What that report card really means
"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.