This goes on your permanent record

This goes on your permanent record

Why some parents feel they need an advanced degree to decipher their child’s report card

Published on September 2, 2015

Look at an elementary school report card these days and you might have to sit down. You’ll be reading for a while.

Long gone are the one-page checklists of whether students can read, write and do math.

Above: A kindergarten report card from a school in Ogden, Utah, circa 1960. Courtesy of Kathleen Degreve.

In the D.C. Public Schools report card for first grade, for example, there’s a top page that assesses basic skills, such as behavior and reading. But turn the page and things start to get confusing.

There’s a labyrinth of nearly 90 metrics that some parents say require a decoder. “It’s certainly not plain English,” said Sarah Green, who has three children at Lafayette Elementary School. “I’m a regulatory lawyer. We talk a lot about writing things so people can understand them. They need to think about writing in plain English.”

In some cases parents say terms are overbroad to the point where they don’t say anything. A couple of years ago, Montgomery County Public Schools switched to grading elementary students using P for proficient, ES for exceptional work, I for in-progress and N for no progress. Befuddled parents began referring to ES as “elusive secret.” In other cases, the criteria sound better suited for college students. In Loudoun County public schools, a first-grader is evaluated on whether he “Demonstrates art skills and content: studio production, history, criticism, and aesthetics (beauty).”

D.C. schools takes a similar approach, only the school system supersized it. First-graders are assessed in 86 categories, including their ability to “choose high-quality health information, products and services,” and “promote health and prevent disease.” Second-graders are evaluated on their ability to “analyze data from tests of two objects to compare how each performs to solve a problem.”

D.C. schools spokeswoman Anna Gregory said report cards are not meant to be the only way teachers communicate with parents. She cited parent-teacher conferences and, at some schools, teacher home visits. “We believe that students will be most successful if schools and families are in regular communication,” she said.

Education experts say the pendulum swing from the spare but homey look of a 1950s report card to the detailed and clinical look of a 21st-century one is due partially to today’s more-involved parents, who want more information. Another reason is the rise of the Common Core national-based standards, which direct academic skills in point-by-point detail. Report cards are often rife with insider education-speak to align them with those standards, said Thomas R. Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky . The challenge, he said, is to make them detailed but not “overwhelming .”

Many school districts are still figuring out what that looks like on paper. “In the past, report cards were overly simplistic, and now they are overly complex and convoluted,” said Sam Chaltain, a former teacher and education consultant. “We still haven’t found the sweet spot.”

A first-grade report card, translated

A first-grade report card, translated

Allison Klein is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.