Search form

Student Report Cards:
Do They Earn an A --
Or a "Needs Improvement?"


From time to time, Education World reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. Before reposting, we update all links and add new resources to the article. We hope you find this archived article to be of value

On its surface, the question of report card reform in the elementary grades is a simple one: What format will provide the best information about a student's progress? But for educators the answers are seldom easy. And for parents, anxious to see their children succeed in an increasingly competitive society, the correct answers are crucial.


  • The first student progress reports, introduced in the late 1800s, typically consisted of a list of basic skills and indicated which of those skills the student had mastered and which required additional practice.
  • In the first half of the 20th century, the skills list was gradually replaced by a number grade and then by a letter grade, both of which usually indicated a student's level of progress according to a specified numerical standard.
  • Finally, in the latter half of this century, as issues of competition, comparison, and self-esteem were raised, some elementary schools began to replace the letter grade report card with one featuring teacher comments and individualized assessment, in which students were evaluated according to standards that reflected their achievement in relation to their own effort and ability.

Today, report cards featuring each of those reporting formats -- skills' lists, letter grades, and teacher narratives -- can be found in schools across the country. Each form has its supporters and its detractors -- both of whom are often found within the same school district.


Have You Seen
These Articles
From the
Ed World Archive?

100 Report Card Comments
It's report card time and you face the prospect of writing constructive, insightful, and original comments on a couple dozen report cards or more. A daunting task? Not with Ed World's help! Included: 100 positive report card comments for you to use and adapt.

Teachers Start Report Card Revolution
Some teachers have taken it upon themselves to rework their report cards. Two teachers talk with Education World about the systems they developed and the benefits to students and parents of their improved grade-reporting systems. Tips included. Included: Tips for setting up more detailed grading systems.

Make Way for the New Report Cards
As districts revise curriculum and try to better measure how much of that curriculum students master and how well, new versions of report cards are inevitable. Education professor Dr. Thomas R. Guskey talks about some trends. Included: Information on the new generation of report cards.

What Will Your School's Next Report Card Look Like?
Report cards are yet another area of education affected by the standards movement. With more things to teach, assess, and track, teachers need more precise ways of assessing students than A to F. Included: Tips for setting up more detailed grading systems.

Be sure to check out our A-to-Z Glossary of School Issues.

The 1990s were a decade of controversy in the area of report card reform, as parents and educators increasingly clashed over the best way of reporting student progress.

  • The San Bernadino, California, and Rochester, New York, school districts returned to traditional A, B, C report cards when parents complained that new report cards, which identified developmental stages students had attained in a variety of subjects, were too confusing.
  • In Gloucester, Massachusetts, angry parents forced administrators to abandon a report card that replaced traditional letter grades with student portfolios and teacher narratives.
  • Parents in Cranston, Rhode Island, reacted angrily when school officials there replaced the A, B, C grading system with a three-level scale that tracked student progress in a variety of educational categories and sub-categories.

Administrators in Florida, Oregon, New Mexico, and many other states as well were forced to defend or abandon revamped reporting formats that did not include the traditional letter grades. Most protesting parents appeared to agree with one Cranston mother who charged that the new formats were vague and subjective, while the traditional A, B, C format told parents exactly where their children stood. "It's so objective," the parent stated of the newly introduced format.

But was it?


Most parents regard the traditional reporting method as the most objective indicator of student progress. They see A, B, C, D, and F as an approximate representation of a numerical average of test scores, homework assignments, and class work, and most believe those grades accurately reflect their children's level of progress.

A study cited in an Education Week article, "There's No Such Thing as Grade Inflation," seems to question that belief. Although 83 percent of the teachers in the study said they graded tests and class work according to the number of correct answers, many admitted it was not the only criteria they used. One-third to one-half of the respondents said they also took into account the difficulty of the work and student effort and ability when grading individual assignments. Further adjustment occurred when those individual scores were averaged for reporting purposes. According to the study, the scores were combined with other types of information, such as attendance, class participation, extra-credit work, effort, behavior, and teamwork, to determine final grades.

Furthermore, the author of the article states, different teachers use different combinations of those factors in different proportions when assigning a final, "objective" letter grade to each student.

Add to that the changing view of the meaning of specific letter grades (Does today's "C" mean average or slightly below average, for example?), and the problems multiply.

These inconsistencies often result in wide discrepancies in letter grade meaning, as classmates at different skill levels receive similar letter grades, while students in different classrooms, at the same skill level, receive different letter grades.


Educational leaders, aware of the inadequacies of the A, B, C grading system, have struggled to devise more effective ways of evaluating and reporting student progress. Often those efforts include lists of specific skills in a variety of subject areas and a reporting method that identifies an individual student's progress through the skill levels. Many educators feel that this method, combined with teacher narrative, better reflects student progress because it makes allowances for individual differences in learning rate and style, emphasizes real learning over test scores, and minimizes subjective considerations. The new report cards, they say, are actually more specific and more objective than the A, B, C format because they provide a truer picture of what a particular child is doing.

While they may provide a truer picture of student progress, they apparently do not provide one that parents can fully understand and interpret in meaningful ways. The new report cards, according to parents, are vague, complex, and confusing, are filled with educational jargon and meaningless notations, and fail to provide concrete information about their children's progress or position in the class.


According to Grant Wiggins, a report card consultant quoted in a Christian Science Monitor article, (Parents Push for Report Cards that Don't Require a Users' Manual), the real conflict is not over format. The problem is that parents and teachers have different goals and different expectations about the reporting process. "Educators," he says, "want to get away from comparison and parents want to hold onto it."

Teachers want to measure the success of each child, says Wiggins. They want to identify each student's strengths and weaknesses and report on the progress that student is making toward achieving individual goals.

Parents, on the other hand, want to know how their children are performing compared to other children. Knowing what their children are doing isn't enough, parents say. In order to understand what that information means, they need to put it into a recognizable context. They want to know if their children are working on grade level; if the quality of their is work better than, worse than, or the same as the work of other children in the same classroom and at the same grade level; if their children are succeeding or merely "progressing."


Both parents and teachers want accurate, understandable, and useful methods of measuring and reporting student progress. In order to provide it, schools must make an effort, whatever report card format they choose, to compare students' achievements, not to their own ability and not to the achievements of other students, but to objective, measurable performance requirements. "The trick," for teachers, according to Wiggins, "is not to make an insidious comparison. You compare students not against each other arbitrarily, but you compare their performances against standards."

A research report produced by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education concluded with the same advice for parents. "Parents cannot rely solely on their children's grades to determine the quality of their education. In order to ensure that their children are receiving a world class education that prepares them for the 21st century, parents need external standards against which they can assess the performance of their children and their children's schools."

Report cards, many experts say, can -- and must -- provide that information.


Self-Esteem Not Always Linked to Achievement
An article on grades and self-esteem by Margaret Boyd.

No More As or Fs for Children in Early Grades
Some reasons for report card reform.

An A for Effort
An Education Week article on the report card controversy in Cranston, Rhode Island.


As Easy as A, B, C? New Elementary Reports Get Mixed Reviews
New Report Card Being Issued for Students at Elementary School
Elementary Calendar and Student Report Cards to Change

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 06/01/1998
Last updated 10/27/2009