on paper and eliminate the errors that occur when sets of information have to be entered repeatedly. But more important to the students is the fact that it speeds up what happens with their information.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics web site, EDI is “the exchange of routine business transactions in a computer-processable format, covering such traditional applications as inquiries, planning, purchasing, … , financial reporting—and now, education information.”

The initiative actually began in 1979, when the American National Standards Institute chartered a new committee—now known as the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) X12, Electronic Data Interchange—to develop uniform standards for electronic interchange of business transactions.

EDI standards were created to solve the problems that arise when widely varying formats used by trading partners hinder the efficient exchange of electronic information. But forward-thinking educators saw the implications of these standards for use in K-12 schools as well.

“There are more than 100 different student information programs used in schools, [programs] such as Chancery’s Mac School and NCS’s SASI,” Yeagley said. “But with such a disparate community of users, it has not been practical until now to create an EDI” standard for the education community.

Once EDI is generally accepted among schools, Yeagley said, it will reduce the staff time required to send high school transcripts to colleges, enable schools receiving transfer students to have virtually instant access to academic information that is critical to their placement, and facilitate the direct transmission of state and federal reports without introducing errors from manual data entry.

How EDI works

EDI works by establishing “translation sets” that tell the software how to convert information from one format to another.

“There are a number of educational translation sets,” said Yeagley. “For example, the student record has all the individual student information, while the institutional record contains information … [such as] financial reporting or enrollment.”

Yeagley’s task force has begun testing a pilot web server for schools, nicknamed CHARLOTTE, which translates data from a variety of commercial and custom student information systems to a standard ANSI X12 format. The server then forwards the data to a receiving school, district, or postsecondary institution.

If the receiving institution cannot read X12-formatted data, the server will translate the data from the X12 format back into the format used by the receiving school before sending the record. The server uses internet, eMail, and file transfer protocols to carry out its information exchanges.

Currently, CHARLOTTE is operating as a prototype on a single server at Sierra Systems in Arlington, Va. Six pilot institutions—three public school systems and three state departments of education—have participated in data transfer testing with the University of Maryland. The Rochester School District is one of two districts that have successfully completed their transactions with the university.

As it exists now, CHARLOTTE is designed to relay information only from NCS’s SASIxp administrative software program into X12, but Yeagley said its creators are mapping the server for use with other software programs as well. “It takes three or four days to map for one program,” he said.

Yeagley’s task force hopes to achieve the same success with EDI in schools that has been seen in online business. “EDI currently drives eCommerce,” he said. “For example, one of the X12 translation sets allows UPS to track its packages, no matter where they are.”

EDI and SIF

One problem that EDI might not be able to solve is how to allow a variety of different school applications to communicate with one another within a particular school or district.

Schools must repeatedly re-enter information for the same student into many different applications, such as attendance software, health records, and school lunch programs, Yeagley points out.

The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) has attempted to solve this problem by developing a data-interchange system using the new XML format, rather than EDI’s X12 standard. Called the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), SIIA’s program allows school personnel to unify the many different applications used within a school.

But SIF standards do not offer the same benefits as EDI, Yeagley said. One important difference is that SIF is vendor-generated to let applications within a district communicate with each other, rather than from district to district. That means SIF is not as useful for transferring student records from district to district, or from state to state, as EDI is intended to be.

On the other hand, the SIF standard is more flexible, because it asks the vendor to handle the translation and mapping, rather than the data interchange program itself.

Observers view the eventual compatibility between the business-driven EDI and education-driven SIF standards as a necessity.

“We’re straddling the technology world right now,” said Barbara Andrepont, SIF working group co-chair. “EDI is more mature [than SIF], and many businesses and universities already have a vested interest in X12. We can’t ignore that these two [standards] have to be able to cross-talk.”

Challenges to adoption

Both EDI and SIF face the problem of how to ensure that student information transmitted electronically remains secure. But for EDI, the challenge is greater, because student data must be sent out over the internet and not over a more secure environment such as a districtwide intranet.

“This is extremely sensitive information, and steps must be taken to limit access to only those who are authorized,” said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Yeagley said privacy should not present a major problem for K-12 schools: “CHARLOTTE works in a highly secure environment with encryption. The risk is about the same as sending your credit card number to an eCommerce site. Security on the net has really come a long way.”

A greater challenge could be building enough momentum on a national level for EDI to catch on in schools. Though CHARLOTTE is a federally funded pilot project, the actual implementation of EDI is being left up to states and individual school districts.

“It does Rochester, New Hampshire, no good to be able to send transcripts to Palo Alto, California, when we send one out of a million kids there,” Yeagley explained. “A majority of our high school kids go to the University of New Hampshire. We need to rely on EDI locally, and it makes sense to create regional or statewide [EDI] servers.”

Leland Tack, EDI Task Force member and financial and information services administrator for the Iowa Department of Education, agreed. “Given that education is still primarily a state function, it really requires each state to accept and implement this,” he said. “It has to be a district/state partnership, and there must be a critical mass to get the whole thing moving.”

The Iowa Legislature is spending about $500,000 per year to enable its school districts to transfer records electronically using EDI, Tack said. Currently, 55 percent of the state’s school districts are EDI-enabled, as well as 15 community colleges and three state universities.

“To be EDI-compatible, school districts must use software that has EDI translation sets built in, or they can use special EDI Control Center software developed by NCS,” Tack said.

Iowa’s implementation of the protocol means that EDI-enabled districts can send student transcripts electronically to the three universities involved, and they can also submit information to the state via computer for student reporting.

“If a district [or a state] wanted to do this, they could just get the tools and do it,” said Tim Newell, account manager at Sierra Systems and one of CHARLOTTE’s developers. “It is now just a matter of people buying into the concept.”

National Center for Education Statistics’ EDI information

http://nces.ed.gov/edi

Sierra Systems Group Inc.

http://www.sierrasystems.com

Iowa Department of Education

http://www.state.ia.us/educate