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The Truth Behind GradeTree

Right after spring break, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) switched their grading platform from Gradebook to Aspen, a much-hated interface that is extremely confusing and hard to navigate. Kids hate it, teachers hate it, and the mobile version makes it nearly impossible to check your grades anymore. Despite the uproar, Aspen isn’t going anywhere according to CPS. A senior (class of 2020) at my high school decided to do something about it. He coded an app called GradeTree that allowed students to access their grades quickly and easily on a clean and user-friendly interface. The app went viral–it was all over people’s Instagrams, Snapchat Stories, Twitters, everything. Ask any CPS student about GradeTree, and they’d know what you’re talking about.

But then, suddenly, GradeTree got taken off the app store. Kids who already had the app got to continue using it, but those who were too late to download it missed out. Rumors started flying around about why it was taken off the app store. Some said the developer took it off himself because CPS was coming after him, thinking that he could see everyone’s grades. Others contended that the developers at Aspen had it taken off because they were just jealous that a 17-year-old could figure out what they couldn’t. Whatever the reason, I decided to ask the developer himself to learn the truth. For privacy purposes, I will keep his identity anonymous.

What inspired you to code GradeTree?

Many people were complaining that Aspen was hard to navigate, especially the mobile version. It’s pretty weird. For me, I wasn’t even sure how to use the web portal. It’s really not user-friendly. I thought it would be great if there was something like an app for a student to just check their grades, like a straightforward user interface. Other school districts have developed similar apps, either by the district themselves or by students. Either way, it would be much better to have an app.

How did you learn to code?

I actually learned many, many years ago. By myself, on the internet, before I actually took AP Computer Science A this year. I just find it interesting to create apps. I used ReactNative to create it.

Why was it taken off the app store?

It has to do with intellectual property. Apple has a guideline for developers. Basically, the email from Apple said that because the name associated with the app does not reflect the name Chicago Public Schools in the app and its metadata, as required by one of their guidelines. It must have been because I referenced something about CPS somewhere in the app description or the app itself. I tried to remove it, but then they said removing the reference to CPS does not resolve this issue because the app enables students to access data managed by CPS.

So CPS itself did not react to this?

I’m not sure if I should tell them about the app…However, our school is sending out these disciplinary emails to teachers every week–for example, about people vaping in bathrooms–and surprisingly, I was on that list. Not my name–because they didn’t know my name–just the “student who made an app and somehow hacked Aspen”. My computer science teacher told me about it, otherwise, I wouldn’t have even known.

Do you want to describe how the app works? I know a lot of people heard that it’s like “hacking Aspen” but I know that’s not how it works.

It uses something called “web scraping”. I don’t have direct access to the database, of course. Basically, web scraping simulates what they did for the website, but just picking up the information I need from the webpage, copying it, and reformatting things and displaying it on the app. There is no hacking involved.

Why do you think that, even though this was super basic web scraping, Apple reacted so badly to the app?

Apple tends to be really sensitive about these kinds of things. If you access any data from a third-party service, you probably have to have permission to do so. There might be some legal issues, I’m not sure.

Have you considered working with CPS, or even selling the app to them?

It seems like teachers don’t really want to get involved, they don’t want to get in trouble by helping me. I was also thinking that if we can make this more official, it would be great. What I mean by official is that instead of just me working on this project, we could make it a group project or a project of our CS club or other STEM clubs. Maybe that way CPS would pay more attention to this thing, instead of having it be just a student’s personal project. They don’t really care about that.

For the future of the app, are you planning on trying to do that and get it through Apple?

Absolutely. That’s why I sent an email to a bunch of people I trust–to see if they can figure that out. Also, some people mentioned to me to start a petition, but I’m not really sure if that would work. At least, it might get me away from future troubles. It might not protect me from being sued or anything, but you know.

So, unfortunately, it looks like Apple isn’t budging and CPS intends on keeping Aspen’s software for years to come. I hope this clears up some of the misconceptions going around. But keep your eyes peeled. If this guy and a team can work with Apple and CPS, GradeTree might be back in the app store in the future. For now, us students will remain struggling to check their grades and keep up with their assignments. There is no doubt that students are eagerly awaiting GradeTree’s return to the App Store.

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