Grades and Testing / Ages 5-18

How to Read a Report Card

Understanding how your child is doing in school starts with the basics: knowing what’s on their report card.

If you haven’t seen a report card in a while, you may assume they are easy to read. No help required. You have a list of classes and grades—what else do you need, right? Wrong. Today’s report cards can be several pages long and may not include A-F grades at all. Often, they include standardized test scores that will leave most parents searching for a secret decoder ring. How do you make sense of it all?

We review a lot of report cards with a lot of families. Here’s what we look for:


Course grades

Take a minute to understand the grading system. Some schools use numerical scores (1-4, for example); others may use codes like M for Mastery or A for Advanced. Beware of codes that look good at first glance but actually reflect a problem, like AB for “Approaching Basic,” which seems like it might mean “halfway between A and B,” but is really more like a D. Circle any grades or scores that raise concerns for you.

Look out for: Big swings in grades, like a jump from C’s and D’s to A’s, or vice versa. If you see a pattern like that, it’s time for a conversation with your child’s teacher.


Test results

For younger students, you may see codes for common reading tests like STEP or DIBELS, which show your child’s reading proficiency level. They can show up as numbers and/or letters, and sometimes they’re combined with a code like “6J.” Sadly, they usually aren’t explained at all. You can look up what the scores mean, but you may find it easier to ask your child’s teacher to walk through them with you – he or she should be able to tell you what grade level in reading the score translates to (for example, STEP 6 would indicate your child is reading at about the end of first grade level).

Look out for: Any major differences you see between your child’s grades and the scores; for example, a grade of “meets expectations” in reading but a STEP score that shows your third grader is reading on a second grade level. What’s going on there?



Missing school frequently is a bright red warning light for future academic problems. Look over the attendance and tardy data carefully. Does it match up with your own recollections? If you see more than one or two absences for the grading period, it’s a problem.

Look out for: Tardies. Getting to class late may not seem so bad, but the lost learning time can add up fast. Some school report cards will show you exactly how many instructional hours have been lost as a result.



Many report cards will have space for teachers to offer notes. Sometimes they are vague and unhelpful (“great to have in class!”) but other times they can give you a clearer picture of how your child is doing. See if the comments, grades, and test scores paint a consistent picture or not.

Look out for: Coded language, like “He is working very hard,” which may mean he is focused but struggling.

What’s next? 

Make report cards a big deal in your home. Sit down with your child and go over the report card with them. Talk about what you’re proud of and what you’re concerned about. Ask them what they think went well and didn’t go well. And give them a big hug afterwards, no matter what the grades look like.

Confused? Ask for an explanation.

Remember, report cards are for you. Their purpose is to help you understand how your child is doing. If your school’s report card is unclear or confusing, ask your child’s teacher to explain it. Don't wait for the next parent-teacher conference, if it's not coming up soon. You have a right to know, right away.

Get the Guide by email

You’ll get early access to our newest resources, timely tips on how to support your child, and more!

Sign Up