With a click, Boston teachers track attendance and grades in new online system

As students at the Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Fenway trickled in after lunch on a sunny Friday afternoon, teacher Frank Harris stood ready to note who was present, tardy, or absent.

“Come on guys, real quick now,” he urged them.

He then turned his attention to a class roster illuminated on a large touch-screen board at the front of the class, repeatedly tapping the word “present” as students got ready for a math test. Eventually, he hit the word “tardy,” with an automatic-time stamp, or “absent.”

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Instantaneously, the information was transmitted more than two miles away to School Department headquarters, as part of a $4 million effort to more closely monitor the academic progress and behavior of Boston’s 57,000 students — one click at a time.

Since September, nearly 5,000 teachers have been tapping away on laptops, tablets, or interactive white boards to post information online: attendance, conduct, and behavior, and grades on tests, term papers, and even homework.

Gone are the days when teachers would keep a lot of this information in a spiral-bound grade book, tucked away in a desk drawer or a tote bag.

The School Department hopes the massive gathering of data will enable it to assess more quickly when and why students fall behind in school, or in certain subjects, and help teachers and administrators devise individualized plans to put students back on track.

The new system also will eventually allow students and parents to check grades, attendance, and other data in such fine detail that they can figure out midway through a course what kinds of grades are needed to pass or to earn an A.

“A major focus in education is how to personalize instruction for students, and one way to do that is being able to access data about them,” said Melissa Dodd, the School Department’s chief information officer. “The data won’t tell you everything, but it can prompt additional questions” that can help teachers develop a strategy to help their students.

“It’s a big cultural shift for the district, and with it you have great success and growing pains as well,” Dodd added.

The Aspen student information system has generated mixed reviews from teachers.

Teachers from schools such as Boston Latin, Charlestown High, and the O’Bryant have registered complaints with the Boston Teachers Union about insufficient training, the organization of the data, and functions that involve too many steps and clicks.

Some teachers also say the School Department’s networking system is unable to handle the high volume of users during school hours, preventing teachers from having reliable access. A few teachers say the best time to use the site is between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“There is a universal feeling that the Aspen system is inferior to other systems that teachers have paid for on their own and used for the last five years or so,” said Richard Stutman, the teachers’ union president.

But some students at the Kennedy Academy — one of the schools testing out a portal for students — said they liked the new system. Laurie Faustin, 15, a sophomore from Roxbury, said she logs in at least once a day from her Android phone.

“I like to stay up on my grades,” Faustin said. “It’s really helpful. It shows you all your grades, the work you’ve done, and whether you are missing any assignments.”

Because attendance tallies eventually will be made available to parents, Faustin said, “it kind of discourages you from skipping class.”

Dodd said the School Department is working with teachers to make modifications. She said she has not fielded many complaints about too much traffic on the site.

The Obama administration has been pushing school districts and state education departments nationwide to build data systems that track student performance and behavior, in an effort to overhaul public education and boost graduation rates and college completion.

While school districts and states have long collected a wide range of information on students, they often plopped the statistics into different databases, making it difficult or time-consuming to draw correlations between different data points, such as determining whether a high number of absences could be impeding achievement.

Other information, such as tardiness for individual classes or grades for individual assignments, were often kept just by the teacher.

But by putting much of that data into a single system, teachers can easily pull together a range of information into charts, bar graphs, and other visuals that can provide them with a quick analysis of how individual students or an entire class are doing.

In Boston, the Aspen system is replacing several databases. The School Department chose Aspen through a competitive bid. A product of Follett Software Co., Aspen is used by about 75 school districts across the state, enabling the sharing of data among those districts.

The transition has been a considerable undertaking, requiring more than a dozen new computer servers to handle the increased traffic from teachers inputting data and a disaster backup system at a separate location. The School Department gave all teachers who have been undergoing training new laptops in 2011, and is installing wireless systems in schools.

Recognizing that the new system would represent a big change in many teachers’ daily routines, the School Department has been rolling out Aspen in phases.

Daily attendance was the first to go live, starting last fall, and it has greatly reduced paper and staff involved in a morning ritual that often resembled a relay race of information. Previously, most teachers would take attendance on paper and a student would bring it to the principal’s office, where a secretary would enter the data into the computer system.

The next big change was the posting of grades online this fall, creating considerable angst. In the past, teachers often had wide discretion in the grade books they used. Many teachers kept traditional grade booklets or used software programs. Others worked at schools that used their own online systems, such as JupiterGrades or MyGradeBook, and made that data available to students and parents.

Harris, the Kennedy Academy teacher, said he likes that the new system can immediately tell teachers which students were recorded absent at the start of the day.

That was especially helpful on the afternoon he gave his math test, when only one student should have been absent but a few more seats were empty. The missing classmates, students told Harris, were lured into a long line for some kind of product giveaway at Northeastern University, where the Kennedy Academy rents space.

The students eventually showed up, but it ate away at the time for their test — a telling detail that could provide insight later into how they did.

“It’s a real plus,” Harris said. “It helps communication with parents.”