Categories: Teachable Moments
      Date: Jan  1, 2010
     Title: Alphabet Soup

What to make of grades, from A to F

By Emma Kress

Soon, you’ll get hard evidence of how well your child is performing in school: a report card. How do you make sense of the numbers or letters? How will you react? If it’s “good,” will you pin it on the fridge? If it’s “bad,” will you deny him TV privileges? Most importantly, which reactions will most benefit your child’s growth?



report card
                                © Marlene Ford | Dreamstime.com


Soon, you’ll get hard evidence of how well your child is performing in school: a report card. How do you make sense of the numbers or letters? How will you react? If it’s “good,” will you pin it on the fridge? If it’s “bad,” will you deny him TV privileges? Most importantly, which reactions will most benefit your child’s growth?

First of all, let’s define what a report card is and what it is not. It is not a measure of intelligence. It is not an indicator of capability. It is not a crystal ball predicting your child’s future success. It is simply a means of communication. Using it, the teacher describes the current school performance of your child through a single letter or number.

Usually, the number reflects some combination of tests, quizzes, written work, labs, projects, homework and class participation. Some teachers give greater weight to certain categories. For instance, in my class, I give more weight to a student’s written work (like a short story) than to a shorter homework assignment. The report card, then, indicates whether your child is jumping through the specific hoops that this particular teacher considers to be important. Despite the variety of approaches, teachers all know what they value highly and should make that clear to students and parents.

Ideally, all teachers would meet with each child and parent and reflect on the year together while poring over work and creating goals for the remaining months. Unfortunately, the size of our classes makes this approach impossible in most schools. So we’re stuck with this number on a piece of paper. Still, this number is meant to communicate your child’s current performance. If the number seems puzzling, then it is not serving its purpose. Contact the teacher and work together to clarify the confusion.

Once you understand the grade, then what? If your child gets an A, are you supposed to jump up and down and splurge on ice cream? If your child gets an F, are you supposed to scream fiercely and chain her to a desk?

Let’s admit that parents have their own anxieties and dreams as they open that envelope. When you see As, perhaps you picture Harvard and a well-paying job. When you see Fs, you imagine a lifetime of abject failure. Remember that neither is the case. There are plenty of famous examples of students who struggled in school only to become very successful later in life: Muhammad Ali (champion boxer), Charles Schwab (financial whiz) and Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Records) among others. And we all know of someone who did well in school only to drift later in life. Remember that school measures a fairly narrow set of skills. So what to do?

1. Avoid equating grades with intelligence. Recent research suggests that students who are told they are naturally smart actually do worse on future assessments. Instead, honor effort. When an A comes home, respond with “Wow! You must have really worked on this.” When you see your child energetically working on a project, rewriting an essay or struggling through a math problem, comment on his effort, not his intelligence. It’s been proven that kids who believe success comes from effort are willing to try new things, enjoy hard work and perform better than those who don’t.

2. Avoid bribes. Ideally, you want your child to enjoy learning for the sake of learning, not because she wants a new video game. Much research suggests that praise and rewards minimize a love of learning and only up the ante for the next report card.

3. Love unconditionally.
You do not want your child to begin to believe that your love depends upon a single grade. Of course, you’re allowed to be happy or disappointed. Still, be mindful of how you represent that to your child. Kids who fear parental reactions may develop anxiety around tests and assessments, which in turn has a negative impact on their grades. Or, worse, they may resort to cheating and plagiarizing to keep those all-important grades high.

4. Brainstorm together with your child.
Assigning too much weight to a report card—either good or bad—is unhelpful to your child’s learning. Again, view the report card as a communication tool. What can these numbers tell both of you about his performance? Sit together and talk about how the numbers came to be. Is he working hard but it’s not reflected in the number? Perhaps he is using ineffective study habits or needs some extra help. Is he barely working but getting all As? Perhaps there are some enrichment opportunities available at the school or in your community. Your child can also view the grade as simply a measurement tool for his performance that can influence his choices and behavior in the remaining months—no more, no less.      

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.