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Decode Your Child's Report Cards

Parenting

The first time I opened my daughter's kindergarten report card, I found it filled with I's and V's instead of A's or B's (and, no, I wasn't expecting C's from my little smarty-pants). Then I flipped it over to the comments—and wondered why I was reading a description of what the class was up to when I already knew what was on the agenda. What type of report card was this anyway?

Actually, it was what's known in educator-speak as a "standards-based report card"—and I wasn't the first mom to be mystified by it. Since the No Child Left Behind law was passed, many elementary schools have said bye-bye to letter grades. Instead, they're using numbers or other types of marks to show how well students are picking up specific skills, such as being able to subtract two-digit numbers or read grade-level books.

Why the switch from classic letter grades? That type of grading system tended to compare each student's performance with his classmates', explains Thomas R. Guskey, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of How's My Kid Doing? A Parent's Guide to Grades, Marks, and Report Cards. "A 'C' just tells you that your child is in the middle of the class; it doesn't tell you what he's learning." Standards-based reports compel teachers to evaluate each student according to state-approved goals of what kids should know at each grade level, says Guskey. "Teachers base their assessment on how well your child is learning the things they think are important." Here's how to decode the new report-card lingo.

Making the Grade

The grading "rubric," or assessment tool, used by your school may consist of numbers or of letters that are abbreviations for certain phrases, sometimes with pluses and minuses added on. No matter what type of marks are used, all cards give you a key that explains what they stand for. If your child is getting mostly 4's (or CS's or I's), it means she's working beyond grade level—for instance, your second-grader is able to tell time in five-minute increments when the target is to tell it to the quarter-hour. Or vice versa—she's able to tell time to the hour, and sometimes to the half, but needs more help from you and the teacher to meet the grade requirement. In that case, she'd probably receive a 2 (meaning, slightly below grade level) for the marking period. If she's getting 3's or PW's, she's right on target.

Like me, many moms and dads see a 3 and translate it into a B. But these marks don't really convert to traditional grades. Instead, they're better at showing you how your child is progressing during the year, says Jennifer Scoggin, a former second-grade teacher in New York City and now an educational consultant. A con? "They're limiting—there's a danger that you'll focus on the benchmarks alone, and think your job is done once your child's hit them," she adds. To get around this (especially if your little learner consistently exceeds expectations): Talk to the teacher about the standards for the next grade level. A good teacher knows the goals not only for her grade but for the ones above and below it so she can keep adding value to your child's education, says Scoggin. For example, if your first-grader is an ace at writing all her letters, upper and lower, and has no problem spacing them, then her teacher may feel she's ready to start learning cursive, a second-grade subject.

Reading Between the Lines

Most report cards now break down subjects into separate components. This is especially true of language arts, which is divided into at least three separate skills: listening/speaking, reading, and writing (and sometimes even spelling). Your child won't be given one global grade for reading, but several, depending on the teacher's expectations: Is he reading by himself, or does he need a lot of help? Does the teacher have to choose books for him, or can he do that on his own?

The challenge for teachers is how to indicate progress, especially at the start of the school year. "This is something teachers struggle with, so parents need to ask the teacher how she determines it," says Scoggin. Some schools will add pluses and minuses. That way, it's a little easier to tell how your child is doing with respect to the teacher's expectations: 3+ means he's more advanced than expected, while 2- means he's not that far along.

A teacher may give a second-grader a 2 at the start of the year, but she isn't worried because she knows that student is grasping concepts quickly. Or the child may not quite have reached expectations, but is working hard. In that case, the teacher would likely give a 2 and talk about the child's effort in the comments. That's why all report cards come with comments—and are often timed to coincide with parent-teacher conferences once or twice a year.

Socially Speaking

For children in the early grades, school is more than just academics—it's learning a slew of social skills that help them become better students. This is why your child also receives grades for her work habits and behavior. The teacher looks at how she works and plays with others, how well she handles transitions (is it easy for her to put away her journal and move on to math, or does she get stuck on one subject?), and if she's able to control her feelings (based on her age, of course). One thing to keep in mind: "Being naughty once or twice doesn't warrant a mention in the report card," says Scoggin. If your child is having a chronic behavior problem, then it will be put in writing (and it shouldn't come as a surprise). If your child melts down once or twice because she got overly engrossed in writing a story and didn't want to stop, the teacher will just mention it at pickup or in an e-mail.

Say What?

The comments section gives the teacher a chance to paint a fuller picture of your child's strengths and weaknesses. Did your second-grader get a 2 in reading? The teacher may explain that with help he understands what he's reading and is better able to share his knowledge with his reading group and teacher. Sometimes a teacher will also write a description of the topics she's covering (identifying coins, say, or learning pronouns) so you can see exactly what your kid is being graded on.

Are you getting the straight scoop in the comments? Probably—most teachers take this section seriously and realize they're accountable for what they put down on paper. "At first, I was tempted to be overly diplomatic and gentle," says Elizabeth Keat, an educator in Newark, NJ. "Now I'm honest, but not harsh. I start with the positives and then list the specific skills a student is having trouble with so the parents can help him at home."

Pay attention to the length (and quality) of the comments. Keat's school uses narrative comments—a teacher writes a long, descriptive paragraph for each subject, including behavior. One- or two-line comments can mean your child's teacher isn't putting much thought into this section. But it can also mean the teacher has to choose the few words that best describe your child's work from a preset, standardized list. This happens a lot in large, urban school districts, so be sure to ask the teacher about the school's comments policy.

Even with the skimpiest comments, you can get more feedback by asking a lot of questions. "Ask 'Is there any other information that's not reflected here that's important for me to know?’" says Keat. And if your school uses longer comments, she suggests you read them through to get the whole picture, and then go back over whatever's confusing or upsetting. Jot down your questions (or highlight what you don't understand or agree with) and take the report card with you to the conference. "The first set of grades is very important," says Guskey. "The more quickly you get in touch with the teacher, the better—that way, you can intervene before minor problems become major ones."

Here's a guide to the new numbers, letters and comments on your child's report card:

Settling the Score:

4 Exceeds Expectations

3 Meets Expectations

2 Approaching Expectations

1 Not Meeting Expectations

Alphabet Soup:

I Independent

V Developing

CS Consistently Strong

PW Progressing Well

S Satisfactory

NI Needs Improvement

WI Working On It

Comments:

“Needs redirection”

It Usually Means: She's up to doing the task but needs help staying focused. They tend to say this about overly active or easily distracted kids.

“Has difficulty making transitions”

It Usually Means: Your antsy kid holds up the class by not putting away her stuff when asked or can't resist touching everything on her way to the rug for the morning meeting.

“Uses a lot of strategies to decode words in books”

It Usually Means: He's coming along but still needs a variety of tools to figure out a new word—like looking for clues in the picture.

“Has trouble with bodily control”

It Usually Means: She has no sense of personal space—she may touch other students too much, or her legs are all over the place. It can also mean she flails around when mad.

“Does well when he focuses”

It Usually Means: Your grade-schooler needs help settling down to work or listening because he's too distracted—by himself or by others.

“Needs encouragement to work and play with others”

It Usually Means: Your child is probably having a tough time getting along with her classmates.

Grading 2.0

Online programs that are the high-tech equivalent of a teacher's grade book are the latest tools to help parents stay on top of their child's classwork. The majority of schools in the U.S. now have student management systems (also called student information systems) in place, say experts. With a few clicks of the mouse (or swipes of a finger), a parent can call up her child's grades, quizzes and tests, homework assignments, attendance, and even teacher comments at any time during the school year. Many schools continue to send home paper report cards, and face-to-face conferences are still important, too, but these programs give moms, dads, and kids a way to get specific data and feedbackevery time the teacher updates her records, which can be anywhere from every few days to every few weeks.

Some teachers are also supplementing their school's system with other high-tech ways to keep parents in the loop. Kristen Drake, a second-grade teacher in Georgia, not only puts assignments, schedules, and grades online, but tests and worksheets, too, which her students log on to take, either at home or on classroom computers. The students get instant feedback and parents can log on every day to check their child's latest test results. The advantage of using worksheet less.com, the online assessment system she created (and teaches other educators to use): “I think it gives more ownership to kids—students begin to see the value of their work and recognize their strengths and weaknesses,” Drake says. “And parents can see right away where their child needs help.”

The best way to use any type of student management system, says Drake: Instead of monitoring your child's grades and assignments by yourself, go online together as a way to jump-start a discussion. That way, you can praise your kid's progress and then point out patterns to her mistakes instead of getting overly hung up on a low score.

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