Online report cards draw high marks

Web-based report cards are getting high marks in schools across the US, as online grading systems replace traditional paper reports.

"I think it's making a difference in students' lives," says Lyla Downey, technology coordinator for the Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wyoming. "It's making a difference in students' performances, and some would not have graduated if not for the new system."

With online grading, students with bad grades can no longer hide their report cards from parents or play hooky from school unnoticed. Systems such as PowerSchool Inc., the program Campbell County schools use, allows parents, teachers, and students to check grades, attendance, progress and class schedules at any time from any PC.

The PowerSchool system, which is owned by Apple Computer Inc., also offers a phone option that allows parents without Internet access to check their child's information over the phone.

Parents Keep Tabs

All grades and attendance entries are provided in real time, says Greg Porter, president of PowerSchool. In other words, parents can check to see if their child is in class at any point in the day, as long as the teacher updates the data regularly.

Similar Web-based programs include LetterGrade, K12Planet, and ParentConnectxp.

Carol Hannah, a mother of two in Ventura, California, says the online system is keeping her on top of her 16-year-old son's grades, which dropped last year.

"It's amazing to be able to see my child's grades on a current basis," says Hannah, whose son Brian is starting his junior year at Foothill Technology High School. "But there was a downside. Me being able to see his grades caused a lot of conflict because I was always on his back."

Hannah eventually made a deal with her son to check his grades only once a week. But Jodi Wiley, a mother of two in Wyoming's Campbell County, says the program lets her know what's going on with her eighth-grade son, who is secretive about his schoolwork.

"I used to have to pry information about his assignments out of him," Wiley says. "You really don't know how a student is doing in school unless you bug them."

Worthwhile Investment

Pricing for PowerSchool depends on the number of students and schools in a district. Cost for a small school would start at about US$5000, Porter says.

Some school administrators say it's a cost-effective system. David Ehlers, network administrator at Kadoka Schools in South Dakota, says his rural district with 400 students paid between $7000 and $10,000 when it adopted PowerSchool three years ago.

"It was a little expensive," Ehlers says. "But it was well worth it."

The concept gets high marks from the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers' union with more than 2 million members.

Don Blake, an NEA senior technologist, praises the system as "a positive tool that can really engage parents to learn more about their child's performances in school."

However, Blake says schools must be wary of the systems' capability to protect students' privacy. If not properly secured, people can hack into such systems and possibly cause harm, including changing grades and finding out personal information.

To access most systems, parents, teachers and students must use a password. Information is protected through encryption programs similar to those used by online vendors and banks.

"It really allows me to keep up with my grades," says Tyler Stevenson, a junior at Foothill Technology High School. "It gets annoying to have your parents checking your grades, but it's a good thing overall. I enjoy it because now I know if I'm failing or passing."

(Lauren Dunn writes for the Medill News Service, a PC World affiliate.)

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