Unraveling The Mystery Behind Five Little Letters

School has been in session for a couple of months now for most students in America.  Kids and parents are back in the routine and have likely been busy with homework, projects, and tests.

So it is about that time now – a time that some children and parents look toward with dread – this year’s first report cards. Grades will come out and parents will have a general idea of how their child is doing in school.

But with all the developments in education in recent years, report cards have remained largely unchanged, with the same standard letter grade system that has been in place for decades.

How much do these reports really tell us, and how can we truly know how our children are doing in school?

ASCD reported:

To know how a child is doing, the parents need a context: compared to what? No matter how detailed, a narrative can never tell us whether language that describes, praises, and criticizes is relative to our expectations for the child, classroom norms, or absolute high standards of achievement. Adding a single letter grade helps very little: the parent still does not know whether the grade represents relative or absolute achievement.

A letter grade, and the point system associated with it, can only tell us so much.  Each child has a different approach to studying and completing work, and children can be more successful when their learning style is understood.

And while report cards of decades past often included personalized, handwritten comments, that is less likely to be the case nowadays.  Comments, if any, are pre-written and generic, with the same comments given to multiple students.

This is where parents must become detectives about what their child’s report card really means.  Keeping an open dialogue with our children is important.  We really must be asking the question, “How was school today?” But we must also make sure our children are giving us the details, not just a generic answer.  Expanding on this question and expressing true interest in our child’s day will help them to open up and let you know how much they are getting out of school.

And meeting with your child’s teachers throughout the year matters.  They are the ones who can shed light on your child’s grades.  Did they get a lower grade because they are quiet and don’t participate as much as other children?  Do they struggle with any particular subject that you are not aware of?  Your child’s teacher can provide you with the insight that a grade on paper cannot.

ASCD continued:

A report card summarizes student performance. Grades or numbers, like all symbols, are an efficient way to do this. Because the parent cannot be expected to review all the student’s work and arrive at all appropriate meanings, the professional’s job is to make meaning from the work and present facts, judgments, and prescriptions in a user-friendly form. The key to report card change, then, is to ensure that grades, scores, or any other system can be effectively translated by parents. Comments may well be desirable. They provide rich, insightful detail, but they do not replace the facts about performance that are summarized in scores and grades.

The problems of report card vagueness and unreliability are not inherent defects of our letter grade system. Some symbols have deep and obvious meaning, such as the best company logos or a filled-in baseball scorecard; others do not. Grades are clear if clear standards and criteria are used, in a consistent way, by each teacher. Grades are unclear if they represent idiosyncratic values and inconsistency from teacher to teacher. Narrative comments don’t change this fact. Who can be sure what the teacher means by “Johnny has made great progress and is a delight to have in class?”

Many education professionals are calling for changes in the way children are evaluated in school.  As parents, we understand the benefits of analyzing learning styles and giving as much individual attention as possible to our children.  And now, those in the education field are realizing the importance of going deeper than just grades to an in-depth study of how students learn.

ASCD reported on one educator’s comments, suggesting that we need:

*Many more “sub-grades” of performance. The report should identify strengths and weaknesses in the diverse priority areas, topics, skills, and understandings that make up a subject.

*Accurate distinctions between the quality of students’ work and the sophistication (or degree of difficulty) of their work.

*An evaluation of the student’s intellectual character—habits of mind and work—based on performance and products. The report highlights teacher judgments about the dispositions that are essential to successful higher-level work and routinely found on college reference forms and personnel records (for example, persistence, attention to detail, and open-mindedness).

If your child is struggling and you have already opened the lines of communication with them and their teachers, it is important to address the problems – but also stay supportive and positive.

The Child Development Institute suggests:

Focus on the good

For some parents, an easy response to a bad report card is, “I can’t believe your grades are so bad” or “What were you thinking?” Remember that for children, a report card can be incredibly intimidating and scary. Instead of focusing on one bad grade or even a report card full of grades, try to point out the positive aspects of your child’s report card. Try to find at least one good thing to say to your child. Even if the entire report card is completely rotten, something like, “I know you’re trying your best,” can go a long way in making your child feel loved.

Remind your child that no one is perfect

Was there a time when you failed? Have you ever struggled to get good grades? Did you ever feel like your parents were disappointed in you? Why not talk with your child about it? Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, no matter how hard they try to be. Let your child know that you’re still proud of them, even if the report card wasn’t perfect.

Get your child the help he needs

Sometimes kids just need a little extra help. Whether your child struggles with math, history, or science, it’s important that you recognize when a traditional education isn’t working. While some parents might choose to home educate their children, others find that tutoring can be quite helpful.

We can combat the business as usual of report cards.  The letter grades your child receives are only a small part of the bigger picture – and should not be the only guide in understanding their success in school.

What do you think about the standard grading system in American schools?  What do you do to “decode” your child’s report card?  Leave us your thoughts.

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