By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
Parents and students in a growing number of Washington area schools can track fluctuations in a grade-point average from the nearest computer in real time, a ritual that can become as addictive as watching political polls or a stock-market index.
The proliferation of online grading systems has transformed relations among teachers, parents and students and changed the rhythm of the school year. Internet-based programs including SchoolMAX and Edulink are pushing midterm progress reports into obsolescence. Prospective failure is no longer a bombshell dropped in a parent-teacher conference. A bad grade on a test can't be concealed by discarding the evidence. A student can log on at school, or a parent at work, to see the immediate impact of a missed assignment on the cumulative grade or to calculate what score on the next quiz might raise an 89.5 to a 90. Report cards hold little surprise.
"Half of the time, I know what grade my daughter got on something before she does," said Susan Young, mother of an eighth-grader at Montgomery Village Middle School in Montgomery County.
Parents say the programs reconnect them to the academic lives of their children, a relationship that can decay as students move from elementary to middle and high school.
Such knowledge can also feed the controlling tendencies of the helicopter parent.
Young receives an e-mail alert each time a grade is posted in any of her daughter's classes, which is almost every day. "You can get a little obsessive about it," she said.
In the past year or two, the wave of Internet-based classroom "portals" has given parents and students the ability to review grades, download homework assignments and chat with teachers online. Such programs are increasingly common across the nation, a fringe benefit of the move toward centralized databases of grades, test scores and other education minutiae. School systems have fresh interest in such data because of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires them to report statistics on performance, attendance and discipline.
"What you're talking about is a standard that everyone's trying to get to now, if they're not already there," said Lane Mills, an associate professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University.
In Prince William County, grades have been online for six years. Jeanette Backus of Woodbridge uses the Edulink system to keep tabs on her eldest son, a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Gar-Field High School. He is a gifted student, she said, who "can be scatterbrained, at times, like his mother." She also tracks two daughters, one a sophomore in the Cambridge college-preparatory program at Potomac High School, the other a seventh-grader at Rippon Middle School.
Most teachers update the Edulink pages weekly, Backus said, uploading grades as they update their own electronic grade books. Another program, called School Fusion, tells her what assignments are due for each child and when.
"I really would hate to be a student nowadays," Backus said. "There's just too much information for the parents. But I love it, of course."
Children harbor mixed feelings about the march of educational technology. Honor-roll students tend to appreciate 24/7 access to grades more than those with checkered academic records.
"I try to log on every day," said Sarah Crews, 12, a seventh-grader at Montgomery Village. "I'm one of those people who love to improve their grades."
Montgomery introduced EdLine at middle and high schools in fall 2007 after a tryout the previous school year. Prince George's County schools are scheduled to launch a similar program, SchoolMAX, this academic year. Howard County high schools are piloting several online grading programs. St. Mary's County schools put grades online in fall 2007, Frederick County schools in 2005. Other school systems, including those in Fairfax and Anne Arundel counties, allow teachers to send electronic updates but don't give parents or students full, continuous access to grades.
The success of such programs depends on their security. Charles County schools posted grades online last school year but took them down this fall after the program accidentally gave some parents access to the grades of other people's children. The school system is searching for a new program because parents miss their daily fix. In a letter home, Superintendent James Richmond acknowledged "the frustration of parents who have grown accustomed to using the program."
Some school systems, including those in the District and Loudoun County, provide no online access to grades.
The Montgomery school system's analysis of its EdLine program found a subtle technological divide. At Whitman High School in Bethesda, four-fifths of parents and three-quarters of students review grades and assignments online. At Springbrook High School in less-affluent Silver Spring, the percentages are closer to half.
Of 112 students in Don DeMember's honors chemistry classes at Whitman, only five lack accounts. "It has cut down the number of phone calls I get from parents who just want to know how their student's doing," the teacher said.
In Serenity Moore's biology classes at Springbrook High, about three-quarters of families use EdLine. To attract more students, Moore posts links to YouTube videos relevant to that week's lessons. "I found one of a snake eating a deer," she said.
One recent evening, Banneker Middle School in Montgomery hosted an open house for parents not yet online.
Last year, Banneker teachers posted grades every two to three weeks. Now, to feed parent demand, grades are entered weekly.
"You can walk around this building and every kid knows exactly how they're doing," said John Weinshel, a teacher who administers EdLine at the school. "The curtain has been stripped from the wizard. There's no more mystery. The grade book is open."
At one computer, a father's brow furrowed as he reviewed his son's grades for the first time. The son shuffled uneasily, wishing, perhaps, for a system crash.