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Parents don't realize kids are failing because report cards say they are getting As and Bs

OpinionParents don't realize kids are failing because report cards say they are getting As and Bs

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For the past decade, I have wondered why parents are not clamoring for more when it comes to their kids’ education. While conducting focus groups – in school districts where proficiency rates for underserved students were mind-blowingly low – parents would tell us their kids were “doing fine” academically. I was stunned. How could they be so mistaken? 

Resources are available to help students who aren’t working at grade level. But somehow parents are not recognizing that their own child is in need of help. States and school districts are spending billions of federal COVID relief dollars to provide tutoring, summer school, and extra instructional time. Yet there is very little demand for these services. Even when excellent academic resources are easily accessible, parents are not making use of them. 

This month, Gallup and Learning Heroes published a survey of K-12 public school parents that reveals a shocking fact – nearly 9 in 10 parents believe their child is at or above grade level, even after the pandemic. In contrast, the actual percentage of students working at grade level, according to mounds of academic performance data such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, is about 50% at best. This “awareness gap” between parent perception and student performance is a massive problem.

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When we focus on underserved student populations, data shows that grade-level readiness is often even lower and the parental “awareness gap” is greater. In New York City, ninety percent of parents believe their eighth grader is working at grade level in math. But only about a quarter of those students (26%) are at grade level or above in math. That gives those parents an “awareness gap” of 64 points.

What is driving the “awareness gap” parents are experiencing? The culprit may be report cards. 

mother and sons during winter on the bus

Parents are experiencing an ‘awareness’ gap about their kids’ current performance in school.  (iStock)

According to our survey data, eighty percent of parents say their students receive B’s or better on report cards. What parents may not realize is that report card grades don’t mean a child is working at grade level. Report card grades are a reflection of multiple factors – including behavior, effort, and homework completion – as well as the mastery of reading and math skills. When one grade bundles all of those things together, mastery can get lost or covered up. 

Relying on report card grades is particularly problematic in two subjects: math and reading. Eighty-one percent of parents say math is necessary for their child’s success in life. Eighty-one percent of parents also say their child needs strong reading skills to get a good job. But if parents don’t know their child is not working at grade level, they are unable to help them catch up.

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Even before the disruptions of COVID, America was not doing a good job, as a country, educating and supporting our low-income students and students of color. And now we see that parents are being lulled into complacency by grade inflation on report cards. 

Another new report, False Signals:  How Pandemic Era Grades Mislead Families and Threaten Student Learning, offers insight into the focus group experience I mentioned earlier as well as the Gallup-Learning Heroes survey data. 

The False Signals report emphasizes how grade inflation sent the wrong signals to families in two school districts where student attendance and performance rates continued to decline after the pandemic. During those declines, report card grades remained surprisingly high at both schools, even among chronically absent students and students performing below grade level. No wonder parents were confused about their students’ grade-level performance –those inflated report card grades were misleading. Parents needed more information.

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As parents, we all want to believe our kids are doing well. I am raising two boys, and I know we have so many things to worry about – social media, friend groups, sports, and whatever else is keeping our children from being their best selves. We aren’t looking for new problems to solve! Our research shows that when parents are asked what they are worried about, academics are at the very bottom of the list. 

The good news is that once parents bridge the “awareness gap,” their priorities dramatically shift. When they learn that their child is below grade level, parents push academics to the very top of their worry list. Based on almost a decade of Learning Heroes research, we know that when parents are informed, they take action. And the number one action parents take is to ask their child’s teacher how to help. 

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Fortunately, schools have real-time information on how each child is doing in reading and math. I wish every school had a process for sharing grade-level assessment data with parents on a regular basis, so teachers and parents could have meaningful conversations about each child’s needs. 

Many schools don’t have processes in place to share that information, and as you now know, most parents rely on report grades to gauge their child’s progress. This is why I urge all parents, grandparents, and guardians to ask their child’s teacher one simple question: “Is my child working at grade level in math and reading?” The conversation that follows can forge a partnership in support of the child’s academic progress. 

When both school and home are engaged, student success soars. Parents need real-time information about how their kids are doing in school so they can take action when their child falls behind. Teachers need engaged parents who are ready to help their child reach their academic potential.

A recent study on the impact of family engagement shows that schools with strong family engagement before the pandemic had much lower chronic absenteeism post-COVID. Those schools also enjoyed higher rates of reading and math proficiency, even when controlling for income and a host of school and community characteristics. Parents and teachers need each other!

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Parents are a formidable force, and it is time to get them off the sidelines of education. In the short term, parents need to go beyond their child’s report card grades to find out if their child is working at grade level. In the long term, schools need to create processes and space for meaningful, data-based parent-teacher partnerships. 

Parents belong in the education process, and they need to know how their child is really doing at school. No one is more committed to seeing their child succeed.   

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