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The Pros & Cons of Report Cards & Letter Grades

by Debbie McCarson, studioD

The student report card has become a sort of cultural icon. Ask most people well out of college if they still have their childhood report cards stashed away somewhere. Chances are they do. Report cards are kept as mementos of “who we were” as children. The traditional report card has always had the power to reap immediate rewards or punishments, as well as affect long-term consequences. With such potential, educators are starting to question whether it provides a fair assessment of who we are, and if is a reliable determiner of who we may become.

Convenient Communication

The report card is a standard and familiar communication tool between school and home. Typically, parents know they will be getting a report sent home four times during the school year to keep them informed of their child’s school performance. The standard five-letter grading scale quickly indicates to parents whether their child is succeeding, struggling or failing in school. Parents of a struggling student can decide to be more involved in their child’s school experience and to support the classroom teacher from home.

Aids Accountability

The report card keeps teachers as well as students accountable. Knowing they are required to give feedback on student performance, teachers stay on task and focus on curriculum objectives. Having a report card issued four times a year helps teachers break objectives into organized units and set goals for each marking period. With each marking period lasting roughly ten weeks, teachers must provide instruction and assessment within a limited timeframe. Having to “grade” individual students also helps teachers recognize any inconsistencies in their grading system. For example, if a student who obviously needs improvement in basic skills is earning an “A” on his report card, the teacher may need to adjust her methodology for grading.

Invalid Assessment

Grading practices vary from teacher to teacher, and some argue that standard letter grades are not a valid assessment of academic performance. Thomas R. Guskey, professor of education policy studies and evaluation at the University of Kentucky, proposes that much of a teacher’s grading system is subjective. Student behavior can significantly influence a teacher’s judgment of his performance. In his report “Making the Grade: What Benefits Students?” Guskey suggests that traditional report cards are not a good indicator of academic proficiency. For instance, a student with behavior problems may never receive a high grade because the constant attention to misbehavior may eclipse any academic success. Whether or not a misbehaving child knows his math facts may never be reported accurately. Guskey cites other factors as well, stating that even the “neatness of handwriting” can sway a teacher’s assessment.

Deficient Determiner

Report cards become permanent records documenting a student’s academic performance. When a student transfers to another school, report cards are often the only documentation the new school receives concerning the student’s past performance. High school transcripts, the official record of student grades, are sent to potential colleges. These grades can make or break a student’s chance at acceptance. In his report, “Grades as a Valid Measures of Academic Achievement of Classroom Learning,” professor of educational psychology James D. Allen explains the inadequacy of report cards to accurately document student achievement. Arguably, grades are too arbitrary to make “informed decisions about the student’s academic and career future.” Since report cards don't always prove to be an accurate assessment of academic achievement, they provide a deficient resource when planning a student's future. Decisions based on these inaccuracies are not necessarily in the best interest of the student.

About the Author

Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.

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