Saturday, December 13, 2008

TX Gradebook Wrangle (Updated September 2010)

Update September, 2010: It's now been a few years and TxGradebook appears to have improved significantly, garnering positive testimonials from Texas technology directors quoted below sans district names:


  • We’ve been using txGradebook for several years (since it first came out).  It is much better than what we had previously which wasn’t web based.  txGradebook still is buggy from time to time and has some issues, but in general we are happy.
  • We made the switch to txGradebook from GradeSpeed 2 years ago and have never regretted it.  The teachers like it even better than GradeSpeed and I didn’t think that would be possible.  The Parents love the txConnect parent portal.  Support does come through our Region Center and 99% of the time it has been timely and helpful. 
  • Ditto for [District Name] ISD on TXGradebook. We are very pleased.
  • We switched from GradeSpeed to TxGradebook three years ago and everyone is happy with it. With use the Parent Portal (link on HomePage of Website) and parents use it a lot. Tech support from Region XVII ESC has been great.
  • We made the switch to TXGradebook for several reasons, but the most important was the evolution of RSCCC to TXEISÿÿ  I did not want any finger pointing due to compatibility issues with new RSCCC. Second, as most of my region has switched to TXGradebook it makes training and support much easier. Third most of the new teacher that come to my district know TXGradebook from their previous districts so that has been a plus. Fourth,  Our region center is the very best at tech support for RSCCC and TXGradebook took the monkey off my back and placed it on the campus secretaries and region center!
  • We made the move after a disastrous year with [vendor name omitted] last year.  I can say the move was incredible. So far our service center has been wonderful in training us, helping us get things set up, and most of all continuing support.  I have received many emails of satisfaction from our teachers praising the TxGradebook system and how easy it is on the teacher end.

So, it appears TxGradebook has finally come into its own! Kudos to them for their growth and the effort involved!

OLD INTRO from 2008:
About a year ago (I've quoted the original entry in this post below my new one), it came to my attention that several districts in Texas were considering dropping Campusware's Gradespeed and switch to an education service center's electronic gradebook known as TXGradebook. A source has reported that Comal ISD (Texas) will be dropping TX Gradebook and switching back to Gradespeed in January, 2009 to finish out the year.

Having seen how difficult it is to transition from one gradebook to another, even when it is an upgrade, I'm curious as to the reasons why TXGradebook--which is "free" when bundled with other services, as I understand it--would be abandoned.

In the meantime, check out this story of GradeSpeed expanding beyond Texas' borders:
Metro schools have taken a bashing lately about teachers failing to take attendance and about some students skipping class and committing crimes during schools hours. Now the school district seems to be turning things around, and the proof is in the numbers.Video: Computer Program Helps To Police Truancy

For teachers like Shauna Dunnigan, GradeSpeed has made her job of keeping track of her students better. If a student skips school or class, she enters the absence into the computer, and a parent can be notified within seconds."It is like having (an) old paper grade book that you used to have. Rather than spending a lot of time with paper and pencil, put on the Web," said Victoria Philpot with Metro schools.
Source: Metro Combats Truancy with Technology
It would be great if schools didn't have to pay any more money for an electronic gradebook than they have to...but first, that gradebook has to meet the needs of teachers, as well as district administrators. Only time will tell if the transition to TXGradebook and back again to Gradespeed will result in a flip-flop down the road. In the meantime, better to be critical of the products available and see if they meet a Texas school district's needs.


ORIGINAL ENTRY:
UPDATE 06/20/2007 - The ESC-20 has provided a clarification to some of the points included in this blog entry.
Full disclosure: I was on the review committee that selected Gradespeed electronic gradebook and attendance tracking system for my school district. It was the right choice then, and remains a fantastic tool. However, I'm not married to any one solution. If a better one comes along, it's worth looking at. To date, I haven't seen one. This post is based on preliminary conversations I've had with folks, research I've gathered. As a journalist, I hope to find out more for an article I'm writing.

Educator in Texas? Then you have choices as to what gradebook program you use. In Texas, one of the most well-known gradebooks--Campusware's GradeSpeed--is finally running into some competiton that it may not be able to leave in the dust. That's not necessarily because the newcomer is better, but because it offers something that GradeSpeed can't ever have--complete integration with the student information systems known as RSCCC and iTCCCS. But should districts switch to a new product just out of beta in 2006 from a tried-n-true product like Gradespeed? Some folks are asking questions like this one:
Someone from my campus attended the grading program associated with RSCCC. I don't know the name. We use Grade Speed. The teachers are happy with it, the parents are happy with it, and I am happy with it because I don't have to support it. We have the on-line version. Why would anybody want to change? I understand the push might be because it would be easier on the office. They would like for the teachers to do their own attendance. I am asking for opinions. Should we change over? Should we not change over? Why?
Source: Email from technology director
These two systems--RSCCC and iTCCCS--enjoy complete integration because they are produced by the Education Service Center, Region 20. This is described in an information flyer I found while Googling txGradebook:
txGradebook is an integrated classroom management system that allows teachers to maintain and post student data, including attendance and grades. This application also allows you to receive transfer students and produce Interim Progress Reports (IPRs). Various inquiry pages allow you to view student demographic data, contact information, attendance records, schedules, photographs, and TAKS scores. txGradebook's integration with the RSCCC student system makes it unnecessary to perform imports and exports of data in order to populate the records. Data is shared between the systems, thereby eliminating the work needed to synchronize two systems. The application provides current data, such as grades, attendance, or student/teacher schedules, that is updated at district specific times. Data is written directly to the district database.
Source: Comfort ISD txGradebook-Announcement.pdf
Screenshots and features of the txGradebook can be found online in this PDF document.
You can also find revealing help files about txGradebook online at this address. A little more digging, and you can find that the txGradebook appears as a case study for the Denim Group. That case study describes it in the following way:
Educational Service Center Region 20 provides over 700 school districts, private schools and charter schools with low cost, high value technology solutions. Texas schools are not required to utilize services provided by Region 20, so Region 20 competes directly with solutions and products from the private sector.

Key Business Challenge
In 2005, a user panel comprised of stakeholders from around Texas requested that Region 20 develop a web-based grade book. Some of the issues with the existing Region 20 systems were: They did not allow the teachers to track and calculate daily student work and averages. The lack of a comprehensive product was costing districts additional money to implement third party solutions. The Region 20 product was less competitive than privately developed applicatio ns that offered a web-based solution for administrators, teachers and parents...This next offering will be a “Parent Portal”, also a web-based solution where parents can monitor their child's grades and attendance on a daily or even hourly basis. The combination of the TxGradebook and Parent Portal makes Region 20 competitive with privately developed software currently on the market.
The arrival of the txGradebook, as it is known, has left a few tech directors in Texas wondering what's up. PEIMS directors are sharing that the txGradebook makes their job easier. The challenge from technology directors is that it doesn't make the job easier for the end-users, including teachers, administrators, counselors, and parents. They question whether PEIMS directors, often folks who have never been teachers and lack experience maintaining a gradebook, should be making these kinds of decisions for Texas educators. Some tech directors have reported the following:
Region center here as been rather abrasive at pushing their product and rude to the district who did not decide to use their product. Most of our districts are still staying with gradespeed.
However, there's no denying the power of testimonials on behalf of txGradebook. Some school districts are already announcing a transition from Gradespeed to txGradebook:
Comfort Schools will be changing from GradeSpeed.net to a new electronic grade book program next year, txGradebook. A Parent Portal is included as part of that package. Please see the announcement below. A 2-page PDF brochure is provided for a "first look" at the new txGradebook software.
As I started investigating the txGradebook, I had a conversation with a person at the district level that beta-tested the txGradebook and dropped it after a few months in 2006. Note that they were beta-testing it in 2006. Below are my notes from the conversation we had. The gentleman has asked that I not share his name in open forum, but did state that if folks wanted to chat with him about implementation concerns, to release his name and contact info to them individually. So, if you want to chat with this person, go ahead and drop a comment, and I'll email you his name and phone number.
In the quote below, these are his words, although I've had to add a few items that appear in square brackets [ ].
Invited by Region 20 to test. We were part of the beta test group. It was started at the beginning of the school year but we ended it at the end of October. The gradebook we used at that time was not ready for prime time. It may have evolved since then...even the training was off powerpoint. When we went live, we were denied service ("denial of service"). it was recommended that it not be used during the day, but instead, use it at night. unfortunately, very few people were able to get it to work at night...still denial of service. We abandoned it in October 2006.

Teachers were not able to log grades. 740 teachers using TxGradebook. 735 were unsuccessful in recording their grades. It was a big time bust. The other shortcoming was availability of services. They closed down at 9:00 PM in the evening. We had a big problem with them being able to answer our questions. They told us that they didn't want anyone calling them directly. The District had to support. Technical issues had to go through the District. Really poor technical support. During implementation, there was no offers to do training.

It was a matter of keeping the socket connected. People getting kicked out while trying to enter grades. Teachers abandoned it on their own and went back to whatever they were using before.

If you want teachers running around with pitchforks, that was the situation we were in last year with TxGradebook. If you want anarchy, just mention the Texas Gradebook in our schools. We really didn't give teachers a choice. I was not part of the decision-making process. This was decided upon by the PEIMS Department. This is what we're going to use, they told us, and make it work. We tried.

PEIMS people originally piloted the attendance module and that worked well--and still does. We're able to do attendance entry through the attendance module, and that's what opened the door and it seemed like a normal graduation. "You tried out the attendance module," was the implication, "now try this out." This was a poor product, didn't work like other gradebooks out there (e.g. EasyGradePro, GradeSpeed). This gradebook didn't behave like either. It was kind of clunky. Id love to talk to [name of ESC-20 person] about this but was never given me the opportunity. [That person] didn't want to have any more communications with me when we stopped using the TxGradebook. However, when we were initially courting the idea of using Gradespeed 2 year, we worked with ESC-20. I think they [Region 20] missed the boat.
The contentious issue of this is that "PEIMS people" may be making the decisions for instructional folks regarding gradebooks. Or simply put, why mess with what works?Teaching is a tough job, and if you add trying to use a gradebook that isn't user-friendly to the mix, that can be problematic. In listening to this person share his experience as a district staff member facilitating txGradebook, a few questions come to mind that I would ask if I were reviewing this product:
  • Has the Education Service Center, Region 20 "beefed up" its bandwidth and servers to handle larger districts that might want to adopt its product? And, how much is enough?
  • Has the ESC-20 prepared professional development materials that go beyond Powerpoint presentations? What plans are there to improve on those training materials?
  • Has the ESC-20 made plans to expand its HelpDesk hours, as well as ensure that they'll be able to handle technical questions?
  • How has the ESC-20 customized the end-user (e.g. teacher) interface to make it resemble tried-n-true electronic gradebook interfaces?
  • Is there a feature list that compares txGradebook to GradeSpeed? (view this one-sided comparison chart prepared by Campusware)
Is there a place Texas educators can go online to review the txGradebook--aside from this Powerpoint presentation from Fort Hancock ISD--and take a guided tour? I'm sure there will be soon! I'm curious to see how the Campusware folks will respond...the ESC-20's position is like that of Microsoft. They've had the "operating system" but no applications. Now, they're about to unveil their Office Suite, and integration with the operating system is great. Why would school districts--under-funded as they are--continue to pay for a separate gradebook and attendance tracking system that involves more work and effort? That's the question Campusware will have to find an answer to, no matter how good they are.
Stay tuned....



RESPONSE:

ESC-20 responds to the Texas Gradebook Wrangle blog entry. I'm appreciative that Blake Sobel (ESC-20) took the time to craft a response. I've quoted the email he sent me--with his permission--below. The only omission is the mention of a specific school district name. I'd considered summarizing it, but would hate to mis-represent his response as it stands. As such, I encourage you to FIRST read the original Texas Gradebook Wrangle blog entry and then read this one below...thanks again to all parties for ensuring information sharing!
Blake's email is as follows:
I have read your blog on the txGradebook with interest and found it to be generally non-biased and complimentary to our efforts in developing txGradebook. There are however, some clarifications that I feel I should pass on to you regarding four of the five bullets in your blog.
Although we did experience problems with our third-party ODBC connectivity software (Common Communication Interface from Computer Associates), which caused problems for our test-pilot districts, we have not and do not have a bandwidth issue at Region 20. The test district referenced in your blog was very aggressive in pushing to use the product during the first week of school. The agreement we had with the district was to train and pilot one campus. Without our knowledge or training assistance, this district put all of their campuses on the beta product. The district in question also had several local network issues, the major one being that their settings were incorrectly routing grade book users over the internet rather than the private lines connecting them to the region. Once we made the district aware of their internal network issues, they corrected them and switched to another grade book, thereby giving the perception that the other grade book solved the problem.
We are increasing server capacity on the mainframe annually to handle the increase in users as more districts convert to iTCCS and more clients put teachers on the grade book.
We are in the process of developing a Captivate tutorial for txConnect (the parent portal), in addition to the on-line help and other training documents. Also, txConnect has been released for G.A. on schedule (6/15/2007).
As far as a help desk, we tried and discarded the Help Desk concept several years ago. Support comes directly from the iTCCS consultants and technical specialists. The consultants rotate an after-hours, weekends and holiday cell phone, which means they are on-call 24/7 for support.
We do not intend to generate a comparison document with other grade book systems, but I can tell you that the items in a document that is being circulated fall into three categories: things they say we don't do that we do; things they say we don't do that they do and there are reasons we don't do them the way they do; and things we don't do and are willing to consider as enhancements.
Although only in production less than a year, more than 80 districts converted to txGradebook during the 2006-2007 school year. We anticipate adding more than 200 districts for next year.
Thank you again for the opportunity to demonstrate the txGradebook to you...Please feel free to contact me directly with any additional questions or concerns you may have about txGradebook.
Blake Sobol
Student Coordinator, ESC Region 20
Phone: 210.370.5796
Fax: 210.370.5751
E-mail: blake.sobol@esc20.net
Thank you, Blake, for your transparency! There is also a presentation in PDF that is worth reviewing. I encourage ESC-20 to put the color version of this manual up on their web site.



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