With the strict accountability demands ushered in under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools have begun using technology to improve the way teachers monitor student performance, and states now require better reporting of student and school data. These trends have fueled an expansion of the SIF specification both horizontally and vertically: from administrative software such as transportation, food service, and student information systems, to instructional programs for teaching math and reading; and from a district-wide to a statewide solution.

“Many teachers are now outfitted with tools so they can more easily collect and consolidate grading information,” said Larry Fruth, executive director of the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA). Initially, these applications operated in an ad-hoc fashion, but vendors increasingly have been integrating their products, so schools now can deploy learning management systems that collect, present, and consolidate student achievement data. These systems not only walk students through the various exercises; they also collect response data from periodic assessments and provide various graphic elements that outline how students are performing.

SIF began as an administrative solution, primarily for eliminating the need to enter data into student information, transportation, food service, library automation, and other software systems independently of each other–but as instructional programs increasingly integrate assessment and data-management tools and capabilities, a growing number of classroom applications now are SIF-certified, too. SIFA members now include such makers of instructional software as CompassLearning, PLATO Learning, Renaissance Learning, Riverdeep, and Scholastic.

By using web-based interfaces, schools are able to share gradebook information from these instructional programs with a growing number of individuals, and parents can monitor the progress of their children online. Administrators also have access to such information, and this advancement comes at a fortuitous time: Throughout the country, students from elementary school through high school are being tested, and the results might determine, for example, whether a school will remain open or how much federal funding it will receive. Consequently, educators are spending more time than ever collecting and analyzing student achievement data.

These data used to be collected and examined mainly locally, but now–for a variety of reasons–they must be more widely shared and disseminated. States have been pushing new initiatives that facilitate the sharing of student data from district to district if a pupil moves. Also, states need to collect and examine achievement data from local districts to comply with NCLB requirements. While states theoretically could build a central system to collect this information, in most cases this approach is unworkable, because individual districts use such a wide variety of software products. A more efficient option would be to use common data interchange standards, such as SIF, that would enable education officials to move information easily among local, district, and state applications.

“A few years ago, it became clear that SIF had to be extended so local districts could transfer data to state and federal systems,” noted Jill Abbott, learning strategist at SIFA. As a result, a growing number of states are now implementing statewide SIF projects to ease the sharing and reporting of data from their local districts.

One of the most ambitious of these is Wyoming, which began working last year to create the Wyoming Integrated Statewide Education (WISE) Data System. Any time a student changes schools or moves to a new district within the state, that student’s entire history of academic information will be able to be shared instantly with his or her new school via the WISE Data System, allowing for a seamless transition.

Wyoming’s system not only will allow schools to share information across districts; it also will use SIF to transfer information from districts to the state education department, thereby simplifying the required reporting for each district. Wyoming is spending nearly $4 million to bring the technology to each of its 48 school districts–but state officials say they will save many more times this amount by eliminating the need for school staff members to re-enter data into multiple software applications and reports.

The five-year project is being led by ESP Solutions Group, a K-12 data systems integrator, in conjunction with its partners, Edustructures and eScholar. The system will consist of a next-generation state reporting system from ESP; eScholar’s SIF-based unique identifier system, Uniq-ID; Edustructure’s Zone Integrated Servers; and the installation and configuration of up to 10 SIF agents (connection points) for every district.

Wyoming is one of the first states to embark on a statewide SIF implementation–but it’s not the only one. South Carolina also is implementing a statewide system for the vertical reporting of K-12 education data, and Virginia and Pennsylvania are among the other states to explore SIF implementations (see sidebar, below).

The latest versions of SIF are helping state and school district officials capture, share, analyze, and report on student achievement data in real time. By adopting SIF, states and school districts can alter the dynamics of student achievement data. For the first time, all stakeholders in a child’s education have access to meaningful information and are able to intervene in a more proactive manner, thereby closing the gaps in achievement and boosting academic success.

As these new information systems are being put into place, school leaders are trying to develop a culture where all decisions surrounding the learning environment–from district operations, to classroom instruction, to an individual student’s learning plan–are based on facts, not instinct. With more information available to them, administrators can build more targeted budgets, measure the effectiveness of new curriculum programs, anticipate future program requirements, recruit and retain the best teachers, and follow the progress of individual students. Teachers, meanwhile, can integrate technology so it positively impacts their curriculum, modify their lesson plans to meet the varied needs of individual students more easily, and link classroom materials and assessments with state standards.

These changes are transforming schools into more effective institutions. But they resonate beyond the classroom as well. Schools are able to better prepare students for college and the work force. School officials are able to develop and manage complex budgets more effectively. Educators can better provide students with safe and efficient bus transportation, nutritious food, up-to-date libraries, cutting-edge technology resources, and secure campus facilities. In essence, school officials have moved from simply dabbling with technology as a supplemental educational tool to using it to help them run their businesses better.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer living in Sudbury, Mass., who writes frequently about education and technology.