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Arizona schools chief: Education data system needs $32M

John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, speaks at a panel discussion Thursday on education data. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Sean Peick)

PHOENIX -- Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal wants $32 million to replace Arizona's decade-old educational data system, which he said has required extensive upkeep.

"It's consumed enormous amounts of our valuable resources that should have been on the future," he said. "Instead, we're spending it on the past."

During a panel discussion Thursday on the challenges of educational data in Arizona, Huppenthal said that an optimally functioning data system would be a much more reliable source of information for the school districts that rely on it. This in turn would avoid problems such as "ghost" students mistakenly entered in the system.

"What you get is a healthy system where you have all the students in there one time," he said. "You have one source of truth that everybody can rely on, that flows out and populates all the other systems.

"It is the foundational system for everything."

The Student Accountability Information System (SAIS) currently in use was developed by the Arizona Department of Education in response to the No Child Left Behind Act and a 2000 ballot proposition requiring the state to establish a public school accountability system.

It runs on Windows 2000, and Huppenthal said that when he took office two years ago it had a reliability rate of 50 percent.

State Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, the former Senate Education Committee chairman, agreed that the state's educational database system needs to be addressed. However, he said that persuading the Legislature to fund a replacement won't be easy.

"The biggest fear we have is that we get down the road four, five, six years, and it's not what we thought it was going to be," he said. "Or, more importantly, the way that we use data has shifted."

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said that although education reforms passed by the state have been well-intentioned, implementing them effectively has been another matter altogether.

"Quite frankly, we don't have the data system to give us the information to know what's working and what's not working," she said.

Rep. Catherine H. Miranda, D-Phoenix, said she worries about the impact of an inadequate data system on the achievement gap between the Latino and non-Latino communities.

"When we have a huge Latino population that's bringing down our achievement scores, we need to be able to target those skills through an effective data system to make sure that achievement in that population rises," she said. "The face of Arizona is changing."

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said he would like to see more done to determine the data's value in the classroom before making decisions on the system itself.

"I don't think we've settled the disconnect between everything you've heard about the construction of the statewide data system, and the fact that educators don't really understand in most cases or all cases how this data is going to benefit their job educating students," he said.

Crandall noted that the whole panel discussion may become moot when Gov. Jan Brewer reveals her budget for the upcoming year. Her administration previously agreed to spend $6 million each year on improvements to the system.

"If she has $6 million for a data system, it is going to be fighting like heck to get another $26 (million) added to that," he said.

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