It Prints! It Faxes! It Scans! and It Even Gathers Data and Scores Tests. A State-of-the-Art Multifunction Publishing System Combines the Work of Several Devices into a Single Unit, Creating Dramatic Savings in Paper Use and Personnel Time

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In printing, scanning, copying, and publishing, the new buzzword is combo: combination systems that take the strengths of several pieces of hardware--and sometimes software--and combine them into one. Advances in these technologies can save districts money by cutting the use of staff time, paper, and accessories such as print cartridges. Also, these powerful, multifunction devices can make tabulating and evaluating students' test results easier.

A primary concern for many K-12 school districts considering new printers, scanners, and fax machines is the cost of materials over time--especially paper. For example, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston looked hard at the cost of paper in its student-assessment testing process, which generated large quantities of printed material and required costly preprinted forms. Through a new publishing system, from Lexmark (www.lexmark.com), the district has slashed paper costs and has been able to reassign one full-time staffer who did little other than scan in paperwork. Cypress-Fairbanks is using the new system to handle the district's formative assessment tests, some of which are given to portions of the district's 90,000 students as often as every six weeks.

The system includes both software and hardware for accessing the student information database, selecting students to be tested, and printing pre-labeled test sheets with a student identifier on each. After the test is completed, the same Lexmark printer/scanner/copier device--a Lexmark model X646dte--is used to scan the test sheets back in, read the results, create reports for teachers, and then send the data to the district's central database for storage and further analysis.

According to Director of Information Services Margaret Reed, the district will break even on the cost of the new system in two years. Cypress-Fairbanks, growing at a rate of 3,000 to 3,500 students a year, spent $28,000 for the software and about $4,000 for each of the 30 multifunction devices it's running throughout the district, Reed says.

Labor and paper savings can be tabulated fairly easily, but one cost metric that is typically difficult to calculate is the amount a district saves by having more-accurate data. With the previous system at Cypress-Fairbanks, completed tests were scanned in twice, first by teachers who needed immediate results for grading, then again at the district level for the back-end database and for state reporting. Results sometimes differed, depending on the scan program's tolerance for erasures and other idiosyncrasies. With 21 regular secondary schools and regular assessment tests, the district "needed to come up with a distributive way of printing and scoring to transfer the data electronically," Reed explains. The secondary-school testing program was targeted initially because "the sheer volume [of paperwork] got our attention." The Lexmark system will be expanded eventually to the district's 45 elementary schools, which can also benefit, although they don't test with the same frequency.

The system runs on two servers at a central facility, then communicates to the multifunction devices on the campuses. A panel on the front of each device leads teachers through selecting the correct test and printing it, and then scanning papers in afterward.

The devices can also be used as fax machines or copiers, and can e-mail as well, a function that has come in handy, Reed says, for scanning and then e-mailing items such as attendance lists. This takes the place of having to copy such items multiple times and physically distribute them.

Before selecting a vendor, Reed says, the district issued a request for proposals and considered several other solutions that could do similar things but weren't as integrated as the Lexmark system. An important feature for Cypress-Fairbanks was the ability to integrate with the district's existing back-end system, a SunGard Pentamation (www. …