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Alma : A curse or a blessing?; Students and Teachers weigh in

On Friday, November 18th, GZAAT students got sent their quarter year report cards. Quarter grades have been a part of the GZAAT school system for years. It is nothing new that teachers write grades and comments for every student after each quarter of the year passes. However, this particular quarter the teachers had the help of the newly introduced technologically advanced grading system: Alma! As with anything new and unusual, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this new grading system. Is it effective? Is it helpful? Is it time consuming? Is it useful? Is it worth it?

How was Alma Introduced and Where Did This Idea Come From In the First Place?

On November 18th, along with the report card, students were sent a separate paper, which unlike the quarter grades, was not sent to parents. This additional paper showed the detailed marks of class participation, homework, tests, quizzes, projects etc. in each class. This was the first step of how it was introduced to the school that SchoolTool, the old grading system, was going to be replaced by Alma. The idea of replacing SchoolTool had been born a few years prior, but a request from the current student council pushed this idea into becoming a living reality. The student council representatives asked for a new method of introducing grades to students, a method that would be more specific with the grades, helping students understand why they have the grade that they do and showing them exactly what it is that they need to work on in order to improve that grade. Alma seemed like the perfect response to this request, and not long after, it officially became a part of the school system. Apparently, the school was planning on buying Alma and putting it to use even before the student council suggested it. However, as this plan started becoming closer and closer to reality, the pandemic broke out. Mr Cruz, the school’s director, judged that it was not the best time to launch such novelties as Alma and chose to wait until the Covid situation got sorted out before he addressed the issue of the new grading system once more. As can be seen today, these plans have been put to action and have become part of the GZAAT school life.

How Was Alma Chosen As the New Grading System?

Mr Cruz explains that Alma is: “A school management system. It is a piece of work that has records for all the students' information, such as attendance, grades, transcripts, everything… It is just one of the many systems that are extensive throughout the world.” The school visited various companies as future possibilities, examining and testing every system. Alma was the one that attracted GZAAT the most, and so it was tested on Junior High last quarter. After proving successful, Mr Cruz finalized his decision and made Alma an official part of GZAAT: “Alma is something that every school in America has. We decided to choose Alma now, because out of all of the systems, it was most concerned with the teacher's perspective. In addition, Alma is directly connected to Google Classroom, so teachers won’t have to replicate the marks they write.”

Mr Cruz sees Alma being used for many years hereafter, and the final grades for every year being saved in archive.

How Does Alma Compare To SchoolTool?

Mr Cruz contrasts Alma and SchoolTool, explaining why Alma is easier to use: “In previous years we used something that was called SchoolTool, which was a software that was open source. Open source is basically a software which is available universally for anybody who wants to use it without the need of payment. Programs with these types of open sources are quite common. It is less complex and does not have all the functions which we need. For instance, it was really hard to take attendance on the program and required five or six steps to do so, while now on Alma it is basically one step. Teachers can now enter the grades from wherever they want, like from home, from school, while on vacation, from a hotel, even from the street. Besides this, Alma keeps all kinds of information saved in the same place, so there won’t be any separate databases needed to keep track of different types of data, even when graduating.” Mr Cruz adds, “If I wanted to have a conversation with a student or see a student's progress, I needed to check at least three different platforms in order to do so. Now I can see everything on Alma.” This also makes the advisors' jobs easier: “Before, they had to get information from all of the student’s teachers in one day, which is impossible. Now all they have to do is look at Alma and they can see everything that they need to know. “

Controversy Surrounding Alma?

Initially, when Alma was newly introduced, everyone had mixed opinions. There were students who were happy with the new system and supported this addition to the school system. Luka Ebralidze, the vice president of 10th grade and a great contributor to this novelty, explains why he thinks Alma is perfect for GZAAT: “I think that previously many students had the feeling that some teachers wrote their grades based not on the hard work and effort of the student, but on the likeability of the person. There were complaints on the part of the student that the way the teachers wrote grades were unfair. Now, when every month or so the students get their report cards, they will see everything clearly. There will be little room for confusion and misconceptions, as everything will be written down in numbers and percentages. Such a report card wouldn’t be possible without Alma. I am actually the one who went to Mr Cruz with the idea, not for Alma, but for these detailed report cards for individual students. Alma doesn’t allow teachers to unfairly lower someone's grade, and actually leaves the opportunity for them to heighten a grade, if they are willing to put in the effort needed to systematically do so.” Other students however, weren’t so sure of the flawlessness of Alma. Giselle Rein-Hagen, Luka’s fellow classmate, points out some of the negative aspects of Alma: “Alma obviously paints a clear picture of what grade a student got and why, which is very nice. However, a complaint I have heard from some teachers is that because of Alma the flexibility of grades has been reduced. I don’t know exactly how this works, but I guess since Alma is such a rigid system where you have to enter every single number a student has received at every point, it doesn’t leave much space for teachers to make their own personal assessment of students, and thereby to lower or higher a grade. Teachers have said that because of Alma, intelligent students have gotten lower grades than they would otherwise, because they didn’t do so well on a certain test or quiz. So I think this system in a way objectifies the students.”

Teachers have also expressed various opinions, however Ketka Topadze, a Georgian Teacher, summarizes all of the complaints and approvals of the school as a whole: “Systematically, Alma is great. It allows you to be flexible, and it makes everything crystal clear. You can write a little note on individual students daily or set reminders. Alma calculates the final grade of a student itself, and also has the capacity to take into consideration the progress or specifics of a student. I also like that when you open it up, everything is presented in front of you. You immediately get the full image of a student, how they're doing, as well as their and their parents' contact information. You no longer need to put in extra effort to ask around about that specific student. It has a developed system which shows you how many times the student was late, or skipped class. It is an easy and convenient system, for those teachers who have adopted it well. As for me, I am not yet fully used to it, which is why sometimes things might get tricky. I think the reason there has been speculation that Alma has added on extra work to the teachers is simply because it is new. After all, it isn’t easy undergoing such a large transition from one system to another. Initially, teachers will have to put in extra effort in order to get used to Alma. But I think once we’ve all fully adapted to it, it won’t seem so time-consuming anymore.

As for the students getting such detailed report cards along with grades, I think it's a yes and no situation. It might help clear stuff up for some students and answer their questions. While for others, it may be a source of more questions and even a cause for a mild sort of obsession to the calculation numbers, like why 72 and not 73… I really can’t fully assess this situation, but I will say that I think there is much more to teaching and learning, and overall education, than the calculation of grades.”

To conclude, Alma is a system that the school had been considering adding into the program for years, and finally, after the needed effort, this became a reality. The initial response of this change in November was all over the place. Everyone seemed to be quite opinionated on the topic. As of now however, in January, the heat surrounding the topic has died down significantly. Maybe when at the end of this week the grades will be sent out people will start voicing their controversial opinions once more. But it seems, partially at least, that Ketka is right. As time goes by, the school adapts to this novelty, and soon enough it will surely become a natural part of GZAAT.

Edited By: Lizi Schierman

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