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How to decipher standards-based report cards

Perhaps you didn’t pay attention when your child’s school announced a move to “standards-based” report cards. Yeah, whatever, you thought. But when the first such report card arrived home, you weren’t the only parent to think, “What the heck?” You were looking for simple As and Bs — and you saw a complex grid of Ds and Ps, or 2s and 3s. Huh?

Elementary schools across the country are moving to standards-based report cards. For educators, they represent a way to be clear with students and parents about expectations for learning and achievement in a way that the traditional system never could convey. For parents — especially those with a competitive nature — they can be confusing, annoying and even infuriating. “How is my child doing in school?” becomes a much more complex question. But then again, perhaps it already was.

A what-based report card?

The first time you receive a standards-based report card for your child, you may look at it with bewilderment and dismiss it as the latest education fad. While traditional report cards are easy to absorb, standards-based assessments ask more of you — and tell you more about your child.

Standards-based report cards seek to emphasize the individual child. It’s harder to compare your child with other kids with such a comprehensive set of evaluative points — and that’s good. Standards-based report cards help you focus on what your child can do and what she needs, rather than what anyone else is doing.

Academic assessments and curriculum

Standards-based assessments are tied to elements in the curriculum. You will not only learn how your child is doing in that area, you will also learn about the curriculum itself. Rather than “math” with a letter grade, you are likely to see several entries related to the math curriculum (“compares and orders whole numbers”) with “grades” indicating whether your child is “proficient” (or some other word) in the concept, or her understanding of it is “beginning” or “developing.” Standards-based assessments are designed to emphasize progress.

In contrast, a traditional report card tells you none of this: A “C+” tells you only where your child landed on a scale averaging all math work. You wouldn’t know your child is struggling with word problems or currency.

Behavioral characteristics

A child who is “proficient” on all academic standards but “beginning” and “developing” on social standards might signal boredom in the classroom; that child might be in need of additional academic challenges to keep the social development on track.

Many standards-based report cards also include age-appropriate behavioral standards. Entries such as “respectful of the school environment” reveal how your child manages day-to-day. Sure, some such standards are a bit over-euphemistic — “uses agreed upon class rules to engage in discussion” really just means “raises hand to ask a question” — but they are still useful in understanding your child’s overall school experience.

A standards-based report card does take getting used to. When you are accustomed to simple scaling, standard-based assessments demand more. Standards-based report cards not only tell you how your child is doing overall, but that your child is really understanding concepts and developing key skills for future success. Instead of dismissing standards-based report cards as the latest fad, embrace them. Give yourself a “D” for “developing” appreciation.

More on kids and report cards

Rewarding report cards
Report card competition between siblings
How to handle report cards: The good, the bad and the ugly

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