Enough already: Do report cards need to go?

Jody Britten
5 min readJan 15, 2019

Report cards have been a part of education since the early 1900s. While they’ve changed in format, scale, and depth; there really has never been a “report card revolution.”

From the very first to the most recent, report cards are about judgement of a student (for the good, bad, productive, or pointless) by an adult in authority (typically a teacher). The United States has fiddled with options for various scales, titles, descriptions, codification of teacher comments, and more.

Still it’s just the same old report card.

As a parent I have to admit that my child’s report card has been awaiting my view in the student information system for about a month.

I haven’t looked at it.

Why? Because honestly I’m 95% certain I already know what it will say. “Meeting or exceeding all grade level standards, except for one area of literacy, and I have a good kid who works well with others but isn’t super motivated.”

I don’t really need a report card though; do I? I have NWEA scores, CoGAT scores, three different weekly reports on progress from math and reading apps my kid uses on an iPad at school, etc.

My experience raises a point; what is the purpose of report cards and are these traditional aspects of school still necessary? Yes, there are rules that report cards be provided to allow parents continual updates on student progress and performance. But here’s the view from a parent perspective.

To get an idea of a child’s progress on a report card you have to login to the student information system, scroll through to the grades, find the current grading period, and click through 40+ rows to find grades and comments (and if you are lucky there is actually some key to understanding what the grades mean). Login. Browse. Locate. Click around. Make sense of it all. Give up.

To get your update on reading and math progress of your kid your handy app that is linked with your child’s account pings you. In one click you see grade level progress and areas of success and struggle. Scores are presented in simple charts and graphs that focus on progress. Notification. One click. View and understand. Done.

So why do we need report cards? Or is it time to slay the sacred cow and get rid of a traditional practice that might be outdated?

According to recent reports teachers spend around 20 hours on report cards. According to other reports sending report cards home on Friday equates to higher levels of abuse on a Saturday. So what value and purpose do these legendary pieces of paper or reports mean and what purpose do they serve?

That’s the big question.

For years we have seen a lot of contemplation about the reinventing of report cards; some of which are very intriguing. But the question we aren’t answering is this: how much benefit is a report card worth in today’s educational climate?

There are key assumptions that we need to check.

  1. If there is no validity or reliability for grades that are provided by teachers, what is the actual value?
  2. If it is continually difficult for parents to access and understand report cards, what is the value? And how are districts ensuring that parents understand the data they are provided via report cards?
  3. If standardized test scores demonstrate a student is above grade level, yet his/her report card says they are not meeting grade level standards, what does that say?
  4. If most parents want to see how their child is doing against his or her peers are report cards really the most accurate account? Grades are provided by teachers (in best case scenario awesome teachers), but those are based on grades (on assignments that may really have nothing to do with demonstrating knowledge, understanding, and ability to apply) or they are based on observations or perceptions of progesss; is that the best data we have to inform parents?

The argument made in thought provoking texts like What School Could Be and Most Likely To Succeed suggests that what we are doing is ‘playing school’ as it was designed hundreds of years ago. While these texts and others call for a redesign of education as we know it, we can take baby steps to ignite more aligned practices.

We can question how assignments are aligned to standards. We can investigate how valid or reliable (it doesn’t have to be both) grading practices really are. We can really listen to teachers when they say they give assignments just for a grade in the grade book. We can think of student demonstrations of understanding, knowledge, and ability to apply as formative assessments (and just report those as formative informative progress reports). We can give students choice in how they demonstrate mastery and understanding in ways that mean something to them AND show us what they know. We can create a system where grades are shown via demonstrations (tests or projects a like with equally reliable scoring).

The problem with report cards as they currently tend to exist is that they are often times disconnected from anything of quality. In a time when data quality standards are on the radar of educational organizations, we can’t forget that the report card is a major point of communication for parents (and kids).

If it’s not our best data, let’s rethink it.

Could we focus report cards on the consolidation of all the data sources our districts currently pay for? Could we focus report cards on quantitative data that makes the most of the teacher (no computerized test could tell anyone what a teacher can)? Could we meet the rules and do what makes sense to parents? Can we uphold a standard of quality for data (that isn’t based on bullshit) in our report cards?

If we are going to make things work in education in this day and age, we have to rethink, we have to slay a few sacred practices, and more than anything we have to do better. And maybe doing better is working smarter with the data we have rather than working harder (i.e., 60+ hours per teacher a year in report card preparation and recording).

And we have to remember that doing things differently does not mean you are breaking the rules.

Side note: I checked the report card, I was right.



Jody Britten

fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions