12/21/2011 03:30 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

What Does a Report Card Mean Anyway?


Although many teachers across the country are relieved to have completed the first term of the academic year, the anxiety is about to start for many parents. I'm not entirely surprised that parents feel nervous, even overwhelmed, when they try to dissect and absorb the information in their children's report cards. In the past decade, the Ontario public school system has implemented several reforms to the reporting system that range from percentages to letter grades to anecdotal reports to teachers picking comments from a generated bank, and to the current situation where educators are using standard criteria and language to assess students. Regardless of the school system, the tips below will help you read and understand a report card:

1. Read the legend on the report card. A legend will decode key information in the report card. This is the first thing parents should do before looking at marks. Too often, parents will assume that they know what certain marks represent, which results in a misreading of the report. Knowing and understanding how each level/grade is defined is imperative when reading a report card. Whether the marks are assigned as A,B,C,D or 1,2,3,4, or percentages, it is critical to clearly understand what each mark represents. Play close attention to words that distinguish the levels such as "consistently exceeds," "occasionally exceeds, at grade level" and "progressing to grade level."

2. Read between the lines. This can be tricky. Be patient and remember teachers have painstakingly tried to articulate the most appropriate and helpful comments for your child. Chances are they revised their comments several times and that the school's administration has reviewed all the comments as well. Read words for what they are; for example, "is progressing" means the child has not quite reached the defined goal yet, or "we encourage them to..." means this is an area that the child needs to work on; "with coaxing" refers to the child needing assistance to complete an activity, while "at times seems distracted" implies exactly that -- the child needs to focus. If you are really unsure of the meaning behind a comment, write your questions down and ask for an explanation when school resumes in the new year or at the next parent-teacher interview.

3. Lose the Bias. Yes you love your child. Your child can and will do great things and maybe your child is gifted. But remember you are not observing your child in a classroom setting everyday. The teachers in the classroom are and they have been recording all his or her progress over the last term through anecdotal notes, rubrics, tests, quizzes, etc. Rest assured that a competent teacher would be able to back up any grade or comment with different examples of your child's work and detailed notes. Trust that the teachers are the experts; they know how to assess progress objectively and point out strengths and weaknesses. The bottom line is that teachers are accountable to the Ministry of Education, and their job is to accurately assess your child in a holistic manner.

4. Set Goals. Good report cards will offer suggestions about next steps or an action plan if improvement in a certain area is required. You, as the parent, can use these suggestions to guide a discussion with your child about short- and long-term goals that are realistic and relevant. Focus on consistent and incremental steps in the right direction. Ask your child to share their goals with their teacher, not only will the teacher appreciate that you took her feedback, but also that you are actively engaged in teaching your child important skills such as accepting constructive criticism, ownership of their learning, and the power of taking action.

A lot of hard work is put into writing a report card and the purpose of the report card is to report on success as well as areas of improvement. The key is not how much you fret over the content of the report card, but what you decide to do with the assessment. Happy Reading!