This fall, Iowa’s largest school district will be one of the first districts in the country to send students’ transcripts and other information electronically to select state colleges, using an emerging protocol called electronic data interchange, or EDI.

The application of EDI through Iowa’s Project EASIER (Electronic Access System for Iowa Education Records) also allows for EDI-enabled districts, like the Des Moines School District, to send state demographic records to the Iowa Department of Education. The program’s creators hope that Iowa’s schools eventually will be able to transfer student records instantly from district to district when families relocate within the state.

Des Moines schools will “no longer have to package up big bundles of paper and send them off [to a state college] in an envelope and end up having the college say, ‘Hey, we didn’t get a transcript from you,'” said Dave Alvord, director of Project EASIER at the Iowa Department of Education.

“Right now, we are still doing ‘parallel processing.’ That means we have not totally abandoned paper in favor of EDI yet. We still have paper there as a security blanket. Our goal is to go paperless, but we have to make sure we have it right,” said Carol Gustafson, student accounting specialist for the Iowa Department of Education.

“But the good news is, EDI is working,” Gustafson said.

The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) is one of three state-funded colleges that are EDI-enabled. “We can get records accurately, quickly, and bring them directly into our electronic systems,” UNI Registrar Phil Patton said. “We have thousands of applications every year from Iowa high school students, so the more quickly we work with those, the better.”

Patton said the system means no retyping is necessary, and the records arrive within minutes instead of several days to a week later.

EDI works by establishing “translation sets” that tell the software program how to convert information from one format to another. That way, organizations using different software packages can still communicate with one another.

“The value of EDI for Iowa is that we are a local-control state. We won’t mandate that a school district has to buy a particular kind of software. With EDI, we can create a map that allows different software programs to speak to one another,” said Coleen McClanahan, another coordinator of Project EASIER for the Iowa Department of Education.

According to Alvord, one challenge for schools hoping to exchange data electronically is that nearly every school district and college has described classes or demographic information differently, making it more complicated to share data.

The Iowa Legislature is spending about $500,000 per year to enable its school districts to transfer records electronically using EDI, according to Leland Tack, EDI Task Force member and financial and information services administrator for the Iowa Department of Education.

Currently, 55 percent of the state’s school districts are EDI-enabled, as well as 15 community colleges and the three state universities.

Iowa education officials say Project EASIER has three components. First, school districts are becoming EDI-enabled in order to send annual demographic reports to the state department of education.

“BEDS—the Basic Education Data Survey—was the first thing we had ready to transfer,” Gustafson said. Defining the data sets for this category was very easy, she added, since the state had a set list of survey items that every district had to answer.

“This fall, we anticipate 155 out of 374 districts will report their BEDS using EDI,” said McClanahan.

The second component of Project EASIER is the ability to send high school transcripts to colleges and universities.

“We use EDI on a ‘trading partners’ basis. That means we can be ready to send, but the other entity must be ready to receive,” Gustafson explained.

In 1995, the three state-funded universities—UNI, the University of Iowa, and Iowa State University—began using EDI to exchange student records between themselves. Other institutions, such as Kirkwood Community College, also send students’ records to the state universities via computer.

“It just sort of trickled down to K-12, once everyone saw how it was working,” said UNI’s Patton. “I’d encourage other entities to get involved in using EDI if they are not already.”

Project EASIER ultimately aims to have every school district in Iowa EDI-enabled, so the instant transferal of student data is possible for kids who move from one part of the state to another.

“This is the most difficult piece, because there are so many trading partners to deal with,” Gustafson said. The more trading partners that exist, the more translation sets that must be created to accommodate them.

It’s also the most difficult component because of the variety of different data elements each district requires for a student transfer. “It’s hard to get people to agree on the same set of data elements,” explained McClanahan.

Though no deadline has been set for every Iowa school district to be EDI-enabled, McClanahan believes the entire state will be enabled in the next few years.