Courtney Rawlins remembers those days in grade school when she and her classmates would get on the bus carrying a report card sealed in an envelope. Five subjects with letter grades ranging from A to F awaited the child.
"You would open it, and boom," she said. "That's how you were doing."
If her third-grader tried to look at his own report card the same way, he would have no idea what to take from it.
His four-page report card has a 39-page rubric to explain what each line item might mean.
"Why is there a 39-page document to understand my 8-year-old's report card?" she asked.
Rawlins, whose children attend public schools in the St. Louis area, says she understands the district's desire to provide parents with detailed information.
"But you can't see the forest for the trees," she said.
For parents with children in grade school now, the changes in the school report card can be shocking.
We grew up with a standard system of reporting grades, pretty much throughout the country. Now, each district in each state may have its own method of marking grades. The school may use a system of numbers from 1 to 4 (or 1 to 5), letters representing words from Needs Improvement to Outstanding, or a range of words from Below to Proficient to Advanced. And the kindergarten to second grade report cards may be different from the upper grades.
The report card used to be the primary tool for parents to quickly understand how well their child was doing in school. It's become anything but.
Kevin Beckner, coordinator of student assessment in St. Louis' Parkway School District, says he is sympathetic to parents' frustrations.
"The current elementary school report card is four pages long. In English (alone), there are 21 different things we mark. We are looking at how we streamline that," he said.
But even the older system of letter grades was not as clear as we assumed it to be, he said. "A B- means different things to different people," he said. For some people, a C might represent the average. For others, it means something is off-track with the student's learning.
"So, which is it?" he asked. Most parents today would not accept a report card filled with C's for a child who is meeting expectations as he should.
"We all had, growing up, one system. We internalized what the connection was between the learning and the letter," he said. Now, the goal is to more clearly communicate specifically what a student is learning, and there's a different language used to express that. Sometimes, things get lost in translation.
"Sure, you're 'meeting the expectation,'" Rawlins said. "But what does that really mean?" She's seen her child get the same score in two subjects, one of which she believes he is much stronger in than the other.
"My concern is that we can float through thinking our children are doing fine, but could they be doing better?"
Beckner said his district trains teachers to provide detailed comments on the report cards and answer any questions through emails, calls or conferences. Rawlins agrees that, in her own school, it's the direct communication with the teachers that is most helpful.
The gradual shift in report cards over the past decade reflects the move toward referencing grades against how well students reach a given standard. It's difficult for parents to know how well the student has mastered that material compared to his or her peers. If your child gets a "3" in math, an "S" for Satisfactory or a "Proficient" for meeting expectations, how wide is that range of 'Satisfactory'? Has she learned the material solidly, near the top of the pack, or is she barely scraping by? In a previous era, this may have been communicated by the difference between a B- and a B+.
Now, there may be dozens of subcategories within math, each with its own score, and the parent is left to decipher how well the child has learned what was taught.
It can get even more complicated depending on a teacher's own interpretation of how to score each grading period. For example, one teacher may measure how a student is progressing compared to their goal for the year. Near the beginning of the year, a student may earn a "P" for Progressing, with that grade hopefully reflecting full mastery by the end of the year. In the very same school, the teacher in the next classroom may be marking students based on how well they've learned the content simply within that given grading period.
This lack of consistency within schools and across districts makes the report card less useful for parents.
Rawlins, who has a degree in economics, said she has an understanding of numbers and spreadsheets, but that the complicated report cards still baffle her. She plans to ask her school to host a Parents Night to explain the mysteries behind the report cards.
"I understand what the reports cards are trying to communicate," she said, "but sometimes they lead to more questions than answers."