Do student information systems — online services that track students’ grade — help kids learn? It all depends on whom you ask. Experts on education and child development, parents, teachers, and students clash on whether or not web-based monitoring systems serve children’s educational interests or actually hinder learning.

Student information systems are web-based software programs that schools buy to help manage student and teacher data. One of the most popular is PowerSchool, which claims to support 12 million students from all 50 states, but smaller systems like RenWeb and openSIS provide similar services to public and private schools around the country. “Every single transaction in the form of attendance, grade book, report card, discipline, billing and transcript is recorded,” openSIS promises in its company literature. Teachers report grades and attendance on-line, kids can log in at any time to check their status, and parents have open access to their child’s performance, including not only homework, quiz, and test grades, but also comments from teachers and updates on tardiness. Parents can sign up to receive email notifications as often as once a day.

But having access to all that data is not always helpful, according to some critics, because the focus of school and learning is reduced to numbers and graphs.

“It turns every act of learning into a performance,” said Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege, who said she calls the big student information system Power Snoop. For all the data and feedback they provide, student information systems interfere with learning.

“Learning requires involvement, interest, making mistakes—this is a poor substitute,” she said. The singular focus on grades that these systems encourage turns learning into a competitive, zero-sum game for students. “What we’re saying is, how do you compare to the kid sitting next to you, in terms of grades?” Further, by adopting these systems, schools make a strong statement about their values: “We’re ignoring best practices in child development, and saying what we do care about are grades.”

My own college-bound high school senior captured the mixed message that student information systems deliver. On the one hand, he liked it because it kept him on track with his grades and assignments. But did it help him learn? “School isn’t about learning,” Jeff said. “It’s about doing well.”

These up-to-the minute reports on a child’s grades also have a way of directing family conversation and focus to metrics at the expense of the subjects being taught or the other, non-academic developments occurring in a kid’s life, which might actually be weighing more heavily than the results of a bio quiz. “It looks like a disproportionate interest in this one aspect of their development,” she said. This comes at a time when research suggests that kids are more anxious about grades than their family or social lives. “That’s your greatest stress, and you get to check it five-six times a day?” Levine said.

Student information systems have a dangerous seductive quality as well. When Levine’s children were in high school, she found herself logging in compulsively to check their grades. Unable to stop herself, she finally disengaged from the system altogether. Levine would like to see schools stop using information systems entirely, just as roughly half the schools around the country gave up on class rank. “This should be next,” she said. “It’s even worse.”

For their part, parents asked about the uses of student information systems dismissed the notion that they helped their children learn. “It has nothing to do with learning, everything to do with measuring—which is all anyone cares about,” said Kathleen Feeney, mother of tenth- and twelfth-grade boys. “Learning? Interesting question,” wrote Kristen Pierotti, whose four school-age children log into PowerSchool with varying degrees of frequency. “It’s all about GPA!” said Terry Jacobs, whose college-age son advised his younger siblings to stay on top of their online tracking to better manage their end-of-quarter grades.


But these same parents were quick to point out some benefits to the data systems. While they might not aid academic learning, the systems do encourage kids to be responsible for their performance in the classroom, many said. “Jeremy definitely feels more ‘ownership’ of his academic results, ‘brand’ and ‘profile’ through PowerSchool,” said Cheryl Barr about her tenth-grade son. “I do believe it helps them to see their grades in real time, and they work harder when they see they have slipped or need to pull up a grade to get into a desired range,” Pierotti said. It also helps keep teachers accountable to their students, said Maribeth Bowen, whose twelfth-grade daughter checks in regularly to be sure her grades are recorded accurately. What’s more, these online grading systems remove any surprises from the quarterly report card, Pierotti added.

Angel Harris, co-author of The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, agrees that student information systems have the potential to be useful for kids. “It’s a good diagnostic for students, so they know when they’re missing points or assignments,” he said. As for parents’ use of the systems to oversee their children’s grades, he’s less sanguine. What matters is how parents respond to the information they encounter. “The punitive response”— punishing, withholding, berating — “is associated with declines in achievement,” Harris said.

What about teachers? Eleanor Lear taught English at Summit High School in New Jersey, and she dreaded using PowerSchool when it was first introduced. “I was really afraid of it,” she said. But Lear discovered that it helped keep her timely with grading and compelled her students to take ownership of their work. “The learning isn’t about English, but it’s about taking responsibility for themselves,” she said. “There’s no more Hail Marys at the end of the quarter, hoping to pull out an A- after getting all Cs,” she said. “It takes away their excuses.”

Not that it was all good. “For parents who had a propensity to obsess over grades, it gave them license to obsess even more,” Lear said. The system also rewarded grade-grubbers, she said, and drew students’ attention to tiny missed homework assignments rather than the subject. In addition, Lear squirmed over having her grade book open to students, parents and administrators. “There’s no room for you to apply your judgment,” she added.

Madeline Levine says these systems undermine what teachers and parents ultimately value. “Everything we hear about 21st century business, from business leaders, is that they want collaborators, communicators. And none of that comes through when the only thing schools focus on is metrics,” she said. Learning how to collaborate comes from working on group projects and absorbing cultural norms that promote cooperation and teamwork. “All this does is cultivate cynicism,” she said.


  • kfh7

    I think online grade books can help (or certainly not hurt) as long as three conditions are met – 1. scores are for summative assessments only, 2. scores are recorded by standard not assessment method, and 3. that grades are determined by the teacher not just a calculation done by the program. The latter is a strength of PowerSchool as it provides six metrics for any set of standards scores that clearly shows there is not one right grade.

  • pdohrenwend

    I am a teacher using FAWEB. One challenge with with posting grades is that parents have a different interpretation of the information. Even if standards are used in the columns instead of assignments, parents still try to ask, “So…. is this a B?” As long as grades are used as external motivation, a carrot or a stick, the students will treat the information accordingly. Many times the term “learning” is really a substitute for “performance”. This becomes apparent when the next question after a student hands in a project, test, quiz or receives a grade happens to be, “Is there a retake?”

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  • jed3rd

    It appears that the downside to using online grade posting in schools has less to do with making grades available online and more to do with the effectiveness of grading. Whether the grades are online or not, they still deliver a message. If grades deliver the wrong message, then get rid of grades. Don’t shoot the messenger!

    If assessments are constructed properly, then the grades that students receive on assessments should communicate to them how well they are “learning”. If grading is used effectively, the aggregation of grades and useful reporting tools online only improve the communication that is already going on within the classroom.

  • apokalypsis

    The amount of ignorance displayed in this article is staggering. This is not a critique of student information systems (SIS); it’s a critique of online gradebooks (which may or may not be a feature of any given SIS). I support an SIS and other data systems at a county level. While parents may only touch the SIS when it comes to their students’ grades and lunch accounts, the systems do much more than that: e.g. classroom attendance, enrollment, course catalog, special education services, medicaid reimbursement, etc.

    There is so much information required by states and the Federal government for funding and compliance purposes that it is unthinkable that a district of any size could operate without an SIS. Some charter schools try to get by with Microsoft Excel files, but they inevitably run into trouble when they have to file data with the state.

    If you are afraid of computerized data damaging your children, you have two options:
    1) Homeschool them (much of which takes place online nowadays!).
    2) Enroll your child in a religious private school that will teach them that humans coexisted with dinosaurs.

    Otherwise, there’s no real argument here. If you don’t want to look at your child’s grades online, no one is forcing you to.

    More importantly, as jed3rd pointed out, if the grades are not measuring learning then you have a problem with the teacher, not the online gradebook. The argument above is like saying “I don’t like the way this new house was built. We must abolish nail guns! Hammering by hand is the only way to build!”

    • TJ Singleton

      If you’re going to critique an article based on “the amount of ignorance displayed,” please be sure not to show your own. You created a false dilemma by saying homeschooling or sending children to a religious fundamentalist school are parents’ only options. Not only are there non-religious private schools, Catholic schools don’t teach creationism. I teach at a Catholic high school that uses a student information system. It could be better, but our science program is first rate.

  • Paul Smith

    For a glimpse of the type of student engagement Linda is talking about here, search Twitter for “PowerSchool”. Also, try “PowerSchool birthday” or PowerSchool “grade of”. Before I left Pearson to join LearnSprout, I was the PM for PowerSchool’s mobile apps. Analytics we were getting back showed that students refreshed the app on average 12 times per day.

    I agree that our collective national obsession with grades and GPAs gets in the way of learning and there’s no doubt after reviewing searches like the ones above that this causes students a great deal of stress. IMO, it’s difficult to put a summative score on something as broad as “Math”. Perhaps if we fragment grades into specific learning outcomes we can reduce the summative, high-stakes nature of grades? To that end I have great hope for companies like Mastery Connect and Kickboard which are transforming the dusty tradition of the grade book and making it possible for parents to better understand exactly where their students are doing well, and where they need help. This also reduces the gamesmanship that many students employ to boost their final grades.

    Related reading: Highly recommend Ken O’Connor’s “A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades”

  • J Bradford Burkman

    My school uses PowerSchool. Even before we had online grades, however, a colleague taught me that we “communicate to our students through their grades.” If it’s not graded, it’s not important. We just accepted that the students were motivated primarily by grades, and moved on.

    One of the problems I had with grading homework was that each assignment was such a small part of the grade that a student was unmotivated (by grades) to turn in late homework. Once we got grades online, and both students and parents could see them in real time, I developed a new trick. “Homework” is 20% of the grade in my class, but it’s broken into two parts. Ten percent is for turning it in on time, and 10% is for having it all turned in (whether on time or late). If a student fails to turn in just one homework assignment, his/her average drops 10%, and sees it immediately. So does Mom.

    My school does turn off student and teacher access in the week before grades are due, so teachers can explore how to massage the grades.

    Seeing grades in real time is a mixed blessing, but it’s not going to go away.

  • djt

    I wish my son’s middle school had a SIS where to-date grades and, more importantly, homework, were posted online consistently. It’s very frustrating to him and us to learn at progress report time that the assignment he was sure he submitted was missing and he plummeted from an A to D. I’m a proponent of student accountability, but it’s hard to help him succeed in an information void. Really hoping they solve this by the time my younger two reach middle school age.

    • Elizabeth Hutley

      In middle school, my son went from an A to a D over ONE assignment. There were a minimum number of grades that semester, so the one assignment was worth almost a quarter of the grade. This was an assignment (DONE IN CLASS) over a 3wk period. Of course, we scheduled a meeting with the teacher. When asked what happened, she said. I asked your son for the assignment multiple times. Her “asking” was not bringing my 11yr old to her desk and asking him where his assignment was, but standing in front of the classroom calling out all the names who hadn’t turned them in. I said, if this was so important, why didn’t you communicate with me? She said, “I am teaching your son responsibility”? Responsibility, is my job and I couldn’t do it because you didn’t give me the option. In the meantime, he was given a zero, which suggests he learned nothing in that 3wk period. A period that she knew he was doing SOME of the work. I told her that had she called me, I would have asked my son what the problem was. In the meeting, it turned out, he thought he had handed it in and couldn’t find the paper in his bag. In his mind, there was nothing he could do. I said, I would have told him to ask for another form to fill out. The teacher turned to my son and said, “I would have given you another one”. Yes, but HE didn’t know that. . She then said, I kept my grade book open so he could get it in. Once again, HE didn’t KNOW that and I couldn’t help him learn how to handle this situation. The grade book was closed, so he got a D. I want to help the teachers and my children, we all have the same goal. We learned a lot about how important communication is that day to team work. He learned that his teacher CAN be talked to, she learned communication with parents can help her do her job, and I learned “Check IN” with the teacher periodically. If we had the SIS he may not have gotten the D. I am glad it was in sixth grade. Now, he knows that HE needs to check in with his teachers WITH or WITHOUT SIS.

      • djt

        Wow. This situation is more common than I realized. Our experience was nearly identical including the takeaways.

  • Elizabeth Hutley

    As a mother of two, I appreciate the system. I don’t check it daily, but every couple of weeks. Unfortunately, with many schools, if you don’t talk to the teacher within 3 days of the due date, it is a zero, regardless of reason. Out sick, or doctors appointment the student is responsible to ask what they missed. When my sons were 10 an 11yrs old, that just didn’t enter their head or they were intimidated by an authority figure. This system allows my kids and me to see how they are doing. Not about the grade, per se, but about accountability. Seeing a zero prompts me to ask them what happened. They usually say, “I know I handed that in, so she/he may not have input the grade” or “That is the day I had a Doctors appointment”. The next step? Go and talk with your teacher, to work it out. It teaches my kids that learning is team work and part of learning is knowing how to talk to your teachers. Even if a grade is a zero, and they won’t get credit, I tell them to do it anyway and hand it in. They need to let the teacher know they don’t expect a score, but learned it because if the teacher assigned it, it was an important to know. It isn’t about the grades, it is about learning. If you aren’t handing in homework, or your grades are low (AND I KNOW, you haven’t been opening the book to study) then you are not learning responsibility OR the material. My kids are in high school now. They know they can talk to their teachers. They treat their teachers with respect and have always been taught that if the teacher is making an effort to teach, then they need to make an effort to learn. We are all on the same team and mutual respect is key. The SIS system is just one communication tool.

  • AllisonCarson

    Turning the rearing of children into an exercise in project management. How sad for the kids. When these children are 40 years old, who is going to care whether they got a B- in 5th-grade arithmetic? The same people who care what their SAT scores were. Which is precisely no one. It breaks my heart to see children leading these strait-jacketed lives, with no opportunity to even begin to know who they are and their interests are. It’s all decided by others.

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  • kfh7

    Prof. Levine describes the misuse of student information systems not appropriate use. Parent portals should provide information about how students are achieving on standards on summative assessments, i.e., a profile of student achievement, and the function summarizing to a subject grade should be turned off except for one or two days at the end of each grading period.

  • Angela Addison

    I think the title of the article is accurate – tracking grades minute by minute certainly is worth the critique and in the same way that checking facebook likes every five minutes isn’t healthy checking grades as the only indicator of a student’s learning is not healthy. Making the connection from that user behavior to the general benefits (or non) of SIS made me a little sad (full disclosure as someone who does software design in this arena). It is good feedback though that perhaps some of that user experience should be reconsidered for instance if it’s a distraction from the more beneficial behavior perhaps those need to be at the forefront of the user experience more. There is always of course the issue of how something is implemented. If the message when it was introduced to a school is ‘this is what’s important to leadership and how you need to use this’ then the tool can’t fix that. If leadership is educated on the benefits of promoting the non-grading features then they’ll hopefully be rewarded with the grades taking care of themselves. It is a shame that the many other benefits of SIS, at least in packages that are doing it right, are being foregone as in your example of the parent who signed off due to that potential need for a tweak to how they’re using it. The evolution of SIS has gone from old-school grade and program tracking, as we know this isn’t the full picture of student success engagement, to providing tools to engage them which is fantastic and leads to higher success rates. Features like community networking with peers and educators, real-time access to relevant resources, non-cognitive development opportunities, brand building and positive reinforcement are all things we know from years of research contribute to a successful learning experience through investment, engagement and ownership. And of course as a side effect results in better grades as a byproduct. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater maybe we can encourage the mind/shift of the users to catch up to the shift in what SIS has become the last several years. I would love to have a dialogue with you if you’d like to help shape improvements.

  • LadyPack

    It seems to be yet another way to put children under surveillance and rob them of their independence, childhoods, and sense of agency. Kids should be very involved in their own learning rather than focused on grades (why grades anyway?). And teachers tell me that they have to report children’s misbehavior in the classroom in real time to the parents. Horrible.

  • Mel F

    My school district uses Powerschool. In Middle school, the first couple of weeks at the beginning of each grading term became nightmares for me – with so few grades in the system, a single bad test resulted in the system displaying an “F,” albeit temporarily. My parents never looked into the breakdown of such grades – they simply saw the large ugly letter, and then interrogated me. It caused a tremendous amount of stress.

    In high school, for some reason, my school changed my Powerschool password. I never told my parents that, and they assumed that Powerschool simply did not exist in high school. Four years later, I can still say that Powerschool stresses me out – I watch my grades fluctuate each day and fret over how to bring them back up – but at least was able to eliminate the parental stress aspect.

    I think that although it can be a useful tool, Powerschool adds tremendous stress. It is unreliable – teachers add incorrect grades sometimes, and other times wait for weeks before updating it. I check it once a day, but some of my peers refresh many times each day, noting the exact instant where a grade is entered and what it does to their GPA’s. Is that healthy? Many people argue about the connectedness of today’s society as preventing kids from relaxing. Powerschool, always accessible, is another thing that prevents us from escaping the reality of a GPA-centric school.

  • It’s important to disginuish between systems such as those described in the article that provide up-to-date data on student grades (summative assessments) vs. systems that provide real-time data on student learning progress (formative assessment). This article is specifically and exclusively about the former (systems that track summative assessments / grades). While we can debate the merits and drawbacks of summative grades and information systems that report those data to families, there is little doubt that providing high-quality formative assessment data to students and teachers in real-time is a powerful tool for improving student learning. In fact formative assessment has been found to be one of the most powerful tools for improving learning that has ever been studied by education researchers. This is where we will find the real promise of modern information systems for improving education.


Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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