Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Parent Portal: The Pros and Cons of Transparent Gradebooks

By on October 29, 2011

The Parent Portal is now open. No, this isn’t some Dr. Who vortex waiting to suck away all parents who can’t seem to drop their kids off on time. It’s the 24/7 online access to a teacher’s grade book.

A couple of weeks ago, my school told the staff that they were going to roll-out the ability for parents to have access to our grade books online. Needless to say, many teachers grumbled and rumbled. As for me, it gave me pause, but I knew that the high school was already doing it, and it was merely a matter of time for the middle school. Besides, two of my four ELA classes this year are the 8th grade honors classes, and many times those parents have the expectation of access that goes hand in hand with being an active academic participant in their students’ lives. Keeping up on their student’s progress plays a part in that student’s success. Perhaps the thought is that if the grades are accessible enough, more parents of the mainstream and at-risk students will begin to play a greater role in their children’s learning too. I frankly deeply believe the writing is on the wall about such levels of access. It’s where we’re heading (and many schools already have), so it’s not a battle I’m interested in waging.

Besides, there are some pluses to this new transparency:

1. There is no longer such a thing as, “I had no idea how Little Johnny was doing. Nobody told me.” Wow. That’s really powerful stuff to be able to take Lack of Communication off the list of excuses as to why a parent has been inaccessible or not present for a student’s struggles.

2. It will light a fire under my tush to grade at a quicker pace. I’m not very sluggish at chipping away at that mountainous stack of essays, but I definitely appreciate the incentive to get things posted quicker. Sometimes those piles can really be overwhelming, and knowing that folks might be routinely checking for updates will aid in my own motivation to routinely get feedback to my students perhaps quicker than I do now.

3. No more progress reports. As of now, every Thursday, I get a stack of progress reports from my students at the start of each class. They come from the various AVID teachers or counselors. They’ve been set up for one reason or another, and I find the weekly communication very helpful to those kids. But it can be a dip in classroom energy to fill them out and get them back before the end of the period. Now, as my colleague Darlene has realized, rather than the student handing these grade sheets to each teacher, turning them in to the counselor, then to the parent to be signed, then back to school to their AVID teacher, a student need only be at home to compile their own grades, print it out, have it signed, and bring it to school. The missing of instructional time is henceforth cut out of the weekly process.

4. It reflects the time we live in. I can check my bank account balance 24/7. I can check my emails 24/7. I can watch the news 24/7. This is an extension of the reality of our world, and school must keep pace with the world around it.

But there are some concerns I have with this transparency too:

1. It leaves little room for a student to slip and solve their own problem before Mom knows about it. That is, you always get some kids per assignment who don’t turn it in or, of course, the many who turn it in at a lower level than you would like to see. Those kids, especially those in middle school, need to be able to approach the teacher and solve the problem. And many times they do. OK, so they get an extension or they turn their work in a day or so later. My final grade book reflects the kid they became. It doesn’t ding them for the process it took to get there. This portal gives parents a snapshot of the components of learning in a way that might take ownership away from the student.

2. It will light a fire under my tush to grade at a quicker pace. Oh, I already said that as a plus. Well, it’s a minus too. I think I keep up a pretty good pace with my scoring and feedback, but I fear it’s never going to be enough for some parents and students.

3. It will require all teachers to be on the same grade book program. I don’t necessarily think this is a big deal, but I have a modicum of fluency with technology that some teachers don’t have. Every so often, a district adopts a new grade book program and teachers learn the new fad. Eventually, a teacher tends to settle on one that appeals to him or her. Many teachers have learned the many grade books over the years, and stuck to those they felt best served their needs. They will have an even bigger switch to make, not only philosophically but also technically.

4. It will require educating parents in how to read the program itself. Teachers don’t have the time to answer all the technical questions about how to read the online grade book. Why isn’t this filled in? Because it’s a staggered due date for students. Why does the “completed date” say such-and-such? Because that’s the date the last student submitted their work. Why does the program call Quarter 1 “Y”? I have no idea. It confuses me too.

These concerns, however, are not grand enough to get in the way of progress, and I believe that this is progress. It puts more on the parents, more on the students, and fills a need every family has had since that little pioneer schoolhouse on the prairie. Hey, I watched Little House every week. Don’t you think if given the chance, Mr. Ingalls would want to know every time Laura ditched to go fishing? He’d use the portal as a way to make sure Laura and Albert were doing their jobs as students (he never needed to worry about Mary, after all). But I think the fear many teachers have is that the ones who are really monitoring these online grade books are the Mrs. Oleson’s of the world who are really there to check on the teachers.

Nevertheless, the fact is that this accessibility, whether we as educators believe in it or not, is the present and the future. As a parent, seeing my student reach for that TV remote instead of his homework, one day I’m sure I will also want to see how my kid is doing when he’s claims he’s doing fine in Math. Then again, we have a no-TV-during-the-school-week rule in my house.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for their future. Communication plays a large role in that job.

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  1. Tracy
    October 29, 2011

    Hi Heather,

    Our parents have had online access for some years now, and here’s what I see: the parents who we really wish would keep up with their child’s grades do not… whether that’s from lack of technology in the home, or apathy. Also, our parents can sign up for email alerts when a grade is posted that is below a certain number. So, then you have those parents that email you constantly wanting to know why Johnny has a zero, or a 40, etc. For these parents I want to respond: ASK JOHNNY, not me! ha
    But for the most part, it is just a school district’s effort to provide one more opportunity to keep parents informed and linked to the school…and as you pointed out, everything else is available online to use 24/7, so why not grades?


  2. Cossondra George
    October 31, 2011

    We’ve used PowerSchool online grades for over 10 years. I find it to be a wonderful communication tool for parents and students. I find if I label assignments completely, link handouts/rubrics/websites to the assignment, it takes a ton of pressure off me, as the teacher. Parents can easily access the assignment, know the expectations, the due date/s for various parts of projects. I always grade assignments immediately and record so there is never a question of if it is or isn’t turned in. When the project might take a bit longer to grade, I make sure they are due on a Friday so I can get grades updated by Monday. I do also utilize the option to mark assignments as turned in so parents can see an assignment is in, even if it is not graded yet.

    I think once you and your parents and students get into the swing of using online grades, you will find it to be a tremendous time saver. I would NEVER go back to the days of not having it!

  3. Bobbi
    October 31, 2011

    Don’t get your hopes up about Johnny’s previously unengaged parents…

    What I would really like in an online grade program is the ability to know which files have been VIEWED by parents, so that I could focus my contacts on Johnny’s folks.

    And don’t bet on no more progress reports… most of that still happens here and we have had online grades for MANY years.

  4. Valorie Gusso
    October 31, 2011

    Our state has used an ‘parent portal’ view of our grades for a number of years. Our students also have access to their own portal. I can not actually say that it helps everyone all the time, but students and parents of where their child stands consitently. I post grades every two weeks into this type of device.

  5. James Teas
    October 31, 2011

    Our school system implemented an on-line gradebook several years ago for all teachers. Parents can obtain access to the parent portal to view their child’s grades by visiting a school office and obtaining a PIN. There is a delay between my entry of grades and the parent’s ability to view them. I have not personally had an issue with parents for this reason, although the principal does get complaints if teachers don’t keep up with entering grades (minimum 1 per week). If there are issues supporting parents with technical issues, they don’t reach me.

  6. Ken O'Connor
    October 31, 2011

    Interesting article and very interesting responses. With regard to James’ post, in a parent portal or in a hard copy grade book I see no reason why teachers should be required to post one grade per week if you mean scores for summative assessments. One summative assessment per week is way too many as it inevitably means a) none of them are important; b) many of them are almost certainly low quality; and c) the teacher is doing way too much marking. If you mean notations (done or not done or done well, done OK or done poorly) for formative assessments then at least one per week is a reasonable requirement but it is important that parents be educated as to why formative assessments (practices, quizzes, drafts, etc) receive only descriptive feedback without scores.

  7. Michael
    November 1, 2011

    While a teacher I used ProgressBook, which I felt was an awesome tool for teachers to openly communicate with parents and students about their progress. But, as previously noted by others, it was the “motivated” students and their parents always checking progress and grades. The “less motivated” students and parents rarely checked and always waited until it was too late (last two or three days of the quarter, usually!). But, overall, it was better than having nothing. There was tons of information, a “home page” to make announcements, and a way to email me instantly from the grades page.
    My children’s school system uses Infinite Campus. While a great records system for the district (one software system stores EVERYTHING for them from pre-K through graduation and does grades. The parent interface leaves something to be desired. Teachers still have to have their own Web pages (Moodle is a favorite), so parents still have to go to five or six other sites to get information. Yes, I can see grades, but unless updated daily with assignments given in class that day, I can’t see much until a teacher posts a grade or something goes missing. If I knew that an assignment had been made, then I could keep after my son or daughter to get it done and be able to help them with it, as needed. Unless I take the time to check the teacher’s Moodle (which seems to not be regularly updated by most teachers, too!), then I never know much until it’s too late.

  8. John Kelch
    November 1, 2011

    As a parent of a 7th grader that has gotten ‘close’ to how my District operates on every level over the past few years, I’ve heralded the Parent Portal as a real plus, and find the comments here by teachers to be all valid points. We all must remember that PP is simply a tool, and like all tools, doesn’t negate the fact that people are people (and still will be), that we all benefit from a little more empathy and patience with each other, that anything that further facilitates communication and dialogue between teachers and parents benefits all parties, especially the kids.

    Additionally, as a former regional government mgr for one of the Nation’s largest suppliers of broadband (now retired) and one who worked with school districts across New York to enable such capabilities, I continually remind educators that only 57% of US households (for a variety of reasons) have all of the necessary facilities to utilize internet-based fuctions from home, and that kids and parents that lack such capability are increasingly dis-advantaged. Until that dramatically changes, any uses of technology that depend on remote-access will also need an alternate form of delivery, as well as schools and teachers that adjust for the discrepancies.

    While I sometimes criticize my District for being ‘behind the curve’ technologically, I also recognize the wisdom of some of the most experienced and best teachers who consciously avoid the trap of investing too much time in technology and instead focus precious time directly on educating students.

  9. Fitz
    November 1, 2011

    I have an online gradebook system, and sometimes it’s great, because parents can be aware of problems right when they happen. But that only works if the parent regularly checks it! I can see how frequently the parent logs into the system, which is a good start.
    The downside I see to it, is that I feel like I have to justify every assignment to a parent. I had one who came in for conferences and wanted to go through my entire gradebook to see why their student lost a point on this homework and 5 in participation and so on. Not that I shouldn’t be able to justify every grade, but it sure does take a lot of time to do it; I could only imagine if I had multiple parents breathing down my neck all the time about each assignent!

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