How To Interpret Your Child's Report Card

Report cards can be confusing
Do you really understand what the report card is telling you?. Jeffrey Coolidge via Getty Images

You probably feel a mixture of hope and nervousness when you get your child's report card.  Even if you have been closing monitoring homework and keeping in touch with your child's teacher, you may wonder if the report card will hold any surprises.

But that feeling doesn't go away after your first glance of the report card.  Like everything else in education, report cards have changed since today's parents were in school.

 Many of the changes were made to measure how well students are mastering learning standards

Measuring mastery of learning standards is not the only reason for the changes, though.  Some school districts want to include indicators of social development and attitudes towards learning.  Some schools have changed their grading systems in an effort to get a better measurement, leaving behind the familiar A through F grading system in favor of numbers, percentages, or another code system.  Each school district, and sometimes even local schools, are free to adopt their own grading and reporting systems.

Reading The Report Card - The Basics

Reading and understanding a report card will take a little bit of effort.  Even if the report card uses a system you are completely unfamiliar with, it should take only a few minutes to half an hour maximum to understand your child's report card.  Read through the report card before talking with your child about the card.

 This will ensure that you are prepared for any topics of discussion that come up, rather than being surprised by something your child tells you while reading the report card.

Step 1 - Find The Report Card Key  

On the bottom or the side of the report card, you should find a key that explains the grade assignment system.

 In general, lower elementary grades will use letters such as N or I. S, and G or E.  These translate to Needs Improvement, Sufficient, and Great or Exceeds standards.  

By the time your child is in middle school or high school you will likely see the more familiar A through F, with the key explaining which grade letter meets or exceeds standards, with the latter letters (D or F) generally showing your child has not shown mastery of the learning standards.

Some schools have gone to using numbers 1-5 or a number out of 100 (percentage.)  Generally speaking, a number 3 or an 80 shows mastery of the learning standards.  

Step 2 - Read The Results For Each Subject

Now go back to the list of subjects and review your child's assigned grade for each subject.  Some report cards will include a breakdown of each and every learning standard per subject.  If this is the case for your child, you might feel a little overwhelmed at first glance.  There will be a lot of information. The good news is you can see exactly which skills your child has mastered, and what they are still learning or need to review.

If your child's report card only has one grade listed per subject, you will now have an idea how they are doing overall in that given subject.

Step 3 - Read Over Any Comments or Narratives Added By The Teacher

Be sure to carefully read any comments added by the teacher. 

Comments and narratives is the place where a teacher can really give quality information about your child's learning progress.  Grades themselves are often limited to a measure of how well a standard has been mastered.  The comments may tell you more about how your child approaches learning, where their learning behavior has them excelling or what learning habits they need to work on.  

Be aware that many schools use online grade book programs that have a selection of pre-loaded comments that a teacher can select.

 Some programs will still allow a teacher to write their own comments, while others do not.  The result is that sometimes comments can seem impersonal.  Remember that the comment added may have been the best fitting comment available from a computer menu.  It is still important to review these comments because the teacher does feel that the comment is related to your child's performance.

Next, Be Sure to Understand The Report Card

Alright, so by this point you have looked over the assigned grades and read any comments.  Now is the time for you to mentally put this information together to help you have a clear picture of your child's progress in school.  

If your child's report card shows they are struggling, notice if it is just in one learning standard, one subject, or in all subjects?  If your child is mastering all standards, do the comments indicate that your child is lacking challenge at the current grade level or working hard to get those grades?  

Now You Are Ready To Discuss The Report Card With Your Child

You have already reviewed your child's report card.  You have a pretty good understanding of what the report card says.  Now you can use the report card to praise efforts and help troubleshoot any problems you child might be having in school.

The two keys to making the report card talk beneficial is to 1) be specific about praise and 2) ask open-ended questions about any concerns.  

To be specific about the praise, you want to make comments that show how much you appreciate the effort and work your child has made in school.  This can help develop a growth mindset - in which a person believes that they will develop intelligence and success through hard work and learning.  If your praise is limited to "You are good at math" they may believe that they are either good or bad at the subject.  By offering specific, work-related praise such as "I see you pulled your grade up from a D to a B in your English class, I bet you had to work hard to do that, congratulations" your child will learn that success in school is the result of the work they put into the subject.

For areas of concern, try questions like "I see you are struggling in this subject, what do you think is causing the problem?"  Listen carefully to what your child tells you.  Come up with a plan together to bring up your child's grade.  You may need to change your child's homework routine, or talk with their teacher about what your child needs to do to improve in school.

Most schools send out report cards each academic quarter.  Schools may also send out progress reports are have open portal online grade books where parents can check their child's grades at any time.  By keeping tabs on your child's grades regularly, you can reinforce good work habits and troubleshoot learning struggles before they become too serious.

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