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Reflecting Poole

Gradebook Programs:
Why Use Them?


This is the first of a two-part reflection on the subject of gradebook programs. Part one will discuss the relevance of good online gradebook programs and examine the qualities that make a good gradebook program. Part two will examine more closely a few of the best gradebook programs available today.

Many teachers believe that they can do a satisfactory job of evaluating their students by assessing and recording grades the old-fashioned way -- by hand. They do that without regard to standardized assessment instruments -- instruments that provide a reasonably accurate measure of students real, objective ability as measured against established norms. Teachers expect administrators to accept the resulting assessments without question. Indeed, they expect that because most administrators do.

Unfortunately, the assessment methods used by teachers, even when they are conscientiously done, often fail to inform students or their parents where the students stand in relation to the state, national, or global population of their peers.

If no state or national standards existed against which students academic achievement might be measured, that wouldnt be a problem at all. But state and national standards for elementary and secondary academic performance are available and they arent going to go away. Nor should they in a world where our children will graduate to compete in a global marketplace.

Grades given to students today must have relevance beyond the classroom walls. To put it another way, schools must give students an honest assessment of their abilities. To do that, assessments must be monitored carefully at every level of school administration.

What are the advantages of using school- or district-wide gradebook tools for monitoring student assessment? To answer that question, we need to understand the difference between data and information.

Information has been defined by Shannon and Weaver as a reduction in uncertainty. When we are informed about something, we become less uncertain -- more sure -- about that particular piece of knowledge. Information reduces doubt; increases certainty; makes us more informed.

Information doesnt happen automatically. Data -- the raw material of information -- must be shared, understood, and made sense of by the recipients. Only then can it be called information.

Good gradebook programs do that with regard to academic assessment. They facilitate the gathering of data about student work. They keep tabs on that data, organize it, and make it more meaningful by comparing it with other relevant data, such as national, state, and local school standards. Above all, good grading programs make it easy to share or transmit the data to all those who need to know.

At the end of the process, good grading programs make it more likely that those who need to know -- students, teachers, administrators, and parents -- will be informed. All academic constituencies, thus informed, will be better able to take appropriate action to promote improved learning on the part of the students. That, after all, is what school is all about. Otherwise grades -- and gradebooks -- are a waste of time.

Ever since computers appeared in schools, teachers have wanted to use them to help keep track of grades. The electronic spreadsheet, invented in 1978, was the ideal tool for that, and over the years a plethora of gradebook programs have appeared. Initially, they were used by individual teachers to simply store grades; calculate totals, averages, and curves; and figure out letter grades at the end of units and semesters -- just like a hard copy grade book, only done on a computer.

Today, with the ubiquitous availability of the World Wide Web, the best gradebook programs are networked, online, and managed at the administrative level as part of a school-wide information system. Data is gathered by individual teachers in the old-fashioned way, the result of painstaking, time-consuming grading and assessment of each students academic work. That data typically includes attendance and behavioral data, as well.

The data then is fed by the teachers into the school-wide information system through networked computers -- often Internet-based -- running more and more sophisticated gradebook software, which is programmed to organize and compare grades, looking to show patterns of progress -- or the lack of it -- both for individual students and across peer groups for current and prior years.

The systems also create visualizations of the data in the form of graphs and charts for presentation and reporting purposes -- presentations to administrators, teachers, parents, and, when appropriate, to the media.

The goal of good gradebook programs is simple: Data transformed into information enables students, teachers, administrators, and parents to better assess a students progress in school.

The next article will profile gradebook programs that try to achieve that goal.

About the Author

Bernie Poole, an associate professor of education and instructional technology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has been a teacher since 1966. For the first 15 years of his career, he taught English, history, French, or English as a foreign language primarily to middle school children in England, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Poole has published several books related to instructional technology. Two of the latest editions are available free of charge online at http://www.pitt.edu/~poole. He also has developed and maintains with Yvonne Singer the EdIndex, an extensive index of Web resources for teachers and students that can be accessed at http://www.pitt.edu/~poole/edmenu.html.

Author Name: Bernie Poole
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08/14/2007