Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education

New software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms—but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.

Jae C. Hong / AP

How did my son perform on his high-school physics test this morning? Seconds after the teacher posts his score online, I can find out. With just a few more clicks, I can also tell you how the grade affected his overall performance for the quarter, his GPA for the year, how many times he was late for school, and what he ate for lunch this week.

All of this information is readily available to parents at any time through our school district’s virtual gradebook—an increasingly popular tool that is reshaping parental involvement in schools nationwide and opening up the black box of student assessment. Experts predict that these programs will evolve using the latest technology to measure increasingly varied facets of students’ educational lives. While many parents seem to appreciate the increased connections with their schools, others—myself included—are not interested in the constant surveillance and assessment of their children.

Nearly all of America’s public schools now post grades online through student-management software such as PowerSchool, Engrade, LearnBoost, and ThinkWave, according to Jim Flanagan, the chief learning services officer for the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education. And online gradebooks are only one component of these programs, which also typically aggregate students’ demographic information, arrange schedules, and track and manage payments for food services—ideally, Flanagan said, providing comprehensive collection of data for every student.

Student-management software was first developed by locally operated companies about 15 years ago, before being slowly acquired by larger education technology firms, and now accounts for a big chunk of the $8.38 billion ed-tech market. Those within the industry are very optimistic about its expansion. These systems have the potential to rethink the ways that schools assess students, Flanagan said, beyond the traditional quizzes and tests—for example, through data dashboards that measure students’ emotional state, level of engagement, and mood or motivation. One San Francisco start-up has created a program that utilizes motion-tracking and facial- and speech-recognition software to collect this type of data, which they say will increase hands-on, project-based learning.

Some parents have reported that this new software is an effective method for increasing communication between school and home. Many of my friends are very happy with this technology. One said that she learned that her daughter was struggling with reading by reviewing her marks on the online gradebook; the teacher never informed my friend of these issues. With this knowledge, she was able to get help for her daughter early in the year. Others have said that they’ve been able to correct teachers’ grading errors with these programs.

To respond the proliferation of these online gradebooks, the Harvard Family Research Project has a list of useful tips for administrators, teachers, and parents on how to effectively use these new tools. It recommends that parents strike a balance between monitoring data and allowing the child to progress at his or her own pace, noting that parents should avoid constantly checking online portals, also known as “e-hovering.”

Others are less impressed with the impact of this technology on family life. Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Price of Privilege, described online gradebooks as “a miserable idea.” Teachers these days grade “everything,” even works in progress, she said, and the online gradebooks make these scores subject to constant inspection by parents—potentially discouraging kids from experimenting or making mistakes that are integral to learning.

This heightened adult surveillance of kids, Levine added, is precisely what they don’t need during this stage of development; it can create “robo-students” and exacerbate the already-distressing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among teenagers. “As an adult, what would it be like to have your every move evaluated?” Levine asked.

At the same time, parents can get overly attached to the constant information rewards the software provides. “Your kid gets an A one day, then a C the next, and then an A the following day,” Levine said. “Parents end up logging in too many times. It’s seductive and addictive. One loses the ability to manage it.” When her children were in school, she found that she was logging in every day, so, she requested that school not send her any information. “There wasn’t anything there that I couldn’t learn from talking to my kids.”

Although I can easily find out how my 16-year-old son fared on this morning’s physics test by logging into our online gradebook, I won’t. Like Levine, I stopped looking at his grades about a year ago, because daily monitoring of his performance made everyone miserable. Dinner time had become the place for all-caps conversations about grades that did nothing to help an already-stressed high-school junior. Between school, track practice, and homework, he routinely works 18-hour days, his weekends packed with SATs, track competitions, and term papers. We decided that home had to be a refuge from those pressures; he couldn’t handle angry parents on top of everything else.

By stepping away from the Big Brother of online gradebooks, my husband and I chose to prioritize learning and sanity—both his and ours—over grades. We were not interested in producing another “excellent sheep” or fracturing our family. So, I ask my son about once a week if he’s checked his grades and whether he’s doing okay, but that's about it. I can see that he’s working hard and learning, and that’s good enough for me. Schools have to balance the demands of parents who want more data with parents who want less—and maybe a simple “opt out” button on these gradebooks could create a happy middle ground.

Now that we’re not arguing about grades during family meals, we’re talking about other things. We talk about the primary results and the policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He and his dad talk about European soccer teams. We’re helping his little brother learn the names of all the countries in Europe. Because learning doesn't just happen at school; it also happens at the dinner table.