Since standardized test results began dictating whether public schools receive critical federal funding, private companies ranging from publicly traded Pearson to smaller outfits such as Jupiter Grades have developed programs to help track student grades and progress online.
Now, two Pasadena software engineers are entering the market with a web product that takes it one step further – not only allowing teachers to post grades online but also assist them in creating tests, and grading tests and homework.
“We do have big competitors in this space, but we want our product to be something that teachers will say, ‘I need to make a test and if I do it through Kite, it will be easier and faster,’” said Evan Chen, who with partner Jeff Chu launched their company, Kite, this year.
The two are aware of the financial challenges facing school districts and have structured their services and costs to reflect that. For example, the program allows teachers to use fax machines – literally an old-school technology – to send over tests for grading, while use of the website and grading program is free.
The company plans to make money on its test-creation business, charging between $5 and $20 a month to individual teachers who want to buy exam questions through an online marketplace, which will launch in the fall. For that project, it has partnered with ExamGen Inc., a Syracuse, N.Y., company with a database of questions aligned to standards in multiple states in grades three to 12.
Also, Kite is not counting on big contracts with school districts that many education companies have. Instead, it’s available to individual teachers and already has more than 1,500 users, Chen said.
And it’s caught the attention of Howard Marks, former video game executive at Activision Blizzard Inc., who gave the company $20,000 in seed money this year.
“A lot of people out there today are trying to solve the education problem,” Marks said. “What I liked about it was they were two engineers and talented guys who really understood the educational market. Their view is we can help.”
The co-founders both have a background in education – Chu worked at UC Irvine while Chen ran an Arcadia tutoring center – and said they saw a need for improved web and testing services last year. So they quit their jobs and developed the Kiteedu.com site, which launched this year.
Still in its infancy, the site works a lot like online grade books by Jupiter Grades or ThinkWave Inc. that have grown in popularity after 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, through which schools are evaluated based on the improvement of students’ standardized test scores.
Kite provides an online portal for teachers to track grades, assign homework and tests, and collect related information. Parents, students and administrators can log in from separate accounts to view the information.
The site includes a test-creation template allowing teachers to insert their own questions or purchase them from the marketplace. Tests can be given on regular paper, rather than the more typical multiple-choice answer sheet. Multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests can be faxed to Kite for automatic grading by a software program that posts the test results online automatically. Chen said the process takes two minutes.
This function is what sets it apart from the other services, said Chris Shen, co-owner of tutoring center Rise Up Academy in Arcadia. He has been using the service since June to track more than 30 of his students. He said he was prepared to use ThinkWave until Chen, whom he’d never met, walked into his office and pitched the service one day.
“It saves us one to two hours a day and that’s enough for me,” Shen said. “I’m happy to jump on board.”
But not everyone sees a need for the service.
Mark Frenn, a math teacher for 25 years at Beverly Hills’ Beverly Vista elementary school, said that creating tests and grading is an important part of his teaching method.
“I don’t want to turn down things that might make teaching more efficient, but I’m concerned about things that actually remove the teaching element,” said Frenn, who tried out the site at the Business Journal’s suggestion. “Part of my teaching is grading the assessments. I’m not looking for the final answer; I’m looking for all the steps.”
Nonetheless, Marks thinks Kite has potential to be a success because it’s accessible to individual teachers. He believes so much in Kite that he brought it this spring into his Santa Monica tech company accelerator, Start Engine, where it was groomed by professionals and received seed money.
Kite is undergoing a round of investor funding and Marks thinks the service will be profitable.
“It has no barriers to entry,” he said. “They are empowering the teachers and they have something that’s very unique.”
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