27 September 2009

Road to Nowhere

When I visit schools to talk about grading practices, the number one issue/roadblock that teachers tell me about is their online gradebooks. There are a variety of factors that concern teachers (not all of these occur in every school/district):
  • Their school or district requires them to post grades a certain number of times/week.
  • The school or district decides the grading categories and/or comments.
  • The software only computes and displays averages.
  • The software automatically uses zeros for missing assignments.
I'm ambivalent about the use of online gradebooks as communication tools. I understand the intent of enabling families to have a better idea about student progress---hoping to eliminate the "Surprise! Your student isn't passing the class!" bombshell. The basic problem really is the limitations of the software. Teachers are automatically locked into one---and only one---representation of a grade. Some have told me that they can go in and override the final score, but this is a laborious process (and not realistic to manage each time a new score is entered). With the sheer volume of students at secondary and subject areas at elementary, most teachers are unhappy with having to jump through hoop after hoop. And they fear the repercussions from parents who have watched a student's grade like the stock market, only to not see a match between online gradebook and paper report card. In other words, teachers think that these tools are making grades less fair to students.

Are you listening school administrators? Please don't pigeon hole your teachers and handicap your students in order to CYA with some software.

Moving on...

Education Week's Digital Directions is also outlining some other risks for districts to consider. The biggest one has to do with security:
Along with the benefits, potential problems are associated with online gradebooks, and security of confidential data is may be the biggest one. Some of the information contained in a gradebook system is likely to be protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law that outlines what student information schools must keep private. So a technical glitch in the system that opens such information to the public could mean big trouble for schools.
Not to mention hacking or other unwanted manipulations. Beyond that, however, are the costs: hardware, human resources, training for teachers, site licenses, upgrades, and more.
Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the key to using a successful gradebook system is training, and that costs money, too. Roberts of the Washington County schools in Utah learned that the hard way....

Roberts estimates that PowerSchool costs the district $130,000 a year for the product, plus additional costs for maintenance of the 14 servers that handle the database and applications. He has two employees who do nothing but maintain the PowerSchool system.

If you're out shopping for a new online gradebook system, the article provides a nice list of options (although I don't know how many you can sample). At the end of the day, however, schools and districts need to be think carefully about whether or not the benefits to such a system outweigh all of the costs. Until there are some significant improvements to the software, I would recommend staying with the systems currently in place. We already know what happens when good intentions are used as pavers.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

I put this on Instapaper so I can re-read your post several times on my iPhone, no matter where I am.

I'm also forwarding your thoughts to my Board, Supe, and the genius IS guy we have (think IT).

The link between the effectiveness of SBG and digital records is critical.

hschinske said...

And then there's the question of plain inaccurate use of a complex system. Just noticed that my daughter currently has 176% in one of her classes -- something about getting 100 points on an assignment where 5 points were possible. I am pretty sure this was a case of a misentered 100%, rather than massive extra credit! (She's had it go the other way, too, particularly in classes where the teacher never figured out how to change the default number of points possible away from 100 ...)

Mr. McNamar said...

If I recall correctly from my Pac-NW days, Easy Grade Pro has the ability to use standards based grading and reporting.

banders said...

I'm not sure how I feel about online grades. I sometimes wish they would go away just so I wouldn't have to explain for the umpty-billionth time that grades change. I think it also gives a false sense of immediacy- just because grades can be seen 24/7 doesn't mean they're updated 24/7.

I don't know. We're trading sets of problems and responsibilities either way, I guess.