Parents Need Better Report Cards

Confusing report cards are a hidden epidemic in education. Here are some of the most common problems we see in them through our work with families.

When’s the last time you looked at a student’s report card? If you’re not a parent or a teacher, chances are your answer is measured in years or even decades. When you hear “report card,” you probably imagine a sheet of paper with some classes and A-F grades, maybe a couple of comments from teachers or ratings that address behaviors like “plays well with others.”

Well, times have changed.

Today’s report cards tend to be long, detailed documents filled with data and acronyms. You might not see traditional letter grades at all, but rather numbers or codes.

Take my daughter’s final first-grade report card, for example; it’s four pages long and uses a standards-based rating system, which means I see a “performance descriptor” for every learning standard she has worked towards, under headings like “Reading: Informational Text” and “Mathematics: Number and Operations in Base Ten.” Her scores come in the form of two-letter codes like “PR” for Proficient, with space for one code per trimester per standard. At the end, there are also 18 learning behaviors that get a + or – score. All told, there are 91 rated standards or behaviors to review. (I counted.)

I appreciate some things about her report card, like the way it shows me which skills, specifically, my daughter could practice more, and where she’s excelling. But there are a lot of other things I find baffling, like the fact that there are no summary ratings to tell me whether, overall, she’s on track or not in any given subject or at the end of a trimester, and the fact that not every standard is rated every trimester (maybe the previous rating holds? It’s unclear). Then there are those two-letter codes, which aren’t terribly intuitive – “AP” (Approaching Proficient) is the second-lowest rating, but because it has an “A” in it, I tend to interpret it as a positive mark at first glance.

In short, the report card contains a lot of data without communicating the information that I need most. Her teacher’s written comments help paint the larger picture, but I’m not always sure I’m interpreting her words correctly, and they always leave questions unanswered. While some schools offer report card conferences where families and teachers go through the report cards together, ours doesn’t, so the report card really needs to stand on its own.

A Hidden Epidemic

This is not a problem isolated to my daughter’s school. Confusing report cards are a hidden epidemic in education. In our work with families, we review report cards almost every day, and we see these issues (and worse) in almost all of them. We see them from all kinds of schools, including those with a reputation for high academic achievement. We see them from nationally-recognized charter school networks as well as traditional district schools.

Here’s a real-life example that illustrates some of the most common problems:

Problem 1: Acronym Madness

STEP? EOY? Q2? %tile? I know what those terms mean because I’ve been working in education for the past 16 years. But most parents don’t. I can say this with confidence because we’ve shown this report card to people and the most common reaction is a wrinkled face. If you don’t understand the labels, how are you supposed to understand the grades or ratings attached to them? Speaking of which…

Problem 2: Inexplicable “Grades”

The very first thing you see on this report card is a STEP reading level, rated “7.” The box next to it indicates that the goal is a 9, but there’s no other context to tell the parent whether a 7 at this stage is healthy or worrisome. Then there are the “NP” and “IP” ratings on the side, which are never defined. You could deduce that they correspond to the “Needs Practice” and “In Progress” labels at the bottom, but it’s not fully clear. The student has a lot of In Progress ratings, which is frustrating because they’re so vague. Is “in progress” right where the student should be, since the year’s not over? Or is it a red flag because there’s only one quarter to go? The grade scale box at the bottom left offers some number ranges, but the report card doesn’t display any actual numerical scores, which only makes it more confounding.

Problem 3: Headache-Inducing Design

Design matters. The summary table on the right-hand side is placed to get a lot of attention, yet seems designed to give parents a migraine. Why are the quarters arranged in quadrants rather than a simple row in chronological order? Why isn’t there some kind of overall score that shows the student’s current status or trajectory? There’s no real summary here, just a checkerboard of seemingly random letters and numbers.

Problem 4: Inconsistent Scales

The STEP scores are measured in numbers on an undefined scale. Math, Writing, and “Shine On” grades are measured in four possible descriptors, without numbers. MAP scores, on the second page, are reported in percentiles. And character grades, at the very end, are reported on a scale of 1-3. At every turn, parents have to recalibrate the lens through which they see these results, and some are ripe for misinterpretation (like percentile scores, which people tend to confuse with percentages: scoring in the 56th percentile is above average; earning a 56% in a class is an F).

Problem 5: DIY Analysis

There’s no explanation, interpretation or context for anything here. Why did the student drop from meeting expectations to “in progress” in math and reading from the second quarter to the third? Are most students in this class at a STEP level 7 in reading or is this student ahead or behind? In general, is this child where she should be at this point in the year? What on earth is “Shine On?” The burden of analyzing and making sense of the scores and ratings falls entirely to the parent.

Let’s get report cards right

For parents, report cards are singularly important. We know we are supposed to take them seriously, and we trust that they are giving us an accurate picture of our kids’ performance in school. What they tell us determines whether we worry or celebrate, shapes how we engage with teachers, and influences what we do to support learning at home.

That’s why it’s shocking to me that schools don’t put more focus on getting their report cards right. This is not a new challenge. Report cards go out multiple times per year, and in the years since the first report cards were produced, we’ve learned an awful lot about how to present information clearly and accessibly.

More importantly, creating better report cards could have a profound impact on student success by giving families a clearer picture of their children’s progress and activating them as educational partners. How many kids fall through the cracks because their parents don’t see or can’t understand the warning signs? How hard would it really be to fix this?

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