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What’s in a Grade?

New data cast doubt on the connection between report card grades and academic achievement.

Back to Skills

Grades and student report cards provide parents with a picture of how their children are performing in school. New data, however, raises questions about just how accurate that picture is.

A pair of recent reports shed light on the connection, or lack thereof, between a student’s report card grades and their actual academic achievement.

First, results from a new survey of parents and teachers by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that works to promote family engagement, points to a basic misunderstanding between parents and teachers about what report cards measure.

Eighty-four percent of public school parents assume that A’s and B’s on a report card mean that their child is mastering grade-level work. Yet, nearly half (48 percent) of teachers say report card grades reflect effort more than academic achievement.

While parents rate report cards as the most important tool for understanding how their child is doing academically, 64 percent of teachers think “parents focus too much on report card grades alone.”

The results point to report cards as a primary driver of the disconnect between how well parents think their children are doing academically and how well students are actually performing.

Nearly nine in 10 parents believe their child is achieving at grade level, yet national test scores show that only about one-third of fourth and eighth graders are actually meeting that mark, the report notes.

“Parents aren’t wrong,” Bibb Hubbard, the founder and president of Learning Heroes told me. “A lot of kids are getting A’s and B’s. So with the data and information they have, they’re interpreting as well as they can about their child’s achievement.”

Learning Heroes partnered with Edge Research to conduct focus groups and administer online surveys to a nationally representative group of more than 1,000 public school teachers in grades 3-8 and 1,705 parents with public school children in grades 3-8.

‘Overly Rosy Evaluations’

Adding to the apparent subjectiveness of report card grades, one in three teachers report feeling pressured to avoid giving too many low grades on report cards.

“I think grades have been inflated for years. 100 percent,” an elementary school teacher from New Hampshire told Learning Heroes. The 74’s Kate Stringer has more details on the survey.

A September 2018 report on grade inflation in public high schools from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, puts data behind the teacher’s hunch.

In the report, American University economist Seth Gershenson writes that “teachers may have an incentive to provide overly rosy evaluations of student performance to appease students and parents or to enhance the reputation of their schools or classrooms.”

Using transcript data and standardized test scores, Gershenson concludes that “even students who earn the best grades often fail to demonstrate mastery of key skills and knowledge when measured on the state test. … Earning a good grade in a course is no guarantee that a student has learned what the state expects her to have learned in that course.”

In recent years, an increasing number of school districts have moved to standards-based report cards that measure students’ progress on particular academic goals, scrapping traditional A through F letter grades in the process.

But as The Washington Post’s Donna St. George reported in 2017, changes to the entrenched A to F report card system can leave parents even more confused. (St. George also reported recently on the surging number of A’s on high school report cards in one Maryland district.)

Story Ideas for Reporters

For education reporters, perennial debates around report cards and grades can be a source for a number of potential stories.

What do report cards in your community look like? What changes, if any, have been made or proposed to make them more parent-friendly?

Do teachers feel pressured to avoid giving too many low grades? Has there been an increase in the number of A grades given as a result of changes in testing or grading policies?

For more on report cards and efforts to improve communication between schools and families, check out the recap of a recent EWA seminar in which experts discussed strategies for supporting family engagement.