The new National Education Technology Plan released Jan. 7 might finally drive widespread use of an education standard conceived nearly six years ago to transfer student data seamlessly from one software program to another, regardless of platform or manufacturer.

SIF, which stands for the Schools Interoperability Framework, was developed to eliminate the need for school personnel to enter information about the same students over and over again for each administrative software package a district uses–a need that arises when software programs cannot communicate with each other or share information.

Separate programs that manage everything from library access to bus transportation usually require school personnel to spend valuable time typing the same data over and over. Often, entries for the same student are not aligned, and changes–such as a new home address or phone number–might not make it into all programs.

SIF aims to solve these problems. By creating a single communications interface and a common way to share data, it eliminates the need for duplicate data entry. More importantly, when a district’s software programs can communicate and transmit data that are aligned from program to program in real time, school officials can make better-informed decisions by generating comprehensive, accurate reports.

Since 1999, a nonprofit consortium of technology companies and school districts has been developing the standard, and it has been available in some educational software since 2003–but so far, only about 250 schools or districts in 40 states have implemented SIF.

SIF organizers have been encouraging school officials to ask for software that is SIF-certified in their requests for proposals (RFPs). To make it easy, the SIF web site offers sample language that school officials can include in their RFPs to make this request.

But still, the move toward widespread use of SIF-compliant solutions has been slow.

“It’s been a challenge to get the message out to educators that they have the power to include SIF certification in their RFPs,” said Larry Fruth II, executive director of the SIF Association.

Now that this grassroots movement has moved to a policy directive from the federal government, however, SIF should gain more exposure and widespread implementation, Fruth said.

The seventh recommendation of the new National Education Technology Plan, called “Toward a New Golden Age in American Education,” focuses on integrated, interoperable data systems and clearly advises schools, districts, and states to consider requiring SIF in all software RFPs and purchasing decisions. (See “ED outlines new tech priorities.”)

“What schools and states are looking for is leadership on how to solve their daily problems,” Fruth said. “Data management is really important, and any clout they can get from the U.S. Department of Education will really carry weight.”

SIF has evolved greatly from its original purpose as a horizontal data-transfer protocol, or one that can move data seamlessly across a school district’s software products. The latest trend, or side benefit, of SIF is “vertical reporting,” whereby data moves seamlessly from the district to the state.

In fact, statewide initiatives in Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wyoming are rapidly increasing SIF awareness and use–not to mention saving school systems in these states millions of dollars.

Oklahoma recently mandated the use of SIF-certified products in its schools, and Wyoming is spending nearly $2.3 million over the next two years to implement SIF throughout its 48 school districts.

Although the total implementation is expected to take four or five years to complete, state officials predict SIF will save Wyoming’s school districts 88,000 hours of staff time spent producing 25 to 30 state reports each year and 113,000 hours spent on duplicate data entry of student records.

“There’s time that gets saved with state reporting, and there’s time that is saved horizontally across the district with data entry for each student,” said Steven King, director of data management for the Wyoming Department of Education. “It’s staff time that gets freed up to do other things.”

Plus, the initiative capitalizes on the investments that school districts already have made in buying software, setting it up, and training staff to use it. “By using SIF infrastructure to connect those applications, we’re not throwing those investments away,” King said. And local control is maintained, he added, because school districts have a broader range of products to choose from.

“We can’t justify this system just for state reporting” because of the project’s cost, King said. But “state reporting is a side benefit.”

Pulling the data into subgroups as required by the No Child Left Behind Act and getting them accurate was painful, King said. SIF will improve data quality and timeliness, while reducing the burden associated with producing the information.

In Virginia, widespread SIF implementation won’t happen for three or four more years, but SIF will be a natural part of Virginia’s new state-level data warehouse, known as the Education Information Management System (EIMS), said Lan W. Neugent, assistant superintendent of technology for the Virginia Department of Education.

The state recently purchased SIF memberships for its 132 school divisions to help them become aware of and prepare for SIF. The membership provides newsletters, updates, and extra support. The state also is piloting a horizontal SIF implementation at the Hanover County Public Schools, which it hopes to use as a model for its remaining school divisions.

Because SIF has only just issued its second release–and so few companies have passed certification–SIF right now is not an integral part of the state’s EIMS plan. But, Neugent said, “there are a lot of value-added benefits. It’s going to save a lot of money for schools and a lot headaches for us, because we will have much better data.”

In October 2004, SIF released the second version of its vendor certification program. The Certification 1.5 Program added an array of new “data objects,” bringing the total from about 17 to 87.

The first version, released in April 2003, ensured very limited interoperability, Fruth said, but the latest specification expands coverage of food services, human resources, and finance software and is capable of tracking individual students and their progress over time, even if they move from district to district.

“We have [nearly] 100 vendors who are working with end-users to make their products interoperable,” Fruth said.

At press time, six products from five companies had passed the Certification 1.5 Program, and 34 products from 31 companies had completed SIF Certification 1.1, said Mark Reichert, SIF’s chief technology officer.

The products that have attained the latest certification include eScholar LLC’s eScholar Complete Data Warehouse 6; Novell Inc.’s Nsure Identity Manager 2; Public Consulting Group Inc.’s Easy IEP 5.14; Riverdeep’s LMS 2.5; and SunGard Pentamation’s eSchoolPLUS 1 and PLUS Series 5.

In December 2004, SIF announced the availability of the SIF Implementation Readiness Assessment Toolkit, which offers web-based surveys to assess a school district’s current state of data management and help school leaders create a plan for future data interoperability.

In addition to finding the toolkit on the SIF web site, school officials can discuss SIF in an educator’s forum, post RFPs on the SIF web site, and find information about which products have passed certification.

The SIF Association’s next focus, Fruth said, will be providing implementation support and developing an out-of-the-box, plug-and-play interoperability solution.

The group also is evaluating the possibility of incorporating into SIF comparable protocols such as Microsoft Web Services, IMS Global Learning Consortium’s specifications, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which has become the de facto standard for deploying eLearning.

“We all need to be on the same page in the spec world,” Fruth said. “There’s no other specification focused on student data, other than SIF.”

Links:

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

National Education Technology Plan
http://www.nationaledtechplan.org