10 February 2010

The "I hate grading programs" post

Yes, indeedy, I do have a love-hate relationship with grading programs. They are useful and ultimately save me time, but they never do EXACTLY what I want them to. I decided after my student teaching semester (yes, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) that I would never do grades by hand again, so I went looking for something new.

I started with GradeMachine by Misty City Software and used that successfully for several years. It didn't do everything that I wanted, but was pretty easy to use.

By the early 2000s, I had moved to a new school with a new grading program. The idea was that within a few years everyone would be using Micrograde by Chariot. Many of my colleagues resisted the switch, but I plodded forward. The single most important advantage of Micrograde at my site was the ability to post grades online. Once students and parents could see what the grade was at any given moment, the number of requests for parent conferences plummeted. However, for most of the time I used Micrograde, I had trouble. For example:
  • One quarter, one of my classes suddenly started picking up data from another class. Have no idea what happened and Chariot couldn't recreate it, so the problem didn't exist. I had to recreate the class.
  • Another quarter, I entered my password protected gradebook one morning and ONE of my classes suddenly had A+ grades well over 120%. NO assignments had been changed, the grade scale was the same, but suddenly everyone had higher grades. Since Chariot couldn't recreate it, the problem didn't exist. I had to recreate the class.
  • On one of the upgrades, the summary grading period broke. No one knew that until AFTER semester grades were reported. Turned out that in the new version, one had to manually enter the percent for each quarter in a semester grade. Ugh. I was one of the fortunate ones that I noticed an oddly computed semester grade and fixed mine before turning them in.
Finally, my district decided to purchase a new student information system that includes a gradebook. With that decision, my site stopped paying for the Micrograde feature that allows teachers to post grades online. Powerschool is managing all of our data and seems to have the features that we need for the district. Despite a year's preparation, the district was not ready to roll out the gradebook feature, so teachers were given the option to try it out. It IS nice that I can enter grades from any internet connected computer, but that doesn't make up for the current shortcomings. I tried it for a semester and have decided to move on for the time being. Here's why:
  • I cannot modify the grade scale despite the instructions from both Powerschool and my district. 
  • I cannot move students between classes. For example, I have three yearbook students in one of my newspaper classes. Since they are enrolled in that period, that's where they are graded. Needless to say, the extra work of excusing yearbook kids from newspaper assignments and vice versa is a pain.
  • My ability to enter grades the way I want is limited. There are codes I can use for excusing a student from an assignment and it IS nice that I can mark an assignment as late, but if I enter an assignment by letter grade I CANNOT mark a zero for an assignment that was not turned it. That bugs me. If I just mark it as missing, it doesn't count as a zero. Go figure.
  • The biggest problem is that the district has not activated the module that allows me to post grades online. Seeing how I got one case of paper for the entire year and all of the printers in my room are at least three years old, it's not feasible to print out grade reports for each kid. I can create pdf reports for each student, but it's a cumbersome three step process to create 35 reports per class, then individually email them.
Recently, one of my newspaper students wrote a commentary about the value of having grades posted online and mentioned Engrade. I decided to check it out. First of all, it's free; that's a good thing right now. Of course, the greatest thing in its favor is the ability to post online, but it's a serviceable program. I was able to import my student list from an Excel spreadsheet, added my grading categories, checked the grading scale (fully customizable) and, within a few minutes had all of my geography students in a single class! Entering grades is just average since I use a keypad and can go pretty fast. Sometimes the program is either too sensitive or not sensitive enough and I have to go back because someone gets skipped or ends up with two grades in the assignment cell.

The most telling thing about Engrade though is what happened when I handed students the slips to create their own accounts to check grades. Many of them immediately stopped what they were doing and got on the computer, while others stayed after class to set up their account and check grades. More came in at lunch to check. Some now come in during passing period to see if I've updated grades. Obviously, something was missing for them.

So, now that I'm at the end of my gradebook rant, I've decided to stick with Engrade at least until the district turns on the posting module. I'd rather work with a program that is a little clunky but meets the needs of my students, rather than one that, right now, doesn't do what my students need it to do.