School Climate & Safety

Gradebooks Take Virtual Approach

By Michelle R. Davis — June 16, 2009 7 min read
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Technology director Charlie Roberts is constantly monitoring the security of his Utah school district’s electronic-gradebook system.

Not only does he have to be aware of potential student hackers who might want to bump class grades from D’s to A’s, but he also has to make sure parents can view the grades of their own children only and not get peeks at the marks of others’.

“We feel we’ve taken all the reasonable precautions,” says Roberts, the technology director for the 25,000-student Washington County district, “but no system is perfect, because they’re all tied to people.”

As more school districts look for electronic solutions to ease teachers’ grade-keeping burdens and allow parents to stay informed of their children’s academic progress, ed-tech administrators are spending more time evaluating a variety of gradebook products and their capabilities. The process includes thinking hard about how to protect the security of confidential student information stored in those systems, such as academic grades, strengths and weaknesses, special education needs, and attendance records.

The marketplace offers a range of electronic gradebooks. Some, made by small software developers, perform relatively basic tasks and are aimed at the needs of individual teachers. Others are part of larger student-information systems and are aimed at the needs of both administrators and teachers.

The most basic models allow teachers simply to input their students’ grades by computer, then automatically calculate averages and easily track assignments. The more sophisticated online gradebook systems can map trends of individual and group achievement and link assignments and assessments to state standards.

Gradebook programs generally “eliminate double entry of work for the teacher,” says John Poluektov, the vice president of marketing for ThinkWave Inc., based in Sebastopol, Calif., which produces the gradebook product ThinkWave Educator. “The time savings is that after you’ve entered the data you don’t have to re-enter [it for other purposes], or you can do automated procedures with it.”

Variety of Products

Many products allow parents to view their children’s grades as well as their assignments. But some gradebook programs require teachers to upload the grades to a Web site, while others automatically update the site once the teacher enters the grades.

In addition, some gradebook products automatically generate e-mail or text alerts to parents if their child’s grade falls below a certain level or for absences.

Blackboard Inc.’s gradebook product, which is part of the Washington-based company’s Blackboard Learn package, also can trigger an alert if a student seems to be faltering academically during the school year.

“It’s an early warning which tells Mrs. Smith her student needs to engage,” says Jean Ku, the director of product strategy for K-12 at Blackboard. “It gives the student an opportunity to improve.”

The Blackboard gradebook also connects to other parts of the course-delivery system from assignment creation to online discussion boards. “Any sort of activity creates a gradable entry,” Ku says. “It also gives the students and parents immediate feedback.”

All of these services save teachers time, says Brad Baird, the vice present of sales and marketing for Bellevue, Wash.-based GlobalScholar, which recently bought Excelsior Software, a maker of the Pinnacle Solutions suite, which includes a gradebook function.

The company’s software can automatically generate productivity reports on how students are performing academically, among other uses. It can also predict where students will be in terms of mastery of important subjects through the year, Baird says. In addition, the software acts as a central hub for two-way communication between parents and teachers. Teachers can send parents messages, and parents can e-mail teachers.

Steve Miller, who teaches AP government and economics at Walter Johnson High School in the 139,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school district, says his district’s electronic gradebook product, Edline, works well. Edline has cut down on the number of parent-teacher conferences needed because parents aren’t surprised by a student’s grade, and it has improved communication.

There are some aspects that could be improved, however. Miller teaches with a team of instructors, and Edline does not allow them to post assignments or documents to multiple classes. That means each instructor has to do it independently.

Keeping Data Secure

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.

Baird says his company uses encryption techniques similar to those used by banks or hospitals. “You have to make sure you’re using the latest technology and security practices, and constantly changing them,” he says.

Most gradebook products that allow parents to view the contents provide parents with a login that is password-protected, says Richard Stott, a retired teacher who developed Carmel, Calif.-based Class Action Gradebook, which is aimed more at the needs of individual teachers than of whole school districts.

With his product, teachers upload their students’ grades periodically to a Web-based portal that Stott maintains and that parents can access. The teacher maintains a digital copy of the information on his or her own computer.

In the Washington County, Utah, district, says Roberts, parents get a new user ID and password at the start of each school year. The system is being revamped to allow parents with more than one child to log in and have a choice of which child’s grades they would like to access instead of having to log in separately for each child.

Roberts says the district continually does security audits to make sure the information is protected, but he says that student hackers always pose a risk.

Beyond potential hacking, says Roberts, human carelessness can also pose problems, such as when teachers tape system login and password information onto their computers.

Roberts says teachers also must be careful not to leave such systems on when they walk away from their desks, because mischievous students could take advantage of their absence.

Gradebooks also provide a wide variety of services—and they come with a variety of price tags, often depending on the number of users for a system. The Pinnacle product costs the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district $1 per student per year, Baird says.

ThinkWave’s product, which is aimed at individual teachers or small schools, has a one-time software cost of $59.95 per teacher, and an online service charge of $35 per teacher per year, Poluektov says.

Class Action, also aimed at individual teachers or small schools, is $39 per teacher per year, with an annual $18 fee per teacher for the Web-posting service. With a site license, which allows schools to have unlimited or broad use of the product, schools can pay $5 per teacher per year, Stott says.

Blackboard’s gradebook product has a wide variety of prices, depending on the options a school chooses. The basic, entry-level product starts at $10,000 for up to 2,000 users, Ku says, adding that the gradebook is just one feature of the overall product.

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.

The district had been using the PowerSchool product from Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based Pearson, when, a few years ago, the state of Utah developed a student-information system that included its own gradebook application. The state offered the system to the district for free, which looked like a good deal to Roberts.

But he didn’t do enough teacher training early on, and never got buy-in from teachers, who clamored for their familiar PowerSchool, he says.

The state program was “adequate for our needs, but it was a huge change from what the teachers had been using, and they hadn’t made a big change before,” Roberts says. ”We got slapped around real hard.”

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 we had been able to push out enough training [with the state system] to start with,” he says, “we would not have switched back to PowerSchool.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Gradebooks Take Virtual Approach


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