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Not Your Mama’s Report Card

Posted in ChicagoNow, April 14, 2014

Boy, has the report card changed over generations. My parents received letter grades in the basic subjects. My brothers and I received O (outstanding), S (satisfactory), or U (unsatisfactory) for the same subjects plus behavior. My kids were marked AL (above), GL (at) or BL (below) grade level. All of this was in the pre-computer dark ages. But no matter what you system was used, everyone knew the goal was to be like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average.”

My granddaughter’s report card came home with her just before spring break. My daughter glanced at the numbers to make sure there was nothing below “3” (meets grade level standards). Then she looked briefly at the standardized comments generated by the computer from what must be a long list. And then, after telling her child she was proud of her, she put it in a drawer.

At first glance, my granddaughter’s report card did not seem that different from the ones I remembered from my children’s era. Students received ratings in the same categories: Reading, Language Arts (combined in the new card), Math, Social Studies, Science, Fine Arts (separated into art, drama, and music on the new card), Physical Education, and “Homeroom” (still personal development and work/study habits). Within each category on the old-style report card, my kids could be rated between 1 (excellent) and 5 (needs improvement). On the 2014 version, there were 4 choices of “content standards,” ranging from 4 (exceeds grade level standards) to 1 (not making satisfactory progress toward meeting grade level standards).

There was a major difference, however. All of my children’s report cards were written by hand. Of course, like my parents and grandparents before me, I skimmed over the array of letters and numbers. But what really meant the most to me as a parent were those hand-written teacher comments:

  • “She is a good role model and is sensitive to others. It’s fun to watch the confidence grow.”

  • “A good aptitude for math and related concepts. Works well independently.”

  • “I’m very pleased with her creative writing.”

  • “She is well liked by her peers as well as the adults who work with her.”

  • “She contributes much to the overall tone of the room.”

  • “I’m really going to miss her (end of second grade) but I know she’s ready to move on.”

  • “Cursive writing will need more attention.”

I had to include the last one as proof she wasn’t perfect.

I was not naïve. As a former teacher and current preschool director, I knew teachers had phrases they repeated from child to child. I also knew that having to create their own set of these comments and apply them to each individual student showed that my children’s teachers saw my kids as unique little people.

Flash forward 30+ years. Ironically, we are looking at the same school and the same grade, but this time the report card comments belong to my daughter’s daughter. And here are the “comments” my granddaughter received:

  • (97) Respects classroom environment (she received this one under several headings)

  • (100) Has a positive attitude (same with this one)

  • (30) Reads extensively (nothing new here since this happens mostly at home)

  • (25) Grasps new ideas readily

Maybe it’s the numbers. Maybe it’s the absence of a human’s handwriting. Maybe it’s the fact that someone at a higher level (The school district? The State? A report card generating company?) created these comments. They are nice but relatively meaningless to the parent who reads them.

I suspect these report cards take even more of a teacher’s time than the ones that allowed for personalized comments. Now we have computers and report card software, which ironically enable teachers both to say more that means less on a child’s report card. Judging from the numbered comments, there were over 100 options from which the poor teacher had to choose. It would have been faster and more meaningful to write a couple of sentences.

If you dig deeper, the new report card tells parents even less than the one I received for my kids. In many cases, there is no option for a child to receive anything higher than “3” (meets standards). For example, in Mathematics, a child can’t exceed standards in things like understanding place value, knowing basic addition and subtraction, or telling time. Since this is what they learn in second grade, and they are not exposed to anything more, if they can do these things they earn a “3.” Same thing is true of Science where students are expected to develop questions, collect data, record their work, and communicate results to others. If a child does these things, that’s a “3.” How would a parent know if her child was particularly strong in math or science given the criteria listed under these subjects?

Perhaps this type of report card is just a reflection of where we are as a society regarding education. Standards show the parent what the typical second grader needs to know, and that is important. With grade level expectations and standardized comments, however, there is no opportunity to indicate anything personal about a child. Does she work really hard to get those “3’s” or could she be challenged even more? Is there anything special about her? Does anyone care?


by Laurie Levy
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