Making the grade

Webenabled tools help parents, teachers connect

For Cindy Hanks, mother of a sixth grader at Madison Middle School in Bartelsville,

Okla., the Internet means she no longer has to rely on periodic progress

reports and teacher meetings to stay on top of her daughter's schoolwork.

Hanks is one of a growing number of parents who are logging on to the

Internet for reports on their children's grades and attendance and to exchange

e-mail with teachers. While vendors are approaching this market with varying

solutions, most offer teachers an electronic gradebook to record vital data,

such as grades for homework assignments and tests, via a PC. Teachers can

also use these gradebooks to track individual students' progress and to

notify parents about school activities.

Gone are the days when students could tell parents they had "lost" report

cards or had them eaten by the family dog. For many families, this type

of online access has enabled them to bypass the intermediary — their sometimes

uncooperative children — to find out when homework is due and how a student

is performing in a particular class. Hanks, who accesses a Web site maintained

by ThinkWave Inc., used the site several times a week during this past school

term to monitor her daughter's performance.

"You can find out exactly what's going on in the classroom," she said.

"You know when all the assignments are due, how much they're worth and how

they will be graded. You can find out what's been handed in and what's not.

It's kind of late in the day when you get the mid-term report to do anything.

It is a way for a parent to not be intrusive in the class bugging the teacher

but knowing exactly what was going on."

ThinkWave's Educator is a free online gradebook that is used with the

company's Web site to enable teachers to communicate with parents and students

about what is happening in class, including grades, assignments, attendance

and schedules, said Ric Gresia, ThinkWave product manager. Parents and students

log on to the Web site using a password to access files customized for

each student.

The online gradebook, which automatically calculates grades for teachers

based on various grading systems, can be updated from any location with

Internet access. In May, ThinkWave inked a deal with America Online to have

its gradebook and Web site offered via the AOL@school education portal.

Howard Creely, a business teacher at George Washington High School in Philadelphia,

used ThinkWave's gradebook for the 1999 school year. Students have eagerly

turned to the Web for grade updates, he said.

"If you have a test on Friday, you don't have to wait for Monday for

a test result," he said. "I try to have the test result uploaded by Friday

evening. If a student is absent, they have access to the work. If I have

a 78 average, I know that if I work just a little bit harder I can get the

"B' I'm looking for on my report card."

Because the electronic gradebook is updated often, it eliminates situations

in which a student claims an assignment was turned in but the teacher has

no record of it.

Although the online gradebook and access for parents are free, the site

posts advertisements — and has come under fire for commercializing education.

However, Creely said the ads are unobtrusive and parents haven't complained.

"It's in the background," he said. "It's not one of these things that

blares at you. I think people understand that somebody has to pay for it."

Excelsior Software Inc. offers an electronic gradebook that includes

a front end to link with a school's existing legacy systems for grades and

rosters to prevent teachers from having to enter grades and attendance information

twice, said Brad Baird, Excelsior's director of sales. Parents have access

to data in near real time because as soon as it is entered into the gradebook,

data is instantly collected on the company's Pinnacle System database, which

is maintained by the school. Teachers do not have to upload information

to the Web.

Also, because the server is maintained at the school, it is more secure

than when a school turns its data over to a vendor to post to a server outside

the confines of campus, he said.

"That grade and attendance information is being maintained on a server

farm somewhere in the middle of the desert," Baird said. "Is that really

a secure environment?"

Pinnacle automatically generates e-mail to parents for "threshold events,"

such as when a student's grade point average drops below a certain level

or a student skips a class. "You may get an e-mail before third period is

over," Baird said.

Although the trend is toward pushing information from a teacher's gradebook

to parents and students via the Internet, some companies combine Internet

access with telephone access to ensure that parents who aren't online can

still get updates.

"Internet is one piece of the whole parental involvement picture," said

Charles Rogel, national sales director at Parlant Inc. "Some schools think

Internet is all they need. [But] the parents who are using the Internet

are those parents who are already involved in their [children's] education."

Parlant's ParentLink suite provides Internet and phone access to homework

information, attendance records and announcements from school. The system

automatically calls parents, or they can call the system, enter a phone

number and listen to messages. In addition, teachers' Web interfaces allow

them to listen to voice mail via the Web and link to voice mail from their

e-mail inbox.

Students can register for classes via the Web or phone, and the system maintains

data on prerequisites and core requirements and can recommend options when

a particular class is full. About 1,500 schools use some part of the product

suite, Rogel said.

Many companies targeting the electronic gradebook market move data from

a single school to a single Web site, but Chancery Software Ltd. has taken

a different approach. With its K12Planet.com Web portal, parents and students

from multiple schools can access grades, assignments and attendance records,

while also having access to other resources targeted to students, said Lee

Wilson, manager of K12Planet.com.

For example, a student who plays the oboe may not have any other fellow

oboe players at his or her school but may find several at other schools

via the portal. Parents who learn of a student's faltering math grades can

find resources to help their child.

"What parents would like is some detailed information in parental terms

about what's going on in the classroom and then resources to support them,"

Wilson said.

This method requires that the servers supporting the portal be maintained

outside the school's environment, but Wilson said that actually beefs up

security because Chancery can afford to deploy advanced security technology — such as biometrics and intrusion-detection software — that a school could

not afford.

"If the server sits at the school, the largest community you can build is

at that school," he said. "If I'm a parent of a child with ADD [attention

deficit disorder], I want a national resource."

Because many states are eyeing new standards that would encompass the

whole body of a student's work instead of one exam at the end of the school

year, electronic gradebooks could be used to create comprehensive records

of a student's work, said ThinkWave's Gresia.

"Administrators could see how each of the students is doing," he said.

"Is it feasible now for a district superintendent to travel around to every

single classroom and look at all gradebooks? No. They're going to be held

accountable, and they'll need to know if the students are meeting the standard."

—Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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