The Real Picture on Report Cards and Test Scores

05/18/2015 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016
Leah-anne Thompson

I stumbled upon an old box the other day. I was in the attic looking for something I hadn't seen since our last move when I discovered a box of treasures. This box held school memorabilia, forgotten keepsakes my mom had sent me when she cleaned out her house. It showcased trophies, award certificates, photos and... drum roll, please... report cards. While each of the items in the box revealed something about me, I found the report cards most interesting because they weren't what I remembered about myself. Sure, I had A's in English, which is par for the course for a future English teacher and writer. But that "A" in chemistry didn't hold much water the next year in college, when I had to beg for a Mercy "D." And the "C"in Physics, which made me wince all these years later, never affected my life one bit. It was interesting, to say the least, to view those report cards in retrospect, to compare them to the person I've become since.

Of course, hindsight's 20-20, which is why I'm sharing this with today's parents. I want you to realize that you really, truly have to question whether the final report cards that are sent home in the next few weeks are an accurate depiction of your children's intellect. Yes, I know I'm a teacher and I'm not supposed to say things like this. But stay with me a minute. We teachers commonly refer to your kids' individual scores on assignments as "snapshots," and with good reason. They are single camera clicks of your children's understanding of one concept or unit of study. A series of photos comprises a year's worth of pictures. The final report card, then, is like a photo album, a collection of snapshots that shows a comprehensive picture of what your kids have accomplished during their 10 months in our classroom. That's why I tell parents all the time to stop obsessing about single grades (single snapshots or moments in time) and instead, focus on the overall album (the collection of those moments, which provides a much more accurate depiction of what your kids know and can do).

And while we're on the topic of snapshots, let's talk about standardized test results, which are pouring in during this time and which require much more discernment. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: We teachers often land somewhere on the spectrum between patiently tolerating and outright hating standardized tests. Talk about the mother of all snapshots. Sit in a room with a pencil, color in dots for a few hours and answer a bunch of questions based on, well, just about anything you may have learned during your lifetime, and imagine the picture that develops. Would that one picture capture your strengths, your resolve, your abilities, your drive or your character? Or would it be just like a single photo -- deceptive for its utter inability to demonstrate the complexity of a multi-dimensional person? Shoot, how many of us would be on the streets, peddling for change right now, if our entire futures were predicted by our SAT scores? It's a snapshot, parents, and a highly blurry one at that.

End of year report cards provide a much fuller picture, one with depth and a few more nuances, and one that speaks to strengths, resolve, abilities, and the rest. But report cards aren't perfect either. My husband took AP English in high school and earned a B on his final report card, yet he couldn't name a book he's read in the last 20 years, and he still shortens Congratulations to read "Congrads." His grade did exactly what it was supposed to do - reveal how he did that year in English, and I have no doubt it was accurate. But it did little else in the way of predicting his future success in a completely different field of study or foreshadowing the spectacular person he would become. It was valuable for what it offered at that time, but now it is forgotten, unimportant, just one of thousands of stepping stones in a very long path to success.

So, parents, when the report card comes home from school, try to take it for what it is -- a photo album of your children's learning, effort and ability to demonstrate understanding. It is valuable information because it shows you weaknesses, strengths and room for growth. But it's not future-stifling or world-ending. Likewise, when the standardized test score is posted, remember that it's just a snapshot representing one test, taken on one day, under who knows what conditions, mood or attitude.

When dealing with single grades, standardized tests and snapshots of your kids' understanding, keep this in mind: Sometimes, a picture isn't worth a thousand words. Sometimes, it's nothing more than a picture.

For more on understanding your children's grades, check out Rebecca's book Teenagers 101, here

For more advice on parenting, Rebecca's blog can be found at You can also find her on Twitter at @Rebecca Deurlein and on Facebook.