Keeping the Grades

10/15/2003 5:00:00 AM

For educators faced with the tedious and time-consuming task of calculating grades, electronic grade books offer welcome relief. Like their paper counterparts, electronic grade books allow teachers to track student performance on class assignments, but offer the advantage of automatic grade calculation, multiple reporting options, and in some cases, information sharing. While many of the most widely used electronic grade books are integrated into full-featured student information systems, many educators — especially those whose districts have not adopted SIS solutions — require a simple, stand-alone software product to help them manage and report grades.

Of the more than 40 grade book products on the market today, the vast majority are homegrown solutions created by teachers and made available to others. Given space constraints, this review covers one such program, plus five electronic grade books that represent the range of products — from Web-based to traditional, basic to full-featured — available from major publishing companies. All six products offer grade calculation and assignment tracking as well as a reporting feature, with the more robust packages here adding support for custom grade schemes, tools for students to view their grades, and more extensive reporting options.

ThinkWave Web Educator (ThinkWave)

This basic Web-based grade book application features grading, attendance, and lesson plan organization tools. Teachers can set up a grade book via a quick, four-step process in which they enter information about the school, personal contact information, a class name, term dates, and student names. Student records are stored by first name and last initial only, which protects student privacy but could potentially frustrate teachers whose students share similar names. Educators select a letter or numerical grading system, then use a navigation pane on the left side of the screen to add classes, students, assignments, lesson plans, and calendar items.

The teacher home page lists upcoming assignments and active classes as well as the date and time of the last login — a security feature designed to alert the user to hacking attempts or grade book tampering. The grade book itself is very basic, with relatively few options aside from allotting point values for assignments, indicating whether an assignment counts toward the final grade, and setting a conversion scale for letter grades.

A ThinkWave Web Educator subscription fee includes a companion product, Grades Online, that allows parents and students to track progress in real time through secure access to assignments, grades, and class calendars over the Web. Student and parent users can also send queries or comments to teachers via the program's integrated messaging system. (Pearson)

Also Web-based, this product from Pearson's offers the same basic grade tracking function as ThinkWave Web Educator but expands on it with advanced reporting, import/export, and security features and a particularly intuitive interface.

A New Class wizard guides the user through the setup process, prompting the teacher to select a grading scale, identify assignment types, and give each type a weight in calculating the final grade. The wizard ends with the user at the grade book home page ready to enter data on classes, students, and assignments.

The intuitive interface of includes a set of navigation tabs at the top of the screen that take users to pages for classes, categories, assignments, students, and scores. The home page also provides convenient direct links to subsections of major features. For example, users can navigate from the home page to the main Score Page or jump directly to subsection pages such as Score by Assignment or Score by Student. The home page also includes a calendar that lists events and assignments for that day.

Unlike most other products that require one set grade scale for all classes, allows a customized grading setup for each class. Assignments can be weighted based on percentage toward the overall grade or by category (e.g., homework, tests, quizzes). Extra grading features include the ability to drop the lowest score or to offer extra credit without having to create additional assignments.

The ancillary features of — such as reporting, import/export, and security — are particularly strong. More than 20 reports are available to show class and individual student performance; reports can be formatted and customized in a variety of ways. With password-protected access, students and parents can view upcoming and past assignments, along with scores recorded to date. In addition, can be set up to automatically e-mail updates to parents and students.

Gradebook2 (Excelsior Software)

Gradebook2, from the publisher of Pinnacle student information systems, is a good pick for more advanced users who appreciate a broad range of features and an open-ended option to create their own reports from scratch. Offering the richest set of features of the products reviewed in this article, it includes extensive grade weighting options (including a formula builder that allows users to create any conceivable grading system); choice of numeric, decimal, letter, or symbol grades; and the ability to accommodate bonus points, curves, and extra credit grades.

Other options let teachers add comments for each assignment or student, work with a lesson planner, or access standards-based tracking, discipline and attendance records, and seating charts with student photographs.

Gradebook2's rich features will come at a cost for those less experienced with technology, however. The user interface has an old, Windows 3.1 look and feel. Navigation is not necessarily intuitive, and some of the more intricate features — such as the extensive weighting options and multiple grading methods for each assignment — may be more detailed and advanced than the typical K-12 teacher needs. If tracking mastery is the goal, then a simpler program might do better. However, Gradebook2 does provide a Grade Creation wizard with predefined templates and an Easy Mode for teachers who want a simple solution.

Gradebook2 does offer a robust system of built-in reports and graphs that analyze student performance and communicate progress to administrators, students, and parents. In addition, a separate report editor application allows users to modify existing reports or build reports from scratch in standard or HTML format. The report editor adds significant functionality by providing a blank slate upon which to create custom reports with virtually any combination of fields and summaries.

Easy Grade Pro (Orbis Software)

Easy Grade Pro balances the look and feel of a traditional paper grade book with a host of useful features that take advantage of the electronic format. Of the products included in this review, Easy Grade Pro offers the most informative views (including a main page with both numerical and graphical data) and intuitive navigation. Educators can color-code scores and attendance marks, view summary graphs of student performance, switch classes or charts with a single click, and customize the interface with their own fields. In addition, Easy Grade Pro allows users to sort and move students and assignments with drag-and-drop efficiency.

The grading functionality of Easy Grade Pro is deep and robust. Grade scales can have letters, words, and numbers. Teachers can assign different grade scales to individual students (e.g., Sally gets numerical grades, while Jane gets letter grades) and can also override or curve the standard grade scale for individuals (e.g., Tom's grade scale is offset by 3 percent due to a lengthy family crisis). Each class can have numerous score categories that can be weighted or not weighted.

Unlike the other products reviewed here, Easy Grade Pro provides summary graphs of grade book data that offer insight into student and class performance. In addition, 19 comprehensive, customizable reports can include data from multiple classes, subjects, and teachers. The reports can be printed in English, Spanish, and other languages, and schools can publish reports to the Web by direct export, e-mail, or through a hosting service.

GradeQuick (Jackson Software)

GradeQuick offers a useful set of features, including flexible grading options, integration with student information systems, customized reports, and attendance management. Ancillary tools for lesson planning and tracking student progress on skills and standards provide additional value for classroom teachers.

Like Easy Grade Pro, GradeQuick was designed to look and feel like a paper grade book. Users can enter and change most information directly on the grade book spreadsheet without setup windows. Though this approach streamlines the process of getting up and running with GradeQuick, it can present challenges when a user wants to modify or customize options since setup screens can be difficult to find and navigate. And as with GradeBook2, GradeQuick's interface has not completely shed its Windows 3.1 appearance.

However, GradeQuick offers significant flexibility in grading options. Teachers can set up 30 different grading scales, use weighting systems, count incomplete assignments as exempt or zero, and curve or adjust any assignment. Of particular value is the option to explore different grading schemes without making permanent changes; teachers can see how a new grading scale or dropping low scores will affect students' averages but still return to the original setup.

Compared to other grade book products, GradeQuick's reports stand out for both their depth and variety. More than 75 customizable report templates, such as missing work lists, class summaries, report cards, and full-blown worksheets, are available. The program is also unique in its ability to combine scores from different subjects or different teachers into one report.

Notably, GradeQuick allows users to record and track student progress on state standards, skills, and subskills. The Skills Assessment button takes the user to a separate spreadsheet to view a group of skills associated with a specific standard or view all skills associated with all standards. Like a paper-based grade book, users set up an assessment scale (e.g., below basic, basic, proficient, advanced) for each standard and record student performance; unlike a paper grade book, GradeQuick can automatically generate printable standards-based report cards.

Gradekeeper (Daniel Ethier)

Gradekeeper, a shareware product published by educator Daniel Ethier, represents the homegrown end of the spectrum of electronic grade books. It is essentially a customized spreadsheet that has been designed to look and feel like a traditional paper grade book — the cleanest, simplest interface of all the products reviewed here. There are no dialogue boxes or difficult setup options; users simply open the application and begin entering student names, assignments, and scores.

Since the product is based on a paper grade book, advanced features are fairly limited. Users can create categories for grade weighting, choose whether to drop lowest scores, and set grading scales. A limited number of footnotes and comments can be created for assignments and students.

Gradekeeper can display a variety of simple reports covering class grades, assignment scores, and missing assignments. A multiple class report summarizes individual students' grades and attendance for several classes — a helpful feature for teachers who teach the same students in more than one subject. Gradekeeper can also export records to a Web page listing current grades and attendance totals, or to a Web site with pages for each student.

Todd McIntire is director of achievement for Edison Schools.

Read other articles from the October Issue

A Report Card on Electronic Grade Books

See both comparion charts, ThinkWave Web Educator, & Gradebook2 and Easy Grade Pro, GradeQuick & Gradekeeper

Product ThinkWave Web Educator Gradebook2
Publisher ThinkWave, a division of Pearson Education Excelsior Software
Platform Web-based Web-based Mac/Win; CD-ROM or download
Price $4.95 monthly; $34.95 yearly; $49.95 for 2 years $34.95 yearly; group accounts and system integration solutions available Contact Excelsior for licensing fees; Gradebook 2 Special Edition available for free download
Features - Letter or numeral grades
- Attendance
- Communication tools
- Lesson planner
- Letter or numeral grades
- Drop lowest score
- Extra credit
- Import/export to text or spreadsheet
- Reports
- Calendar
- Letter, numeral, decimal, and symbol grades
- Bonus points, curves, and extra credit
- Comment fields
- Attendance
- Standards-based tracking
- Seating charts
- Grade Creation wizard and Easy Mode
Strengths - Simple set up
- Integrated security
- Extensive reporting tools
- Pages load and refresh quickly
- Students or parents can check grades and assignments via the Web
- Integrated calendar
- Integrated security
- Communication tools
Java-based interface
- Students and parents can check grades via the Web
- E-mail updates to students and parents
- More than 20 reports
- Flexibility in grade book setup
- Allows mixing of letter, number, and symbol grades
- Primary and secondary grading methods for each assignment
Limitations Performance dependent on bandwidth of internet connection Students listed by first name and last initial only - Nonstandard interface
- Complex setup of grade calculations
- No Web export options
Bottom Line Leverages experience with student information systems to produce a useful Web-based grade books Convenient application takes advantage of Web-based communication tools Numerous and amazing features in an advanced interface

Product Easy Grade Pro GradeQuick Gradekeeper
Publisher Orbis Software Jackson Software Daniel Ethier
Platform Mac/Win; CD-ROM or download Mac/Win/Palm; CD-ROM or download Mac/Win; CD-ROM or download
Price $49 for single user; $249 for site license $69.95 for single user/single platform; $119.90 for single user/dual platform; $89.95 for single user with handheld version; site licenses are also available Shareware; $20 for single user; $100 for school use; $500 for district use
Features - Letter, numeral, and word grades
- Attendance
- Color-coding available
- Grade curves
- Summary graphs
- Export to Web
- Letter or numeral grades
- Attendance
- Grade curves, drop lowest score
- Seating chart with photos
- 30 different grading scales
- Standards and skills tracking
- Lesson planner
- Export to web
- Numeral grades only
- Attendance
- Drop lowest score
- Comment fields
- Reports
- Export to Web
Strengths - Ease of navigation
- Automatic graphics
- Drag-and-drop management
- 19 report formats
- Reports available in multiple languages
- Quick set up
- More than 75 customizable reports
- Look and feel of paper grade book
- Standards-based tracking and reporting
- Easy to use
- Look and feel of paper grade book
- Shareware means low licensing fees
Limitations Printing and customizing reports can be difficult Older interface makes some features difficult to find and use - Limited reporting
- Few calculation options
Bottom Line Effectively balances ease of use with great flexibility and features Solid performer with a wealth of features and reports in an aging user interface Clean, inexpensive, and easy to use — but don't look for advanced features

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