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Pros and Cons of Online Grading Systems

10 Mar 2015 by Marsha Branch

Jotting down letter grades on a report card and scribbling notes about students’ performance, attendance, and behavior is a thing of the past. These days report cards are of the electronic variety, and some of the software includes several elements designed to help teachers with standards-based grading, while still allowing them to focus the appropriate energy on what they do best — creating, inspiring, helping their students push through and understand challenging curricula.

Standards-Based Grading

Designed to improve grading practices and give more meaning to grades, standards-based grading specifically outlines what each child needs to work on to ensure she or he meets the learning standards. They also allow the teacher to see more effectively, the level each student has reached, and the work that still needs to be done.

“It gives very specific feedback to the student and makes it easier for parents to understand what their child’s grade means,” said Professional Program’s Manager at the Association of American Educators Melissa Pratt. “And grading remains consistent from classroom to classroom, district to district, and state to state.”

There are only two ways to evaluate student performance. The first is to compare them to one another — norm-based grading. The second is to compare them to objective standards of performance.

“Most important assessments, including tests for drivers, pilots, and brain surgeons use a standards-based approach,” Writer and Consultant Dr. Douglas Reeves said, “It doesn’t make any difference if you’re the best driver of the day, you still fail if you can’t meet the standards for driving,” he said.

The same applies in schools. It’s not a matter of who beat whom; it’s a question of whether the student is proficient. So the reason standards-based grading is better than norm-based grading is that it ensures students really are ready for the next grade level, not just that they beat their peers. It’s also designed to separate academic indicators of what students have learned from academic behaviors.

Standards-Based Gradebook

The standards-based gradebook — the software used to record grades based on standards — offers teachers options other than manual grade reporting and Excel spreadsheet entries.

“Without the software, you don’t have the advantage of printable progress reports, and other school- or class-wide reports that show mastery trends over time,” said JumpRope CEO and Co-Creator Jesse Olsen.

Olsen was heavily involved in transforming JumpRope from its early days in 2009 when it was little more than souped-up Excel spreadsheets, to a fully functioning standards-based gradebook created by teachers, for teachers. In addition to the gradebook, JumpRope allows teachers to record attendance, behavior, and student and parent contact information.

The web-based system is designed for a pure, or approaching pure implementation of proficiency-based grading. While other products allow users to do both proficiency-based and traditional grading — effectually allowing teachers to live in both worlds during a transition period — JumpRope does not.

“We are not just a technology tool in the sense that in order to effectively use JumpRope, you have to think about your teaching practice and the standards-based way,” Olsen said. “It tends to drive strong, professional development and conversations about teacher practice, because of its stubborn, opinionated nature.”

While JumpRope is unapologetically a standards-based gradebook, other software being marketed as such, allow deviations from standards-based grading that consultants like Reeves find concerning.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Grading Systems

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons, so before investing in standards-based gradebook software for your school or district, there are a few things you should consider.

The best part about the software is that it can save teachers time by providing a clear view of the each student’s level of performance on each standard. Parents, teachers, and students can track progress throughout the year as students become more proficient.

However, Reeves warns that one of the dangers with grading software is that it can be overwhelming if teachers are asked to assess every standard.

“It’s impossible, and parents don’t really like six-page report cards,” he said. “Moreover, some computerized programs automatically average the different entries in the gradebook to calculate the final grade, and that is precisely the opposite of what standards-based grading is all about.”

Compared to traditional grading, each grade recorded in a standards-based gradebook is tied to a learning goal or standard, a crucial element that zeros in on student learning, instead of assignment averages.

It is not about how quickly students become proficient, Reeves said, but that they become proficient.

“So if a child takes five drafts to complete a proficient essay, while another takes two drafts…there is not a standard in the world, including in the common core, that says ‘does writing really fast,’” Reeves said. “The standard is that they do argumentative writing in particular really well, so we should be encouraging multiple drafts.”

This is why Reeves argues against using the average, and promotes encouraging kids to try again, be resilient, just like an athlete, or a musician would, and then be rewarded for their most proficient work.

Another essential standards-based reform includes grading students on a four-point scale. As a result, another danger Reeves warns against is software that defaults to a zero- to 100-point grading scale.

“This is just mathematically inaccurate,” he said. “A four-to-one scale is far more accurate in evaluating students, and the reason is that it has to do with the problem of intervals.”

The difference on a 100-point scale between an A and a B, or a 90 and an 80 is 10 points; between a B and a C is 10 points, between a C and a D is 10 points. But the difference between a D at 60, and not turning work in is 60 points. And so a single zero on a 100-point scale magnifies the value of a single failure, Reeves said.

“My recommendation to schools seeking to purchase software is they require the vendor to deliver an educationally sound system that records grades on a zero-to-four scale and not zero to 100,” he said.

Key Considerations When Choosing an Online Gradebook

In the end, the decision to stick with paper reports, online standards-based grading systems, or systems that allow for both standards-based and traditional-grading practices, has a lot to do with your school’s and/or district’s goals.

If you do opt for an online grading system however, be sure to “test drive” it. JumpRope offers a free version that allows teachers to ensure it suits their needs before investing in the full software package. Also ensure the company you purchase your system from offers excellent support.

“We have former [and] current educators…who will answer questions and help teachers with any problems they may have,” Olsen said. “So you can contact our staff directly, and if you ask any school or district we’ve worked with, I think you will hear great things about how helpful and responsive the JumpRope team is. We also offer professional development; and these are just some of the ways we help people with the learning curve of the new system.”

*Dr. Douglas Reeves is an independent consultant and has no affiliation with JumpRope.

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