Shift Happens: Communicating with Parents about Standards-Based Report Cards

When parents are used to thinking of “grades” as an A or B or C…a lot of mindset shifting has to occur as their students move to a standards-based grading format. Parents “know” what an A means, but many are unfamiliar with the idea of standards-based grading and may have never heard the term.  Making the shift to standards-based reporting will require us as educators to clearly communicate why standards-based reporting will benefit their students.

Parents will likely want to know why a new format for reporting grades is necessary in the first place, which is completely understandable. I grew up earning grades like A’s and B’s as most of you probably did as well. With that in mind, let’s compare 2 report cards brought home by a student (let’s call him Peter Parker) and see what rationale there may be for such a shift.

peter parker

  • After checking out Peter’s report card, what can you tell about his academic progress?
  • Which skills did he have a difficult time gaining or retaining?
  • What is his current level of mastery with addition and subtraction fluency within 5? 
  • How well does he read high-frequency words?

Now, let’s check out this standards-based report card and consider the same questions.

report card 2

  • After checking out Peter’s report card, what can you tell about his academic progress?
  • Which skills did he have a difficult time gaining or retaining?
  • What is his current level of mastery with addition and subtraction fluency within 5? 
  • How well does he read high-frequency words?

The second example lays out each standard that the student has been assessed on and gives a rating for each individual standard (see scale marked “Grading Key” above). Our first example, which shows a more traditional report card format, makes it pretty much impossible to answer any questions about the student’s specific skills, abilities, and levels of mastery. It also leads me to ask many more follow-up questions:

  • What percentage of this grade is classwork/homework/tests?
  • What standards were assessed?
  • Which specific standards is the child excelling in and which are a struggle currently?
  • Are there other factors besides standard mastery weighing into this score (compliance, neatness, work habits, extra credit, etc.)?

One of my favorite aspects of standards-based report cards is how easily you can communicate a student’s specific levels of mastery for specific standards to parents (and the students themselves). A couple of weeks before report cards go home, we send out letters to ensure parents are aware of what standards the students will be assessed on each quarter. These standards are phrased in “I can” statements exactly how they appear on the report card.

k report card

As you shift gears toward standards-based grading and report cards, you are sure to hit a few potholes along the way when explaining this grading philosophy to parents. It is tempting to equate a standards-based rubric with a traditional grading system (e.g. thinking of an “M” for mastery as the same as an “A,” a “P” for progressing is a “B,” and so on).  Because of this, we host a parents’ night each August to explain the grading scale and try to explicitly dispel this idea.

key

Another possible roadway hazard is student and parent expectations. If a student is used to earning “straight A’s,” then a natural assumption under this grading system would be that the same student will earn “straight M’s.”  However, standards-based grading is built on a rubric of mastery, or exceeding the standard. I have had a few conversations to explain that “all M’s” is simply not a reasonable expectation and that a “P” shows that the student is progressing with his or her ability on that skill.  A student is quite unlikely to master all standards in the first nine weeks, so that student will not have all M’s on the report card.  A students earns an “M” by mastering all aspects of that standard. Again, this is a conversation worth having on the front end of the school year so that reasonable expectations are set before the first report card goes home.

Surely, simply slapping different letters on a report card will mean nothing if it is not an extension of high-quality instructional and grading practices. This type of report card is a continuation of better teaching and better grading practices as a whole.   

It is imperative that as you switch lanes into standards-based reporting, you communicate to your parents that standards-based report cards are a true picture of what a student knows and is able to do. The drive from traditional report cards to standards-based report cards may bring its share of potholes or bumps in the road, but I assure you it’s a drive worth taking.  The trek will not be short…this conversation will continue far past the first few weeks of school. If we are to truly transform our current grading practices as an educational community, the communication highway must stay open! Just keep in mind, shift happens.


Heather Simpson is a kindergarten teacher at Hueytown Elementary. She is married to Micah and they have two sons, Daniel (5) and Nathan (1). Heather has a love for sushi, Flair pens, and all things college football.

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