Grades & Report Cards

When and Why They Matter
(and What to Do About Them)

Parents can minimize children's anxiety around grades by regularly including the topic in routine conversations about school, rather than making a big deal of at report card time.

By Judy Molland

"My mom's online checking my grades all the time," complains Evan Smith, an eighth-grader in Mountain View, Calif. "First thing in the morning she's turning on the computer and all day long, whenever she gets a chance, she keeps checking. She's on my case all the time."

Posting students' grades online has become increasingly popular throughout the country. Online programs, both commercial and school-created, give parents and students a better way to keep tabs on school progress.

Evan may be uncomfortable with this ready access to his school grades, but most parents love the system.

"It's the best thing the district has done for a while," says Cindy Frost, a Rockville, Md., mother of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader. She adds that her kids know they are accountable and there are no secrets any more, no surprises at the end of the quarter.

Another benefit of posting grades online is that parents can see exactly where their child is performing well, and not so well. "My son kept bringing home 'A' papers," Santa Monica, Calif., mom Denise Laguna says of her seventh-grader, "but it turned out that his grade was a 'C.' Once I went online, I could see that he had done well on his classwork in English, but had produced virtually no homework."

Tools to Help Your Child

Used constructively, grades and report cards can be effective tools to help your child be a successful learner. Here are a few tips on how to use these tools:

o Let your child know ahead of time that the report card will help you learn about his academic strengths and weaknesses, and thus better enable you to help him succeed in school.

o Look for and comment on the positives when first reviewing the report card.

o Then discuss any grades or teachers' comments that seem to indicate a need for improvement.

o View the report card as an opportunity to understand the grades from your child's perspective.

o Refrain from giving major monetary rewards for good grades, or your child will learn to put more value on the reward than on the learning.

The Importance of Grades

Grades may be more easily available these days, but how important are they?

"For teaching and learning to be effective, teachers need to check regularly on how their students are doing," explains Thomas Guskey, author of How's My Kid Doing? A Parent's Guide to Grades, Marks and Report Cards. "And parents want clear and concise information about how their child is doing."

Grades can also be important indicators of a child's progress in a particular area, alerting parents and teachers of where and when that child's learning may be breaking down. If their child isn't doing well, parents should ask for specific suggestions from the teacher about what can be done to help, Guskey says.

And, if your child has an 80 percent in a particular class, you know basically where he falls on the scale, adds Vicki Panaccione, founder of the Better Parenting Institute, an online resource center dedicated to developing better child-parent relationships.

At the K-8 grade level, grades do not "count" in the sense that they will at high school, when colleges or future employers will want to see them, but there can be consequences for what they say about your child's performance. Schools often use some form of ability grouping, and your child's grades can play a role in what teachers your child is assigned to, which students he works alongside, and the level at which he's expected to perform.

Discussing Grades with Your Child

Whether ambivalent about grades or very focused on them, parents sometimes view grades as labels. For example, a C on the report card means that they see their child as a "C student."

"When parents take this view, or when children believe that they do, children often avoid discussions of their school work, especially when they are experiencing problems," notes Barbara Moore, a sixth-grade teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Moore encourages parents to take a balanced approach. "Let your child know that grades are important," she says, "but help her see that a grade is a short-term measuring tool, not a permanent one."

She also advises parents to minimize anxiety around grades by including them as part of the routine conversations they have with their children about school, rather than waiting until report card time.

If a child is reluctant to say anything about her grades, Panaccione encourages parents to contact the teacher. "Ask what the grades indicate, how they were figured, and what they are observing about your child," she suggests. If parents present themselves as allies with the teacher and seek greater insight to help their child, they're more likely to get it.

Today's Report Cards

Listen to the Teacher

Check out our exclusive Straight Talk About Schools podcasts with award-winning writer and educator Judy Molland.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, each state must come up with its own standards in core subjects, and schools are required to report on each student's performance relative to these standards. As a result, today's report cards appear to be a lot more complicated than they were a few years ago, but Guskey explains that this is really not the case.

He describes a typical report card: "Every marking period, each student receives two marks for each standard. The first mark indicates the student's level of progress with regard to the standard - for example, a 1, 2, 3 or 4, indicating beginning, progressing, proficient or exceptional. The second mark indicates the relation of that level of progress to established expectations at this point in the school year. For example a '++' might indicate advanced for grade-level expectations, while a '+' might indicate on target, and a '-' would indicate below grade-level expectations."

This is a criterion-based system, meaning that your child's performance is compared to clearly stated standards, rather than to the performance of other students in the class.

A final note of caution: Experts agree that while children do need to receive feedback on their academic progress, it's also important to pay attention to what they have actually learned at school, and to look at other measures of their performance.

Judy Molland is a veteran teacher, education writer and author of Straight Talk About Schools Today: Understand the System and Help Your Child Succeed (Free Spirit Publishing, 2007).