The Downside of Checking Kids’ Grades Constantly

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I’m a teacher, so August is my favorite time of year. The close of summer is a little sad, sure, but it’s also a teacher’s New Year, a season for new beginnings, when anything and everything feels possible.

I’m making some New Year’s resolutions for myself as a teacher and as the mother of two boys, 13 and 18. They’re pretty simple:

Talk less, listen more and get to know the kid in front of me.

My older son is headed off to college, so my parenting job for him has shrunk dramatically from full-time, to very, very part-time.

I’m not completely out of a job, however. My younger son is entering his final year at our small K-8 elementary school before transitioning to a much larger regional high school known for its culture of social and academic competition. The school’s high rank comes at a cost: Students struggle to bear up under the intense academic and extracurricular pressure while parents monitor their children’s grades online.

Digital grade portals were designed to improve home-school communication by allowing students and parents to monitor grades and attendance throughout the year so there are no surprises at report card time. In theory, a parent who checks the portal has the opportunity to stay on top of a child’s performance and facilitate support for the child if performance slips.

The reality, at least in high-pressure school districts, is that some parents interpret the school’s invitation to constantly monitor grades and scores on the portal not as an option, but as an obligation. This obligation adds to the mounting anxiety students and parents feel in these districts.

In some school districts, parents rarely, if ever, use parent portals. In 2015, New York City audited its old software system and found that only 3 percent of parents and less than 50 percent of teachers and administrators had logged in over the past academic year.

Schools that report benefits from the use of portals share a few common practices around training, parent access and rules for teacher use. Schools that offer training for all parents, and actively invite traditionally disenfranchised parents to use the portal by offering classes in multiple languages report increased engagement as well as healthy, productive use of the portal by parents and students alike.

In areas with high levels of student stress and related suicide clusters, school officials who are seeking to dial back the focus on grades and scores might consider establishing restrictions on portal use. Many schools enforce parental restraint by limiting access to the portal to once or twice a term, usually at the midterm or just before final grades are due. Other schools open the portal only once a week on an appointed day so parents can check in, but can’t obsess over the minute details of daily grades and scores.

Some districts with unlimited parental access require teachers to hold off on posting grades online until they have had time to talk to their students about scores, thus preventing those awkward and counterproductive moments when a parent knows about a student’s grade before the student.

Barbara Starkie, principal of Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Mass., wrote in an email that the grading portal has had a positive effect on students and parents in her school because, while parents and students have unlimited access to grades, teachers post updates only every two weeks. This allows teachers and students to talk about learning, progress and the minutiae of scores and grades before grades are entered online. Dr. Starkie said she believes this “metered release” approach is beneficial for students and parents because it encourages restraint and keeps the focus on student empowerment and learning.

“It keeps folks from overchecking,” she said.

How much a parent needs to know about every grade for every quiz or essay varies, and of course some students have a greater need for monitoring than others.

While there’s limited evidence on the benefit of grading portals on academic achievement, there is plenty of research to show that extrinsic motivators, such as grades, as well as parental surveillance and control, are detrimental to kids’ long-term motivation to learn and undermine their relationships with teachers.

When we focus our attention on real-time, up-to-the-second reporting on the portal, we elevate the false idols of scores and grades and devalue what really has an impact on learning: positive student-teacher relationships, relevance and student engagement.

I will, indeed, be monitoring my kid closely this year, both for signs of blooming and omens of disaster, but not on the grading portal. In fact, if I’m obsessing over the numbers and grades on my computer screen, I am likely to miss the most important indicators of his long-term success and happiness: his competence, his ability to empathize with others, his emerging ability to advocate for himself and his vision of a better world.