Understanding Report Cards

Report card time again? These tips will help you figure out what to do about grades before and after that fateful slip of paper comes home.

By GreatSchools Staff

When report card day rolls around, some kids proudly hand their grades over to Mom and Dad, while others stuff them at the bottom of a backpack, praying their parents won't remember to look. Like exams, report cards can be an intimidating part of the school year for both students and parents.


Here are 10 tips to help make sure your child is making the grade:

1. Take report cards seriously.  While most teachers concede that report cards don't tell the whole story about a student's abilities, work habits and intelligence, parents should view the report as a critical piece of information about their child's academic progress. Whether pleased or disappointed by it, parents should use the report card as a point of discussion with their child and, if necessary, his teacher.

2. Praise a good report card.  If your child brings home a good report card, be sure to let her know that you're proud of her accomplishments. And don't forget to put it in a prominent spot on the refrigerator!

3. Talk about a bad report card.  Failure is a scary thing for any child. If your student doesn't do as well as expected on her report card, talk openly about it and reassure her that bad grades do not mean she is a failure. There could be many reasons for her performance that have nothing at all to do with ability or intelligence. Find out if she understands the work that is expected of her and if the teacher has talked to her about how to do better. You may also want to schedule a time for both you and your child to meet with her teacher to discuss a strategy for improvement.

4. Don't assume A's reflect a student's best efforts.  Just because your child received all A's doesn't mean that he is performing up to his potential. If he is acing all of his exams and always seems to finish his homework in a snap, it may be that his classes are not challenging enough. Talk to him and the teacher about the possibility of moving into more advanced classes.

5. Look at your child's work.  Report cards come out only a few times a year, but students do work in the classroom or at home every day. Parents should always look at their children's projects and exams, and pay special attention to the grades and comments that go along with them.

6. Know your child's classes.  If your high school student is planning to go to college, the classes she takes and the grades she receives are critical. Make sure that her schedule meets the requirements for the state university system and that she is taking as many challenging classes as appropriate.

7. Set aside time for homework.  Poor report cards, particularly in the higher grades, can be as much a reflection of insufficient effort as a lack of knowledge or skill. Even an algebra whiz can receive a bad math grade if he has failed to do the required class work. Parents should be adamant about setting aside time on evenings and weekends for schoolwork and should check to make sure that the work is getting done. Find out if your child's teacher has a system, such as a daily voicemail or Internet posting, to help parents verify homework assignments.

8. Encourage good work habits.  It's never too early to learn good work and study habits. Read to your child regularly even before she starts school and always make learning a part of family fun.

9. Give incentives.  Like adults, children and teenagers are motivated by incentives. A trip to the movies, a small gift or a special dinner with Mom and Dad can be a nice reward for a good report card. Be careful, however, that the incentive does not appear to be a bribe or an end in itself. Children should ultimately strive for good grades out of a genuine interest in learning, personal pride and the understanding that success in school lays the groundwork for success later on in life.

10. Be involved in school.  Generally speaking, students who excel have parents who are actively involved in their education and in their school. Show interest in what your child is learning by helping out with homework or volunteering in the classroom. If your child sees you involved at school, and attending school board and PTA meetings, he'll know that you think school is important.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Format

Your child will usually receive a report card every six to 10 weeks. But report cards can vary widely from district to district — and even from school to school and teacher to teacher - in terms of what they measure and how they convey information about academic performance.

Take the grading scale, for instance. Some teachers and schools are "tough graders," giving A's only when student performance is truly outstanding. Other teachers and schools assign A's and B's liberally. Therefore, students may attain different grade point averages in different classrooms and at different schools even if the quality of their schoolwork is about the same.

Report cards can also reflect the particular educational values of different teachers, schools and districts. Some schools and teachers emphasize the basics. For example, a child's grade in language arts or English may primarily reflect her command of grammar and writing mechanics. Other schools emphasize creative expression, and may give higher grades to students who write with flair and strongly voiced opinions, while being more lenient on the mechanics.

While most public middle schools and high schools assign letter grades of A to F to student course work, many elementary schools do not. Often students in elementary school receive checks or minuses, or grades such as S for "satisfactory" and NW for "needs work." Other schools assign no grades at all, but rather have teachers write a narrative, or detailed comments, about each student. Many parents find these narratives particularly helpful, as they not only assess a student's progress but also explain how the teacher feels strengths and weaknesses may best be addressed.

In high school, grades become extremely important, especially if your student is planning to attend college. Colleges look closely at an applicant's grades, especially in rigorous academic subjects such as advanced algebra and "honors" English. At highly selective colleges, your student will probably need close to an A average to gain admittance, while at less selective institutions a B average or less may suffice.