Education Cheat Sheet: How to Read a Report Card

7 tips to help you translate what your child’s report card is really saying about his or her learning process.


Editor’s Note: When I was a kid, report cards were simpler to read. In my elementary school, we received a scale ranging from U (unsatisfactory) to S+ (more than satisfactory). Today, my daughter’s report is several pages long and covers many topics, skills and other items that change from quarter to quarter. Mid-Pacific’s Edna Hussey explains how report cards gauge student’s learning today and has a few tips to help parents translate it and keep it in perspective.


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Report cards. Just these two words evoke good and not-so-good memories, depending which letters, numerals, or symbols measuring the quality of the learning is received. While the concept of a report card is here to stay, whatʻs changing is how information is being shared with parents. In some schools, the subject followed by a letter grade or numeral (e.g. Science B+) has been replaced by descriptions of specific skills or content that should be mastered. The one-page report card is now multiple pages and, in some schools, electronic.


Why the change? There are two main reasons.

First, educators look at learning differently than when we were growing up. Learning skills, which can be observed during the learning process, are as valuable as the results such as performances, presentations, final pieces of writing and test performances. Educational systems are acknowledging that many skills comprise the complex nature of learning. Thus, the standards listed in a report card reflects the skills rather than only the end product.


Second, teachers and students should be accountable for the expectations we have of them. The standards or descriptions of skills that students should demonstrate provide information about not just what is taught (curriculum), but how students learn (skills).


So, how can you make sense of the report card?

  • Become familiar with the schoolʻs assessment and evaluation system. It’s not enough to know if the school uses letter grades, percentages, or symbols. The assessment refers to multiple ways your childʻs learning is observed, including participation in class discussions, ability to work independently and with groups, ability to find information. Evaluation is a value placed on the quality of the learning, usually a grade or numerical score. The two are are distinct concepts, not terms that can be used interchangeably. Here are some questions to ask about your school’s assessment and evaluation:
  • Does the teacher or school determine a value (numerical score or grade) for all the work my child is assigned, such as homework, practice sheets, etc.? Does everything count?
  • Does my child have opportunities to improve his learning without being penalized for practice efforts? The nature of learning after all is making errors, where learning is the strongest and most meaningful.
  • Does the teacher determine, from the body of work that my child produces, specific areas of strength and areas for which the teacher can provide additional support.
  • Sometimes the language in which report cards is written can be downright baffling. Do you understand all the terminology in the report card? Are there any vague terms? Ask if you are unsure.
  • Regard the report card as a snapshot in time. Spend time to really understand this profile of your child as a learner at the specific time as determined by the school. Since learning is a process, treat the report card as a periodic stop sign along the way. As any good teacher looks for patterns of student performance before an evaluation, so too should parents regard the report card not as final “pronouncement” but as a map of your child’s educational journey.
  • Who should ask questions? If your child is in elementary, you should feel comfortable about asking your child’s teacher about the report card. If your child is in middle school or high school, your child should feel empowered to discuss the report card with the teacher as important steps toward independence and full responsibility for his or her own learning. As your child develops cognitively, socially, and emotionally, the maturing child has the capacity for increasing self-motivation, decision-making, and more recognizable patterns of learning.


Report cards should not contain any surprises if home-school communication is open and ongoing. If otherwise, best to initiate discussion. You have the right and responsibility to understand what and how your child’s learning is reported to you.


Edna Hussey is the principal of Mid-Pacific’s elementary and preschool. She has taught all grade levels, including university level, and has held several leadership roles in literacy-focused organizations. Edna has an Ed.D. in professional practice and serves as board chair of the Hawai‘i Council of Private Schools.