As we near the end of the first quarter of this school year, the time also approaches to give out report cards. What is the purpose of report cards? Whom do they serve? On what basis are grades calculated? To what do grades correspond? Children get worked up over grades, whether in tears over certain letters of the alphabet or elated by other letters. Some parents reward or punish children on the basis of grades. We had better know what the answers are to the above questions if we’re going to justify taking grades so seriously.
But the simple fact is: we don’t have good answers to those questions about report cards and grades. There is no universal and foolproof method of calculating grades. In the end, grades often prove little more than a student’s ability to regurgitate information. In no way do they indicate the development of character, work ethic, or virtue, and they say very little about earnestness or effort. Grades favor the naturally gifted, who don’t have to try hard to achieve the earlier letters of the alphabet. And grades frown upon those who are not naturally gifted, who may try hard but still end up associated with the slightly later letters.
“But we must evaluate the students somehow!” Agreed. But for what reason? Or to ask a more precise question: For whom do teachers write up report cards? Answer: For parents. Mark this well: report cards are reports to parents. Teachers serve on behalf of parents in educating their children. Teachers are accountable to parents for the education of their children. And so teachers report to parents on how that education is going. Report cards are for parents.
Report cards are not for students. When students care highly about their grades, they often don’t care about becoming educated. They care about performing well. Nor are report cards ultimately for other schools or institutions. It is unfortunate that students have educational records the same way that criminals have records. If another educational institution wants to know how a student is doing in various subjects, let that institution give a proficiency exam. The grades from another school prove nothing anyway, because each school has its own system and philosophy of grading. So again, report cards are for the parents of the students, not for anyone else.
Since report cards are a means for teachers to report to parents, what belongs on a report card? The answer is really obvious, and the fact that we don’t see how obvious it is shows how entrenched we’ve become in grades. What belongs on a report card is a report. A report means putting words down, communicating, relaying items of significance. A report does not mean slapping a letter on a child the way we slap letters on eggs and meat. “That’s some grade A beef!” “That’s a grade A student!” That sounds ridiculous.
This year the report cards of Mount Hope Lutheran School will look different than they have in the past: we’re putting the report back into report cards. Each student’s report card will be broken down by subject, and the teachers will include comments on how the student is doing in each subject: what’s going well, where there’s room for improvement, specific language in actual words to communicate with parents. There will also be comments on how the student is doing in following the classroom rules. Here’s a sample of what this will look like: sample report card.
We will still be giving grades to students. This is simply unavoidable as we continue to function in a larger educational community. But I want to make it clear that grades say very little. They are single letters on a page. Consider the following made-up students. What kind of student is this: A, C, B-, A+, B+, C-, A-? What kind of student is this: C-, D+, B-, A-, D, C+, C? The latter student tries harder than all the rest, even though his grades don’t bear him out. His persistence has taught him the virtue of fortitude, and he will stand up to temptation and do the right thing, even when it’s hard. The former student goes out of his way to watch out for the younger kids at school and holds the hymnal for those around him in chapel. He loves to sing and knows the Bible well and will make a good father one day. Grades won’t tell you any of these important things. But teachers will. The most important part of the report card is the report, and even better than a report is a face-to-face conversation. Least of all are the grades.