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Rethinking report cards

Linking report cards to state standards is the newest report card trend. Here's why schools are doing it and what you can expect if your school makes the change.

By GreatSchools Staff

Did your grandparents give you a dollar for each A on your report card? Did you spend your high school years hoping you would squeak by with C's in important classes? Did you ever see the dreaded F on a paper, test or your report card?

For a growing number of today's elementary school students, those days are gone. They may not see letter grades on their report cards until middle school or later. As the No Child Left Behind law pushes schools and educators across the country to center their teaching on content and learning standards, report cards are beginning to look different, too. From Nashville, Tennessee to Marlborough, Massachusetts and Honolulu, Hawaii, schools are pairing standards-based report cards with their standards-based teaching, and parents are getting more information about their students' achievement.

What are state standards?

Every state has adopted its own list of the skills that students should learn at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. These lists are the state content and learning standards. Here are some examples:

  • In Arizona, fifth-graders are expected to be able to compare whole numbers, fractions and decimals. For example, fifth-graders should be able to determine that 0.6 is larger than 1/2.
  • In California, first-graders should be able to read common, irregular words like the, have, said, come, give and of.
  • In Nebraska, twelfth-graders should have an understanding of the structure of the atom, and be able to describe different types of nuclear reactions.

Teachers are responsible for teaching the skills for their students' grade level, although standards do not say how teachers should teach. Education World has links to the standards for each state.

What is a standards-based report card?

A standards-based report card lists the most important skills students should learn in each subject at a particular grade level. For example, in writing, a second-grade report card might list these skills:

  • Writes in complete sentences
  • Uses capital letters, periods, question marks and quotation marks correctly
  • Uses the writing process (prewriting, first draft, revision, and final draft)
  • Writes a friendly letter with a greeting, body and conclusion
  • Knows the purpose and use of a dictionary, thesaurus and atlas

Instead of letter grades, students receive marks that show how well they have mastered the skills. The marks might show whether the student is advanced, proficient, basic or below basic for each standard or they might be numbers representing whether students meet, exceed or approach each standard. Students usually get separate marks for effort and work habits, which are important for parents to keep tabs on even if these characteristics aren't included in the assessment of the student's academic skills.

How are standards-based report cards different from traditional report cards?

On many traditional report cards, students receive one grade for reading, one for math, one for science and so on. On a standards-based report card, each of these subject areas is divided into a list of skills and knowledge that students are responsible for learning. Students receive a separate mark for each standard.

The marks on a standards-based report card are different from traditional letter grades. Letter grades are often calculated by combining how well the student met his particular teacher's expectations, how he performed on assignments and tests, and how much effort the teacher believes he put in. Letter grades do not tell parents which skills their children have mastered or whether they are working at grade level. Because one fourth-grade teacher might be reviewing basic multiplication facts, while another is teaching multiplication of two- or three-digit numbers, getting an A in each of these classes would mean very different things. The parent of a child in these classes would not know if the child were learning what he should be to meet the state standards.

Standards-based report cards should provide more consistency between teachers than traditional report cards, because all students are evaluated on the same grade-appropriate skills. Parents can see exactly which skills and knowledge their children have learned. According to Hoover Liddell, special assistant to the superintendent in the San Francisco Unified School District in California, the marks on a standards-based report card show only how well the child has mastered the grade-level standards, and do not include effort, attitude or work habits, which are usually marked separately.

Comments from readers

"we are having to switch and I sure need a good example to go by "
"This article was very helpful"
"good article. Does anyone know of a place where i can find out the history of Non Core subject topics that have appeared on elementary school students report cards over the last 50 years? For instance, i recently read that the Baby Boomers were the first group of student to be graded on 'Gets Along Well with Others'. Those are the types of non-core subject categories I am interested in finding out about. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks. Buddy."
"As a parent of a high achieving child, I have a problem with Standards Based Report Cards. When my child is getting 3's (out of 3) half way through the year, but only making 80's on her tests, how can she be motivated to try harder? She's getting the highest grade possible without having to apply herself. There's absolutely no way for me as a parent to incent her, or know how she's doing unless I see every paper. Our school's teachers seem to have a wide range of opinions on what is proficient and what is not - our kids take assessment tests with as few as 3 questions on them, and take them as many as 4 times per day! How can a teacher possibly know from three questions if a child is proficient? And they're having to do a zillion assessments for all the little categories. Seems to me with the old system the teacher had to work to help the child who is getting poor grades to identify weaknesses. Now with the standards based report cards it's all of a sudden the student's responsibility to identify problem areas and correct them. I think this is a way to gloss over problems and smooth out grades so it appears students are performing better than they might be. "
"I am a mother of two children who's school has gone to this standard based grading system. I am not an advocate!! We have gotten away from teaching life skills. With this system, homework, pride, effort and work ethic are not factored into their grade. In the real world if you have the knowledge to do the job but you dont do it, you get fired. Our children need to understand that applying yourself and putting effort into your work, will take you a long way. With the past grading system of letter grades, if there are children who are getting D's and F's but doing well on the standardized tests, that is a parental issue! The child is not applying themselves and that is not a problem for the school to fix. "
"I am not an advocate of the 'No Child Left Behind' Law. I think that it should be re-labeled as 'No Child Can Get Ahead' law. I certainly understand the need to focus on the children that cannot read or do basic math, but lets face it - not all of us are created equal. We will not all master math, reading, writing. We need to be sure that all of the children graduating know enough to be able to read and balance their check books. After that, they should have opportunities to excel in the discipline that drives them - whether it be math, science, reading, etc. The standards based reports cards in principle make sense to me - my issue is with the implementation of it. Our school system has rolled it out with a 3-2-1 system. So when you have mastered 50% of the skilled, you get a 2. I don't consider 50% a mastery or proficiency in anything. To teach children that is to teach them how to lower their standards - all in an effort to make the schools look 'good' in the 'N! o Child Left Behind' stuff. The other thing that our system is doing is taking out Science and Social Studies in the Elementary School curriculum. It is up to the teachers to fit those subjects into their day. "
"In our school district, standard based report cards are used in the elementary schools; however, the district is planning to use standard based reporting throughout a child's educational career; i.e., if you start with standard based, it will follow you until you graduate. 1. How will this impact college interpretation of scores based on each states' NCLB standards? 2. If NCLB Standardized test scores do not match with standard based report card grading, what does that say about how well a teacher/ school is either evaluating or teaching towards the standard? 3. As children progress through school, the AYP is supposed to increase--so that by 2017?--all children should be 'proficient'. Essentially that means only two scores will be 'passing' -- proficient and advanced. How will that distinguish better performances between students?"
"While I appreciate that the teachers are trying to make things better on them and the students, it seems to me that you are trying to fix something that is not broken. There was nothing wrong with the way the grading system was before. It was a system that was understood by everyone no matter how much education you had growing up. Now you are talking about things that to some people will come across as latin. The average person, where I live, has little more than a high school education. Big words can be confusing to alot of them, but one thing they all understand is numbers. I would say that the majority of people in my community understand that if a child receives 94% on an exam then that is the equivalant of an A. But with this new system, things are different. How do you grade an exam without putting a grade on it? If they missed five questions out of fifty what would they score? In the old system they would have made a 90 on that exam. Which is an A. But by this new sys! tem they would probably get the equivalant of proficient even though a 90 is considered well above average. I believe this system is to broad or vague if you will. You are either advanced, proficient, standard, or below standard. That is very black or white to me. I don't see any grey areas in this system. And because the world is made up of people who are not only black and white but are also grey, blue, green, red, and yellow I don't think this system is going to benefit the public as a whole."
"You must think about the money that is going into the educational system that will be allocated for this new report card. Instead of making new legislation to improve a school environment, increase school funding, get better teacher (pay better teachers to stay around), counselors, implement more technology, and increasing needed funds in arts, music, and athletics, etc. ... the money is going to 'fix' something that is NOT broken and will NOT make students work any harder. Imagine the cost for the overhaul of a report card system: 3rd party grade entry software/system cost, training for teachers, and the extra TIME the teachers have to put into the report cards. Teachers do more than just enter grades based on standards, they measure effort, improvement, linguistic background, learning disabilities, and social skills. This is just another dumb idea form a bunch of politicians (yes, your administrators are all politicians brown-nosing the dog above them), who just need s! omething to pad their resumes. All this money will go to waste because, eventually, everyone will know it doesn't work AND the high school and colleges will NOT CHANGE THEIR REPORT CARDS! They are young adults who get letter grades, not little numbers that specify standards. Can you imagine going to an Ivy League and getting numbers 1-4 to specify standards you may or may not have achieved? Absurd."
"I am a parent and a teacher in Hawai'i. The elementary school where I teach has used a 'standards-based' report card for a few years now. The rumour is that the middle schools and high schools will be next. I am very distraught about this. I feel the new report card is a travesty and a disaster for our children. If it happens at the high school level I will be there with a sign, protesting. Please don't hurt my kids like this! The new labels of Meets Expectations, etc, are so vague as to communicate nothing to parent or student. However, with traditional letter grades, everyone knows what their grade means, and, mathematically, what needs to be done to improve the grade. Everyone, even a fourth grader, can do the math to find out how well he needs to do on the next assignments in order to bring an 82% up to a 94%. But bring 'Meets Expectations' up to 'Exceeds Expectations'? Why bother? What does it mean? What do I have to do to bring it up? Suck up to the teach! er? Seriously. There is no accountability with this new system. I have many complaints--but my most severe is if they implement this at the high school level. Kids need their GPA for college! They need it for scholarship applications! Even in intermediate school they benefit from a GPA--my son has received 2 scholarships (to help pay for participation in sporting events)--they were both based on GPA as well as athletic achievements--and he is in intermediate school. This new report card will HARM our underprivileged students. Save the GPA! Protest this atrocity! "
"The question you have to ask yourself is who does this report card help. They are for the school not the parent. As a parent with a child who gets a standards based report card its not worth the paper its printed on. I have not seen any research that backs up that a standards based report card helps parents help their kids. All I have seen opinions by people who do not have a kid that gets one. "
"We are told that the schools need parents to be involved and I try to be involved on many levels. I volunteer in the school several times a month and closely monitor all the papers that my children bring home from school. I talk with my children's teachers and send comments on the agendas that we sign every night. I was SHOCKED to find at my daughters 1st marking period conference that she was 'below level' in technology. Her homeroom teacher was also surprised-Karissa is a good student. Infact, Karissa came home with 2 certificates of accomplishment in techonology prior to the end of the marking period. I was very disappointed that I was not notified that she was FAILING a class prior to the confrence and amazed that her homeroom teacher did not know either. I have been told BL does not mean FAIL but that is hard to understand and, if that is true, how do you know when you child is failing? I will be honest, I do not like this new grading system. It is very uninfor! mative. I also strongly feel that parents should know if their child is BL in a subject prior to the end of the marking period so they can assist in improving in that area. When I contacted the techonogy teacher, she could not explain why Karissa was BL except that she did not keep her fingers on home row. When I asked if she would let me know how Karissa was doing 1/2 way through the next marking period she requested that I call her. When I did call her again, she was not certian how Karissa was doing and said she would check on her in her next class. That was the last I heard. Karissa did get an OL the next marking period. I don't feel the new grading system gives parents enough information to gage how well a student is doing and I strongly feel parents should be infromed (and invited to a conference with the teacher) if a child is BL in any subject prior to the end of the marking period. Maybe a system where a notice is sent home mid-way through the marking peri! od if a student is BL in a subject would be helpful. Parents ! can't po sitively involved if they are not fully informed. "
"Standard Based Report Cards (as I've seen them used) are a step backward. The primary purpose of the report card should be to inform the parents and student about the child’s progress. When a standard based report card is used there is a great tendency to not differentiate between kids who are meeting standards and those exceeding standards. Our local school does use an 'Exceeds Standards' but we are told that you need to be 'Michael Jordan' to receive this. Bottom line is most folks clearly understand letter grades and I have yet to see a good argument as to why they should be abandoned."
"It wolld be a wonderful thing if high schools would implement the standards-based instruction in reporting student's mastery of specific skills in each subject/content area. This would enable parents to not only see areas of difficulty, but to assist the student in that specific area. I'll be happy to serve on/become an advacate for this vastly needed movement . "
"I'm not sure I understand the grading on the report cards. My daughter had all 3's and a 4 on her report card but on the overall box where indicated the teacher entered the final grade of 2... How can that be?? If this is a rounding of the overall progress in that particular class then why with all the 3's and a 4 did my child end up with a 2 and not just one subject by 3 subjects. when someone reads her report card wouldn't they look at the overall and see a child that is not doing well and disregard the fact that she had done very well in the class itself??? Please help me understand this....I just got used to reading the old report cards!"
"I think this is a good idea. I like the fact that the goals are all set in the beginning of the year and that your child can still go the extra mile in the subjects that they can. It almost lets them do the school work as needed, but they can focus more on what they were designed from birth to do. I think this will also help with confidence levels and not being shy, to be the 'dummy',to participate in class."
"I am a srong advocate for a standards-based report card. As a teacher I have talked with all of my parents about which format they would prefer. At first, they typically respond with the report card that looks most like the one they had. A B C D. Then after I explain that the standards-based report card actually reflects the areas in need of improvement or the areas in which the child excels, parents always prefer the format that provides the most information. I need to use the child strengths to develop the areas of need. As a teacher, I have a different opinion than my collegues. They prefer the letter grade. After all you just type in the points the child has earned on an assignment, then voila! a grade is generated. This is much easier than evaluating the students understanding and proficiency of the skills and concept they will need in order to be independent learners. It is also a symptom of teachers not teaching to the individual students' needs and just giving one assignment to the whole class. A teachers job is to give the student access to learn the skills and concepts. Students access the ski! lls they need in different ways and at different levels f proficiency. How fair is it that a child who comes into the class already proficient at skills can earn an A and never have learned a thing? Or a child that has put forth great effort, hurdled huge developmental milestones can earn a D? Shouldn't these students be challenged equally? That is what No child Left Behind is intended to ensure. That is what Standards based grading honors. It is more work for the teacher. Not the reporting part, but the knowing how EACH child is performing towards those standards. Doesn't a Boss know how each employee performs? If an employee is weak in an area, then training needs to occur for productivity to meet expectations. A business owner needs to have a handle on all ascpects of the business. Shouldn't a teacher have the same handle on his/her students? One caveat. It is close to impossible to teach in this highly effective manner in the contracted hours we are paid fo! r.(Not whining, just stating a fact my family notices when I a! m at wor k 9-10 hours a day for $40,000)"
"I am not sure that I favor the new grading system. When I was in grade school, we had 'U' (unsatisfactory), 'S' (satisfactory), and 'N' (needs improvement). However, the methods of grading were different. Now, according to how I was explained to, the grades could me that the child is in between grades. The teachers enter grades, or percentages, in the grading system and the system kicks out the grade according what was entered into the computer. I think that it's unfair to the students, as well as the parents. I believe in individualized teaching and individualized grading. School and learning seemed so more simple when I was in school compared to today's teaching methods."
"We have aligned the descriptors for each quarter so that we are evaluating a student's progress throughout the year -- not just the end-of-year criteria. Our parents feel much more informed and know what areas to focus on, with the understanding that an I (inconsistent) during the first quarter could quickly lead to a N (needs improvement/below grade level) within one quarter, unless an intervention is made in a given skill area. Love my report card. Hope others will learn to value it, too."
" I think such a report card for elementary students would be crazy. Why not just have the teacher write yes or no to let a parent know if a child knows a standard. It makes more sense to me. Can Jack add two numbers together? yes Can Jack write a complete sentence? Yes Can Jack spell? No How about that? It would be easier for a parent to understand expectations and who can argue with a yes or no answer? Frankly, I don't understand why elementary kids even need grades. Either they know it or they don't. How much more basic can it get?"
" I would love to see this type of grade card used. It would be a valuable tool for us parents and we could be more helpful in the areas where it is needed when the kids are in grade school...."
" I think this is correct. Students and parents need to understand what has not been mastered. Our system would like to have more info on schools who have experience with using an alternative report card."
"I do not know what is so hard to understand about these report cards. I also do not know how anyone would think that it would be better to view a 'C' on their child's report card with no explanation, rather than see that they are doing well in all but one area of that particular subject. In the case of the standards-based report card, it gives parents exactly what information they need to help their child with areas within the broader subject they may be struggling with. A straight letter grade imparts no information at all. I have NEVER come across a situation in my life where less information was better. I think what we may be running into is parents who are comfortable and familiar with one format and are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the new. Ask questions instead of assuming that everything in the past was better. When you know better, you can do better. I love my son's elementary school report card and hope that my daughter's high school card will soon switch to a combination of the two."
"Thank you for this timely article. Our district has recently been presented a pilot program for standards-based reporting. It would be helpful to have more articles such as this, pro and con, posted as this process moves along. I applaud the endless hours of effort and thought that go into this process. Having administrators and teachers who seek to try to find new alternatives and approaches to help children meet their individual goals, I feel, is a gift. Too often we blame the school, the administrator, the teachers, etc. for failing to meet our expectations in educating our children. In my opinion, this concept of standards-based reporting should be greeted with enthusiasm and appreciation for being developed and considered within a district. If we, as parents, cannot step outside of our comfort zone to try new and different approaches, how do we expect to ever move forward? It is very easy to want to stay with the safe and comfortable way of doing things. My ques! tion is, 'How do we expect our children to take risks and challenge themselves, when we as parents, choose not to take that risk and challenge ourselves?' "
"I feel the standard based grading system is very subjective and allows for bias on the part of the educator. The educators often have trouble explaining the rationale behind the grade given. Parents like concrete data to support grades."
"There would be no problem with the current grading systems if teachers and parents did their job in communicating and working with the children on their weaknesses. Letter grades don't address these issues, but if issues arise, communication between teachers and parents can provide the necessary avenue to address the issues. Changing to this form of grading will not correct the problem. Parents that currently aren't taking an interest in why their children are receiving poor grades are not going to start, simply because the grading system has changed."
"You keep making reference to kids and parents alike. I believe that you are looking at a very one sided results. Why would you not compare your passing and failing students with actual parents involvment. Plus I also believe that the system today forces teacher to accept a certain per cent of failure just to meet State goals. "
"One of your comments states: although standards do not say how teachers should teach. This is not true in Virginia. You may want to do a little more research on this."
"Our school is using this and the parents don't understand it. This is just a new version of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. It is 'The District's New Report Card'. Some day some person will stand back and say the obvious - 'This is not working' and people who went along to look progressive will realize what fools they have been and change it again. In fact, everything changes in phases. New Math, blended phonics, synthetic phonics, open classrooms, Reading Recovery, the Demming Model, FISH training, SMART Goals, Assertive Discipline, Discipline with Dignity, and so the list goes on. Is anyone out there still doing 'New Math' or drinking 'New Coke'? Is anyone who is reading this still driving the 'revolutionary new Edsel'? I think not. This too, shall pass. How unfortunate that my children will be trapped in the time period where they will be guinea pigs for this. New Idea- Let the teachers teach and leave them alone. Now that is a revolutionary new idea! Of cours! e, I realize I am biased. I've taught 25 years and figure I know what I'm doing. I probably have clothes that are older than some of the researchers who are dreaming up this hooey. Scrap this and have Marva Collins do a workshop at your school. It will be more effective, more student centered, more parent friendly, and a WHOLE LOT CHEAPER since it is MY tax money we are spending - and your too."
"Standards-based education is exactly what we need in the public school system. It is exactly what the college programs should require for entrance!!! GPA does not accurately portray a student's intelligence, ability, or even stick-to-itiveness. A GPA simply represents the amount of homework a student submitted times the teacher's ease of grading times the ease of course selection. It is no more accurate than the transcript of a home school student, private school student, or a night/Summer school student. Is a 4.0 from a rural school of 50 students equal to a 4.0 from the top school district in the United States or an under funded inner-city public school? No, but knowing the square root of -36 is the same for everybody. (It's 6i, for those of you wondering.) Additionally, the No Student Left Behind program, while a great concept, has placed a screeching halt on the natural progression and selection of the above average students who are forced to be compared universally with the below average and average students. A standards based transcript will eliminate much of this disparity by assessing each student individually and creating a system whereby students who cannot pass certain skills may receive specialized instruction, allowing the above average student to move ahead with their education in a timely matter. Skills based testing and reporting may also (eventually) allow for a disjunction in the current State-based curriculum requirements. If students are able to prove mastery in educational skills, they may proceed on without suffering through 2, 3, or 4 credit hours of repetitive courses where they will 'learn' skills they have already mastered simply because the Special Ed students have been integrated into the classrooms and require those additional hours. Colleges allow students to take placement tests and CLEP tests to determine on a skill-based assessment which courses a student should attempt. The below average students will not start in Calculus their freshman year, and an above average student is not ever required to take Intro to Math. Public schools should perform in the same manner, beginning in Kindergarten. My kids were able to read, write cursive, and solve easy pre-algebra problems in their heads before they entered Kindergarten, but they were required to 'learn' their numbers and letters with everyone else. On the flip side, my Ninth Grade son doesn't know the names of all 50 states, let alone their capitals and geographic locations (all available in the free atlas from the insurance company), but he is spending 5 hours per week conjugating verbs and writing book reports while failing Social Studies. There goes the GPA. Now, as a working adult, I look around my workplace and attempt to locate the report cards. My resume does not have a transcript of each portion of my previous jobs and state a letter grade/score for each aspect of them. Instead, my resume shows the places I worked or studied and the skills I used or learned while I was there. Often, prospective employers request a list of skills and your ability level with each skill. They want to know how competent you are in performing certain tasks. This is skill-based reporting. They don't want to know if your previous employer gave you a B! You don't work there any more. What is important to them is what skills you can perform for the new employer and how well you can perform them. What are your skills, and what is your skill level? Do you think that the class Valedictorian is the smartest person in the class? I believe that this would be proven to be 99% false. The Valedictorian is the student who jumped through enough of the correct hoops in the correct order in an effort to achieve the highest GPA. So... Let's convert to the Standards-based reporting and teaching so that our kids will be able to survive in the real world, college, technical school, job, family, and activities. Even professional athletes are required to work on their skills if they want to continue, and I've never seen a baseball or football card with a letter grade in their stats. Many of the best athletes would be given poor grades if based on traditional public school grading systems. After you read this, go ask your boss, your spouse, your friends, your parents, and your kids what letter grade they would give you. Then think about their answers before you respond to this post."