Families & the Community

Parents Don’t Know When Their Kids Have Fallen Behind. Report Cards Could Be the Problem

By Caitlynn Peetz — November 15, 2023 6 min read
Hand holding out school report card with grades for test scores or school grades. Background with student silhouettes.
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Parents are more likely to engage in their children’s academics if they know that they’re struggling. But most parents gauge their children’s performance based on report cards, which often paint a misleading picture of how students are doing and lull parents into a false sense of security.

In a new study conducted by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit focused on ensuring parents have accurate information about students’ progress, and the polling firm Gallup, researchers found that many parents are relying on just a fragment of the information needed to fully understand their children’s learning progress.

Usually, that fragment of information comes from report cards.

The amount of information parents have about their kids’ academic performance matters, according to the survey, as parents who were aware of their children’s academic struggles were more likely to rate them among their top concerns and engage teachers in conversations about their children’s performance.

The survey’s findings dovetail with a growing body of research showing that, increasingly, students’ grades aren’t providing an accurate picture of how they’re doing academically. While students’ achievement has slid to historic lows since the start of the pandemic, a number of studies have shown that their classroom grades have inched up. Meanwhile, educators aren’t exactly thrilled with the traditional A through F grading system, fearing that the marks offer inaccurate or incomplete views of achievement at a time when students are struggling more than ever to master grade-level content.

The report cards that convey those grades are far from standardized, and often reflect how students act in class—whether they’re engaged and asking questions or showing up on time, for example—rather than solely their mastery of the content. And absent a more holistic view of students’ success—including clear information about standardized test scores and feedback from classroom teachers—parents aren’t likely to worry about their children’s progress and could miss critical opportunities to support or advocate for them.

“To a parent, a good grade equals grade level, and as long as there is that perception, parents will continue to be sidelined in supporting their children’s education in a multitude of ways that we believe will get students further, faster,” said Bibb Hubbard, the founder and president of Learning Heroes.

About 64 percent of parents said they feel report cards are “an important measure to know whether their child is on grade level,” according to the survey. About 80 percent of those parents said their child is receiving mostly B’s or better.

But the reality is that many students are struggling academically.

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Students suffered major setbacks in math and reading achievement during the pandemic, regardless of race or ethnicity, income level, or gender. Fourth and 8th graders last year scored on par with their counterparts in the 1990s on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading, virtually wiping out two decades of progress on the exam that offers a state-by-state comparison of academic performance.

Despite this, the Gallup and Learning Heroes survey found that the vast majority of parents (about 90 percent) believed their child was at or above grade level in reading and math.

Ninety-seven percent of the parents who believed their child was either not at or above grade level in math were worried about their child’s math skills. That’s compared with 22 percent of parents who believed their child was at least on grade level and were worried about their math skills.

‘A call to action to look further’

The parents who thought their children were behind academically were 24 percentage points more likely than other parents to have talked with their child’s teachers about their academic progress.

The study also found that parents who know their child is not performing at grade level in math and reading generally place their children’s math and reading skills at the top of a list of 12 possible worries or concerns.

Parents who don’t think their children are struggling place math and reading skills at the bottom of the list of worries, and show the most concern about social issues: the impact of social media (71 percent), their child’s stress or anxiety (55 percent), and their emotional well-being (48 percent).

“As parents, we’re always worrying about our kids,” Hubbard said. “But what we’re worrying about can really be influenced by how we think our kids are doing in school, so we need to make sure parents have all of the information.”

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Given more information, the survey showed parents would be more likely to be concerned about their children falling behind.

In a hypothetical situation in which their children received a B on their report card in math but also had two below grade-level scores—on a year-end math assessment and a districtwide math benchmarking test—56 percent of parents surveyed said they would be “very” or “extremely” concerned about their child’s academic progress. Another 32 percent said they’d be “somewhat” concerned and may not know how to interpret the conflicting information, according to the report.

The findings suggest that “parents may need to recognize B’s as a call to look further,” the report says.

The nationally representative survey results are based on responses from Oct. 2-9 from 1,971 adults who are parents or caregivers of a child in kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents who said their child had a diagnosed and significant cognitive disability were excluded from the survey.

Teachers, parents should work together

Many teachers don’t think their grading systems are an effective way of giving feedback to students, yet the A-F system persists in the vast majority of schools.

Regardless of the grading system a school uses, it’s important that everyone has a mutual understanding about what the grades represent, Hubbard said.

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Integrating as many data points as possible—report cards, state- and district-level assessments, and teacher feedback—is key to understanding whether a child is performing at grade level. Knowing whether a child is at grade level is important to supporting them, as parents and teachers who recognize a child is behind can take different steps to intervene.

Parents and teachers should both take responsibility for filling the information gap, Hubbard said. Parents should be wary of relying on letter grades alone, and proactively reach out to teachers to see how their children are doing. Teachers and school leaders should be more forthcoming with students’ assessment scores. They should also explain what a report card does (and doesn’t) measure, and walk through assessment scores with parents when they’re available, Hubbard said.

“What we found in this research is that parents are going to take these really important steps when they have access to that information, so a little bit of information goes a long way,” Hubbard said. “There are so many intractable issues in our society, but this is not one of them. This disconnect is solvable.”

Other findings from the report include:

  • The portion of parents who say their child is at grade level varies by race and ethnicity. About 42 percent of Black and 40 percent of Hispanic parents said their child is performing at grade level, compared to 54 percent of white parents.
  • Parents with a child who has an IEP or 504 plan accounted for 22 percent of respondents in the study. About half said their child is below grade level in reading and math, a significantly higher percentage than other parents.
  • Among the minority of parents, 10 percent, who said their child is below grade level in reading, more than one-third (36 percent) also report seeing mostly B’s or better on their child’s report card in the subject.

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