Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Kathleen Housley reflects on here search for an electronic grade book that would support the report card her school district uses. She searched the planet before she found the software that would best communicate her students' progress. But then ... Included: Join the discussion! Share your electronic grade book experience so others will learn from your "voice of experience."
For the longest time I feared that my quest for the ideal electronic grade book would be a never-ending one. Am I too picky? I wondered. Am I too frugal? Am I a dreamer? Or is it just one of those cruel jokes played on overworked educators? My quest took many months and it took me to the other side of the planet -- but, finally, I found a grade book to meet my needs!
Don't get me wrong. Those traditional paper grade books are fine, but I knew there must be an electronic answer out there to cater to every one of my assessment needs, not to mention the needs of my students and my school district.
I launched an Internet crusade to find my answer. I downloaded and flight-tested numerous grade books -- from expensive models to nifty little freeware programs. Many were based on percentages and A-B-C-D-F grades. I needed something more because my elementary school had a standards-based report card with only three subjects: reading, writing, and mathematics. Each subject was graded on a scale of 1 to 4.
Since third and fifth grades in my school were the two "promotion" grades (the grades when students are tested and when most promotion and retention decisions are made), the standards on the fourth-grade report card were the standards associated with fifth grade, not fourth grade. As many of you know, there is a major growth spurt in learning during those two years. Since the fifth-grade standards were used, many of my fourth graders were in the "1" or "2" range throughout most of the fourth grade. On top of that, each subject included at least a dozen standards, yet teachers had to find a magic formula to come up with a single grade. Students and their parents -- and teachers too -- were baffled by the report cards. The administration seemed to sidestep most questions about them. It was no wonder so many parents showed up at my parent-teacher conferences. They needed someone to personally tell them that their kid was "passing" or "failing" fourth grade!
Now I'm not one to think that technology can save the world, but it certainly can make life a little less stressful. Just about all the electronic grade books I reviewed -- from freeware to expensive database, district-wide, mega-buck editions -- just didn't fit the bill. It took me until March to find the answer from Big Wave Software in Australia. The nifty little program I found there, Report Designer, opened a new world for my students, their parents, and me.
Report Designer allowed me to customize my assessments. Sure, it took a lot of keyboard strokes, but my sweat equity paid big dividends. Thanks to Report Designer, a simple, school district report card with three grades was complemented by my four-page assessment. This nifty little program allowed me to input all the reading, writing, and math standards and give grades for each. It gave a much better snapshot of a student's strengths and weaknesses. I also could list and comment on classroom behaviors from cooperative group work to social skills.
By the end of the last school year, I could write a personal letter to all the parents highlighting just where their children were based on the promotion standards and what areas they would have to work on in the pivotal fifth grade. The feedback from parents was overwhelming. They loved having specific information about areas where their children needed help -- from brushing up on their math computation skills and multi-step word problems to reading 25 books and building vocabulary.
The reaction from my peers? Some of my colleagues thought I had invented sliced bread, but they were reluctant to use the technology. Others thought I was crazy to invest so much time. I knew when September rolled around that I would be able to instruct my comrades in how to use the program. June is not a good time to load more onto a teacher's plate.
I thought I was set for this year, then ...
My school district launched an alternative middle school. The opportunity to teach there was too good to pass up. Now, I'm in a self-contained classroom with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. But grade book utopia is over! Now I face new middle school standards and report cards that include A's, B's, C's, and F's. We have the luxury of inputting grades directly into the district's database. That's cool; however, teachers cannot directly transfer grades from their electronic grade books into the system. Ah, that will be the day!
My quest for the ultimate electronic grade book resumes!
Kathleen Housley has been an elementary school teacher and an online curriculum developer since 1996. She currently is a middle school teacher at an alternative school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.