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Posted at 7:35 PM ET, 01/28/2010

The real grading scandal

By Valerie Strauss

It’s not surprising to hear that enterprising computer geeks hacked into the Churchill High School computer system in Potomac, Md., and changed a bunch of grades. Kids will be kids.

What I wonder about is why teachers--at Churchill and many other schools--depend on the computer system to maintain student grades.

Some teachers print out the grades as soon as they are posted, but what happens if the printer is down, or out of paper, or there is no time? The next thing you know, a kid is hacking into the system and your computer records are useless.

I may be a dinosaur on this issue, but as technological as our society has become, I still think some things should be committed, in detail, to paper.

Grades and love notes would be among them. I would be uncomfortable, too, if my doctors did not keep my records on paper, in the event of a catastrophic computer failure in which personal histories could not be reconstructed.

Progress and technological innovation are wonderful. But sometimes, still, the old-fashioned way of doing things should prevail.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 28, 2010; 7:35 PM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools, Technology  | Tags:  grading scandal, montgomery county schools  
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MCPS requires all teachers to use the computerized grading system to record all grades. No if's and's or but's about it. With everything that is on our plates as teachers, we just don't have the time to keep a paper record of all grades too. Perhaps if MCPS reduced our paper load a bit or took something else off our plates, we'd have time to do so. Just the opposite is going to happen as the powers-that-be are threatening to increase class sizes next year.

Posted by: snickering | January 28, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

should we require that you submit all your blog posts hand-written to the editor as well?

Posted by: someguy100 | January 28, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Valarie, I totally agree but admit that the volume of paper work that comes home from school is extremely high. Personally speaking, I wish their were more because it allows me to focus on areas were my children require additional assistance (outside of standard homework studies).

Most professional industries (medical, educational, legal, or technological) are becoming more and more reliant on computers and electronic data maintenance. But in legal & medicine, potential liability is very high so phycial copies are a must most of the time.

It seems computers are more reliable than humans in maintaining information. People forget, data maintenance overloaded (especially if we're talking about one teacher charged to maintain grades/records for 100+ more students they provide instruction toward in ONE Day). Computers are theoreticaly designed to "maintain" data for that purpose only.

Becoming dependent on computerized records is the present and future, but at the same time, if data systems become corrupt or invaded, a great deal is lost because no back up system (physical records) do not exist or very limited. But at the same time, my hardrive became dismally corrupt. I lost information, pictures, and contacts list that 80-90% will never be recovered because no back up system was in place. The lesson was learned and I keep hard copies of almost everything now.

To ever expect computers to be perfect (or tamper proof) 100% of the time may not be wise to assume 100% of the time.

Computer hardware and software designs are created by human beings, and we all know humans will never be perfect so highly unlikely anything humans create will be.

Valarie, (my apologies for being very presumptious) if you lost or forgot your cell phone, blackberry, or whatever personal communication device of choice, for a week would your life be better with or without your device?

Computers are great, I agree, but dependency upon them, raises flag of real level of concern.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 28, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

I bet that the Washington Post wishes that all blog entries written about Rhee had no back up copies and could be lost as well.

Posted by: mamoore1 | January 28, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

More on topic my district went to a no back up system this year. We teachers were dead set against it, but its use was required by admin. Not a very bright idea, but please understand that its an school administration thing, not a teacher idea.

Posted by: mamoore1 | January 28, 2010 10:53 PM | Report abuse

You're right. The rest of the world should move forward technologically but teachers should be stuck in the 19th century.

Computerized grading takes the one banal task teachers must do-recording grades-and makes it take considerably less time. I used to spend hours at the end of the year computing it takes minutes. you think that might free up more time for writing lesson plans, meeting with students, grading papers, prepping labs, and generally being a more productive teacher?

Please have a clue about a topic before you write a post!

Posted by: teach1 | January 28, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

I can't really agree that teachers should be required to keep paper records. It would be an unnecessary increase in the workload. However, there is absolutely no excuse for the system not implementing a strong backup system before using any student information system.

Ideally, there should be at least two backup copies: one at the school and one at the central office, in order to prevent against physical access as well as remote changes. This would be rather simple to include as part of the infrastructure, and the cost would be minimal. After all, the grades are really only a text file and take up nearly no disk space.

One could claim that this is hindsight, but these are general good practices for network security that should always be part of the initial design. The backups should have been at least nightly. If nothing else, this would have allowed the school to isolate changed grades to only those entered on a certain day, and the teacher should still have these most recent assignments/exams in hand to re-enter them as needed.

Posted by: wpreader11231 | January 29, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

Um, over in the medical world, the government is spending millions to move healthcare providers AWAY from paper records, but you're saying the education world should stick with paper? Do you think your bank keeps paper records? (and having worked at a company that sells document archiving software to banks, I can tell you the answer is "no").
Paper records are just as prone to loss and destruction as computer records. They take space to store - and if you are maintaining them, you then have to keep them around for years. A better solution would be to use a normal backup strategy, the way that banks and other companies do.

Posted by: bkmny | January 29, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

The real scandal is that students see how adults handle issues:

And Churchill students are still being forced to buy textbooks. How? In certain courses they are told that the textbooks are not mandatory so none are supplied. But, hey, if you want to pass the class you might want to go out and buy a copy.

What is happening to the allotment of textbook funds that go to Churchill HS?

Posted by: jzsartucci | January 29, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I am a Churchill student myself. Let it be known that I was in no way involved in this scandal. I can tell you that most of teachers do in fact keep handwritten or back-up records of all the students’ grades and several of my teachers were offended when the Washington Post alleged that they did not in this morning’s article. I do not think that over dependence on technology was the problem in this case. I blame Internet security system. If some one my age can easily hack on to a site and change the information on it, the system is clearly not secure enough.

Posted by: Rusty10 | January 29, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Valerie- You got to be kidding. Yes computer have risk, but so does paper. Life is full of risk, but computerized records provide so many more benefits, they allow tracking and data consolidation. The enable teachers that want to get better metrics information about their students they may never see. If we are so worried about hackers lets go back to the pre-atm days when our checks were processed over 14 days. Let's go back to having our doctors search print paper indexes for hours to try and find the article that help diagnose in 15 minutes on a database. You are advocating a totally retrograde position here.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 29, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse


In general you make insightful well thought out comments, but in this case I'd like for you to reflect a bit. The idea of no back up information is just stupid, but why was your first response to blame teachers? In education so much is the responsibility of someone other than the class room teacher. Curriculum, time allocations, discipline are all controlled by the school admin. Grading programs are too. Some have great backups, some don't allow that function. Washington school are in a crisis, and the knee jerk response it to blame the......... ( you have been a lot more fair than others I admit) To make schools better look at the big picture.

Posted by: mamoore1 | January 30, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I cannot relate at all to the tone of your column on the current "grading scandal" at Churchill HS. You don't seem to be taking the reprehensible behavior of these students very seriously. You refer to them as "enterprising computer geeks" and write off their behavior by saying that "kids will be kids." It seems to me that your attitude lets these kids off the hook too readily. I don't believe that these kids represent the norm at Churchill. They need to take responsibility for their actions and they owe the Churchill community a heartfelt apology.

Posted by: target50 | January 30, 2010 11:47 PM | Report abuse

wpreader11231's post about Churchill raises more questions: What else are schools failing to backup? What else has been compromised? Edline? Attendance? Excused Absences? Unexcused Absences? Tardies? Loss of Credit? Teacher Passwords? Student Passwords? Administration Passwords? Sever Passwords? Personnel Files? Student Files? TEST Scores? Payroll? Budgets? Inventories? What other school site computer systems have been hacked? Who else is hacking school site computer systems besides students? How sophisticated are schools in detecting intrusions into its computer systems, not only by students, but by employees, as well as outside hackers.

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 1:55 AM | Report abuse

The Churchill Grade Change Scandal raises RED FLAGS!!!!!!!
MCPS can NOT categorically state that its district wide computer systems are secure right now. MCPS can NOT rule out that its district wide computer systems are being hacked right now. Churchill is just the tip of the ice berg. Where are you BoE? Where are you County Council?

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 1:55 AM | Report abuse

If it is true that Churchill did not backup grades and that teachers do not have hard copies (grade books) of grades, then Churchill and MCPS cannot prove grades have been changed. Furthermore, if the suspected students do not admit to stealing passwords, tapering with computers, and changing grades, then these students cannot be accused of violating any MCPS policy or regulation and these students cannot be charged with any crime. Fortunately for Churchill and MCPS, the suspected students are talking. If all of the suspected students had kept quiet and did not admit to anything, then Churchill and MCPS would be powerless to take disciplinary action against these students. Also, if paper records and computer backups do not exist, then any and every Churchill High School student could claim that their classwork assignments, homework assignments, summative assessments, formal assessments, quarter grades, and semester grades were changed. Finally, if other high schools and middles schools use the computer grade record system without backup, and without teacher paper records, then MCPS has wide exposure to abuse and fraud and loss of credibility of its grading system.

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 1:57 AM | Report abuse

$2,000,000,000 MCPS got beat by a $20 USB drive and a pimple faced teenage video gamer

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 1:58 AM | Report abuse

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