MANHATTAN — After spending more than $80 million on a controversial online student achievement database, the NYC Department of Education's portal is about to become obsolete as the state rolls out its own nearly-identical system as part of a federal education grant, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.
The city is quietly making the transition from its $81 million data system — known as ARIS, or “Achievement Reporting and Innovation System" — to a new statewide database being developed with federal education funding, according to officials and city and state documents.
ARIS, which was created and launched in 2008 to give parents, teachers and principals access to test scores, attendance and student histories, is set to be replaced in fall 2013 by the “State Longitudinal Data System” — expected to be an almost identical copy of the city's own web portal, officials said.
The statewide system was created using a $19.7 million, three-year Race to the Top federal grant.
"The goal is to transition to the state system once the state has the new system," Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman for the city Education Department confirmed to DNAinfo.
News of the change came as a surprise even to the city's principals, many of whom have been reluctant to accept the existing system.
"There have been no indications that there will be any changes in a year," said a spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principal's union, who insisted the transition was "not happening."
Watchdog groups also railed against the Education Department's investment in short-lived software.
"Improving education through technology is vital, but spending nearly $100 million on an ineffective system is a huge waste of badly needed taxpayer dollars,” Comptroller John Liu's spokesman Matthew Sweeney said in a statement.
A stinging report by Liu earlier this year found that ARIS had failed to improve student performance and that nearly half of instructors weren’t even bothering to use it. They were instead relying on other computer programs to track student progress, such as DataCation, which some say is easier to use.
"ARIS is just the latest IT project that has failed to live up to the DOE’s hype," Sweeney added.
Hughes said the new system "should provide much of the same functionality at a lower cost for the city" because the operating costs of the new system will be covered by the state instead of the DOE, but declined to provide specifics about how much might be saved.
"The entire state is expected to participate, in part because of their [Race to the Top] commitments," said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, who explained that the new system was in the process of being contracted out to developers and scheduled to be up and running by the fall of 2013.
Dunn declined to comment further, citing a policy of not commenting during an ongoing procurement process.
City officials said the state's federal application specifically cited ARIS as a template that it wanted to expand statewide.
"The state’s system is modeled on ARIS, and we are working with them closely on its development," Hughes said.
Some education advocates worried the state's move would only amplify a flawed system.
"I think the fetish about test score data collection is not only misplaced but dangerous," said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, who criticized the DOE for not providing accurate data on other things, such as class size and overcrowding.
“They invest $80 million in this system. $80 million! Imagine what they could have done with the money,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director and at the Alliance for Quality Education, who said she has plugged into the ARIS system “maybe 5 or 10 times” over the years, despite having eight kids in the public school system.
She urged planners to consult and work collaborate with stakeholders as new portal is being designed to avoid a repeat.
Like its predecessor, the state's computer program has already encountered delays, according to a Race to the Top NY Report Year One 2010 - 2011, published by the U.S. Department of Education in January.
ARIS was developed by IBM, but the contract was handed over at the beginning of the year to Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of News Corporation run by ex-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
Wireless Generation had also originally been selected to build the new statewide system, but State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli rejected the $27 million contract last summer, citing concern about News Corp.'s phone-hacking scandal.
The city's new $9.3 million contract with Wireless, which went into effect in January, is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2013, Liu's office said.
Despite DiNapoli's decision last summer, Wireless could be chosen once again to help build the state's database and, and some believe that, if selected, they would be better able to merge the city's portal with the state's new program.
But it remained unclear how much of the legwork the city already put into creating its system will be incorporated into the design of the new state system.
"ARIS is seven years old now, and the way these things go, technology advances by leaps and bounds," said one education expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of having "sensitive privileged" information about the transition. "The DOE, as a general matter, had and has a bad habit of scaling experimental projects" and said the city made a mistake by investing so much money in what should have been a test run.
There was a general consensus that ARIS was "an early start on computerized student data systems," the expert said, "so it wouldn't be a surprise that an initial investment of $80 million is now being adjusted based on the state and federal governments getting on the bandwagon."