Making the grade
- By Heather Harreld
- Sep 04, 2000
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
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
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,"
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
"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.