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What that report card really means

Published on: April 01, 2006

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"Tries hard to pay attention." "Enjoys socializing with other students." "Accepts redirection well."

Seasoned educators call this "teacherspeak," says Carolyn Ballinger, a
Bellevue educational consultant. If these comments look a lot the ones
on your son's or daughter's report card, know that your child is
probably not paying attention, talks too much in class and won't stay
on task, she adds.

Why the sugarcoating? Teachers fundamentally mean well, she notes.
"They're nice people. They try to make their reports positive. It makes
them feel like good teachers."

Such jargon adds even more mystery and confusion to the report card
muddle -- already a common source of anxiety among parents, teachers
and students. Many parents view report cards as much more than the
measure of their child's learning, progress and growth. Report cards
have morphed into the Holy Grail of education -- a way to quantify
achievement and reward success.

All that angst often comes from our own inner child, says Susan Small,
coordinator of student services at Educational Tutoring and Consulting
on Mercer Island. Parents unwittingly reenact report card experiences
gleaned from their own early memories.

"They'll think, 'my parents became really mad if I got less than a B,'"
she says. "They're surprised when they realize they are following that
same path."

And where the inner child is silent, the outer culture is deafening.
Who can minimize report cards when your student's facing a world that's
raised the bar on standardized testing, advanced placement classes and
designer colleges? "Parents are thinking, 'my kid better be getting a
4.0 and taking APs (advanced placement tests) just to have a shot,'"
Small says.

While written comments remain the conventional way to measure an
elementary student's progress, kids -- and their parents -- often
encounter letter grades for the first time in middle school.

It can be a shock.

Some parents see these first grades as "the writing on the wall" -- an
irrevocable indication of things to come.

Not so, contends Wendy Lawrence, head of the middle school at Eastside
Preparatory School in Kirkland. "A child adjusting to middle school can
go through many different phases," she says. "Some kids come in and
they just get it. Some don't have their organizational skills in place
yet -- it might take them the full year. And other kids fall somewhere
in between."

While grades can show trends -- a math grade, for example, might evolve
from a C one semester into an A the next -- they don't mean much by
themselves, Lawrence says. "They can't tell you what you need to
change, how to study better or how to do your homework."

Grades also reflect the standards a particular school, class or teacher
has set. Those standards may vary considerably -- even within the same
school. Some teachers value class participation. Others evaluate
punctuality or effort.

Parents and students should know what counts; there shouldn't be a lot
of surprises, says Michelle Trifunovic, assistant principal at
Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds. "Teachers shouldn't hide the
ball," she says. "Kids function best when they get feedback."

Facing a poor report card

It's one thing to intellectualize and try to understand the elements
that go into school evaluations. It's another to face a report card
that's disappointing -- and a potential blight on your child's record.

Try not to overreact, Ballinger says. "What's the point? The child is
already feeling badly. He may mask it by pretending not to care. But
there's no kid that wants to screw up," she notes.

Talk your child, Lawrence adds. Find out how he thinks he's been doing and what he could have done better.

Next, speak with your child's teacher. "Approach it in an
information-gathering way, such as, 'I'm investigating this grade --
can you give me your feedback?'" Small suggests. Find out if there are
behavioral or organizational issues that you, your child and the
teacher can address.

Instructors -- especially in high school -- typically include a rubric
(scoring guide) on written assignments, and offer a course syllabus
outlining expectations, Trifunovic says. Parents should figure out what
those are -- and what each grade really means.

Then find ways to help. That might mean working with your child on
organizational or time-management skills or even hiring a tutor for
some one-on-one coaching. Don't be afraid to offer your youngster
incentives or rewards, Ballinger advises.

If things don't improve, have your child assessed for potential
learning-style problems. The assessment should include a look at the
child's emotional status. "Kids who are depressed or anxious don't do
well in school," Ballinger adds.

Don't overemphasize letter grades, Lawrence says. Focus on essays, art
projects or other endeavors so your child doesn't feel that grades are
everything.

Most important, stay in the loop. "By the time kids get to high school,
parents tend to back off," Trifunovic says. "It's OK to let your kids
make decisions and choices, but be involved."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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