Aspen portal glitch puts teachers and parents on edge as report cards released

With grades due last week, Chicago teachers scrambled to finalize report cards through the district’s new Aspen portal, but a coding glitch severely clogged the system, forcing the district to postpone the deadline to allow flustered teachers more time to get grades ready.

The issues, shared with wry despair on social media, capped off the $7.9 million program’s second quarter in use. The system replaced the Parent Portal in April as the result of a 2015 deal with Follett School Solutions meant to save Chicago Public Schools $2.4 million and merge multiple districtwide software systems.

Teachers said it took many more hours than usual to input grades into the system, in part because they’re no longer able to import the data via Google Sheets. Others recorded screenshots of lags as long as 30 seconds for Aspen to save a single grade entry. 

“It might seem like a minor thing, but in many ways, a lot of what we do is off the clock, and the time we put in is not visible,” said John Brown, a teacher at Lake View High School. “So it touches a nerve when it comes to the bigger conversation of how much time we put in at our kitchen tables.”

That nerve is raw just weeks after a Chicago teachers strike that underscored how many educators feel overtaxed and undervalued. Concerns about a lack of prep time — and, consequently, how much Chicago teachers work off the clock to keep up with accountability systems and communicate with parents — was among the issues that took center stage during the 11-day walkouts.

The district’s chief information officer, Phil DiBartolo, said the district had surveyed parents about the new Aspen rollout in the spring, and it incorporated many of their suggestions — mobile friendly design, a simpler interface, and more opportunities to provide feedback — into a recent update.

The district pushed through that update on Nov. 11, just as teachers were gearing for report card pickup. The update also came just days after DiBartolo said a system glitch caused by poorly written code was “exponentially compounded” by multiple people running it — although the rush of teachers inputting grades did not contribute to the slow system, he added.

And while parents were surveyed early on, teachers have not been asked to provide input, DiBartolo said. Instead, he has looked to network chiefs and principals to supply feedback on behalf of educators.

In the coming months, DiBartolo said the district will provide instructor-led training opportunities with the hopes of clearing up issues for users. He also encouraged those using the system to call the district’s IT Help Desk for assistance.

“Teachers shouldn’t have to focus on tech,” he said. “The last thing I want is for anybody to suffer in silence. Then we don’t know there’s a problem.”

The Aspen delays spurred some panicked moments among teachers who feared they would suffer repercussions if they missed the grading deadline, said Jeff Solin, a computer science teacher at Lane Tech High School. 

And the report card issues are part of a larger problem, Solin said.

Work that once took a few minutes — like finalizing grades for report cards or marking a student tardy instead of absent — has become a cumbersome process, particularly when the server appeared to be overloaded ahead of report card days, causing further delays, Solin said.

“I’m shocked, especially at this price point, that a system could be rolled out like that and skip all modern design standards,” Solin said. He pointed to examples like a malfunctioning student search feature, which, when he searches for Vanessa, displays a student named Omar instead.

“That shouldn’t happen for $8, let alone for $8 million,” Solin said. “I’m flabbergasted that so much money was spent on something that has such a terrible user experience.”

A Follett spokesman was not immediately able to respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, parents also have expressed frustration with Aspen, and many schools set up help tables at report card pickup days to try and help families work through kinks in the system.

Deni Mayer, whose daughter is in fifth grade at Oscar Mayer Magnet School in Lincoln Park, said he’s been unable to sign up for a parent account and uses his daughter’s login to monitor her grades. 

When he pulls up her class schedule, it shows she has a B in math, but on Aspen’s main page, the 90.62% he sees would make her grade an A. 

“I don’t know if she got screwed out of an A, or if she got a high B,” he said. While he’s not sweating the difference too much, such a discrepancy could be critical for seventh-grade students whose grades will determine which high schools they can attend, he said.

“Now, I can’t even trust that it’s giving me the right info,” he said. “And we don’t know where to go to get the problem addressed.”