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While some schools are trying out alternatives to the dreaded report card, in most schools it remains the most important communication between school and home. But the medium is flawed and the message cryptic.


Emily Donahue aced her eighth-grade report card last month, so she took a friend to see ``Home Alone 2' and her dad gladly paid for the tickets. Douglas and Keith Murray's parents bought them a new game for their computer because they had made the honor role. Nicholas Urban's parents told him that good grades are their own reward, but he got his Aunt Kathy in New Jersey to give him a dollar for every ``A' he brings home.

For these students at Brennan Middle School in Attleboro, Mass., report-card day is a snap. But some of their classmates dread it. Douglas Murray said he knew one boy whose father hit him when he brought home a bad grade.Despite decades of improvements in education, report cards have hardly changed; educators see them as necessary evils that add little to a student's education but fear. Increasingly, though, some schools are trying new ways of communicating with parents that can reduce violence at home and actually enhance learning.

In Attleboro, report cards now include a warning to parents not to let their frustration over grades turn into violence. In Baltimore, middle-school students earn ``improvement points' and compete against themselves, not their peers.

A school in Manhattan, Kan., has replaced report cards with triangular parent-student-teacher conferences in which the children set their own educational goals and then assess how well they have done.

``We've come to accept report cards the way we accept April 15th and other unpleasant but necessary things,' said Joseph B. Rappa, the superintendent of Attleboro's schools. ``But it doesn't have to be that way, if we make them more an ongoing process of assessment and communication and less like static, high-risk quarterly reports.'

While scattered schools around the country are experimenting with alternatives to the report card - portfolios of work, evaluations by the teacher or parent conferences - report cards remain the most important communication between school and home in a vast majority of schools.

But the medium is flawed and the message cryptic. Are they synopses of student performance or freeze frames of a bad week? Does a ``C' mean that a capable student is doing poorly or that a slow learner is progressing?

A 1988 study by Johns Hopkins University showed that virtually all middle schools use the traditional report card letter grading system. About 26 percent of the schools also grade student effort, and 18 percent show how much progress a student has made.

Attempts to improve report cards have created new problems, said Joyce L. Epstein, co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins.

Chicago, Newark and other cities have tried forcing parents to come to school to pick up report cards, but sometimes parents who hated school when they were children simply stay away. Pass-fail experiments often sent students the unintended message that nobody really cared if they did well.

The biggest problems arise when parents overreact. Child advocates in several cities say that when report cards are issued, reports of child abuse go up. The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, a group in Chicago, has a national awareness campaign, with advertisements that read, ``Stop the Report Card Reflex.'

The ads include six tips for parents, and many schools now slip a leaflet with these tips into report-card envelopes. The tips include ``Praise your child' and ``Be calm!' They end with advice to make a plan with both the child and the teacher to help the child get better grades.

Because a lack of information is often at the root of parental violence, the Brennan Middle School in Attleboro is experimenting with new report cards that give far more information than usual. Along with traditional grades, the card also compares students against districtwide standards and evaluates 10 different categories of learning attitudes, from participating in discussions to degree of self-expectation.


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