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The Thing About Grades

Where They Fit in Today’s Education System

At the start of the summer, my 8-year-old came to me with a concern.

“When do I get my report card?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, Buddy. Sometimes the school mails the final report card in June.”

“Aww, man! I have to wait until then to find out if I get to go to
third grade?”

I was shocked by my son’s question and his overall uncertainty about his academic standing. It made me sad that he thought he might be in danger of failing second grade.

My husband and I have tried to build an education foundation with learning as the primary focus – not grades. Of course, we take schoolwork seriously: we have a designated homework spot for the kids; we all read regularly; and we are mindful of deadlines for weightier assignments like tests, projects, and book reports. As a tenth grade English teacher and a mother, I see the interface of learning at school and home, and I strive to practice at home what I preach in the classroom. Right now, our children (ages eight and five) enjoy learning and are excited to attend school, and we don’t want the pressure of getting good grades to change that. But did we go too far in the opposite direction? Perhaps we could have had more conversations about how grades work so our son would have understood that he wasn’t doing poorly.

Well, here we are at the start of a new school year, and there is no time like the present to establish better routines and clearer expectations. It’s also a great opportunity to decide as a family what constitutes a good grade and begin to create a healthy academic balance.

Elementary School Students and Grade Pressure

Ingrid Moore, director of the Lower School at The Steward School in Richmond, oversees all of the programs from junior kindergarten through fifth grade. She observes interactions among students and between students and instructors on a daily basis.

While Moore agrees that as a society there is too much emphasis on grades, she also states that this is the unfortunate reality for students whose families plan to eventually enroll them in a 4-year college or university.

“It’s surprising that we consider this even in the lower school, but [as educators] our ultimate goal is to see our students successful in college and beyond,” says Moore. Even though it’s early in their academic careers, Moore explains that one of the benefits of grades is that they make sense to parents. “In a world full of unknowns, parents often take comfort in grades because they understand them.”

What many adults still need to understand, however, is that grades are only one measure of a child’s achievement. Grades do not assess the other important skills and talents children possess, like kindness, empathy, and passion. It is important for children to know this, and it’s up to parents to help reassure them.

Educators should help students and families recognize that grades are one measure of something very specific, according to Moore. “Another thing we do is give children different opportunities to demonstrate understanding and mastery and have their grades reflect more than just rote learning,” says Moore. It is critical for students to be assessed beyond memorizing information for a test. They must be able to apply their learning through building, designing, innovating, and writing.

Do Grades Matter in the Lower Grades?

Most schools begin assigning letter grades at the elementary level, but there is no national or state consensus on when it is most appropriate to do so. Some schools begin in third grade, but many other schools in the Richmond area start in first or second grade.

When is the right time to begin assigning grades? And how much do these grades in the early years matter? An educator and best-selling author, Susan Wise Bauer has worked with parents and students for more than twenty years. In her 2018 book, Rethinking School: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education, she teaches parents to negotiate the education system while nurturing the whole child.

Author Susan Wise Bauer argues that exercise and creativity should be focal points for families, along with students’ grades.

According to Bauer, lower school grades really don’t matter. “Transcripts and records from grades one to eight are only useful for students and teachers within the secondary system, as a way of evaluating whether students are ready to move on to the next level.” The author argues that beyond that, elementary and middle school grades are of no real consequence for students. “And no college or employer will ever ask for K through eighth grades … or care if your child’s preparation is a little bit on the nontraditional side,” Bauer writes.

For young students and their families, grades can be motivators or a source of great frustration. Grades can be especially damaging when a child feels he worked hard, learned a lot, and still received a low score. Bauer recognizes that grades can be influential to a young student’s self-worth. Additionally, she notes many flaws within our educational system and states it is one in which “students are taught that physical exercise and creativity are secondary to the carrying out of regimented tasks.”

While it’s not likely that letter grades will disappear completely anytime soon, there are ways to emphasize the learning process over the outcome within our own households. Students definitely should not be unaware of their academic standing like my son was last year, but there also shouldn’t be unnecessary pressure for straight As and perfect report cards. In addition to teaching specific skills, we should focus on the development of important qualities, such as independence, self-respect, curiosity, self-discipline, and value for others.

As parents, we should emphasize improvement in academic areas, especially when there has been a past struggle. And one of the best things we can teach young children is that it’s okay to fail. In fact, we often learn more from failures than any other events in our lives. “When failure is not treated as an inevitable and valuable part of learning, children learn to avoid failure – which means avoiding experimentation and steering away from tasks that they know are a little beyond their reach,” Bauer writes.

The Role of Parents

As parents, what messages are we sending to our children and others around us regarding grades? Whether it’s an honor roll student bumper sticker or a social media post, we must not forget that what we choose to share ultimately forms others’ impressions of our values. While it is wonderful to be proud of a child’s report card, it may be harmful if a child finds his parents are supportive only when stellar grades are earned.

For example, does your family have a practice of only celebrating straight As? Experts do not recommend rewarding children for good grades, whether monetarily or otherwise. It is much better to emphasize the learning process than the end result; good grades should be the reward.

Once children start middle school, families have access to grades through online portals. There are positives and negatives to this education development. While it’s important for parents to be aware of how their child is doing in school, some parents might feel compelled to monitor grades obsessively. Because there is often no context or explanation when a grade is posted by a teacher, this kind of access can be problematic. Student progress at the elementary level is better monitored through one-on-one conferences. For parents of middle school students, one weekly or biweekly check of grades with the student at your side is recommended. 

Older Students and Grades: Assessing the Whole Child

Melissa Freed, Upper School curriculum dean at The Steward School, believes that online access to grades is much more critical for parents of high school students. “While nothing can replace direct communication between teacher and parent, keeping an eye on grades when students are assessed as frequently as they are can be beneficial, especially when teenagers are sometimes not as forthcoming with information,” says Freed.

Still, it is important for parents to resist the urge to check student portals too often, and instead, log in periodically to look for major changes in grades. This is a good way to monitor your child’s overall wellness, as missing work and dips in grades can be indicative of serious social and emotional problems. Experts recommend that parents reach out to teachers at the first sign of a concern so issues can be addressed from both fronts. A strong partnership between home and school is essential.

Setting School Year Goals

As the new school year begins, consider setting some academic goals with your child, establishing a regular routine, and planning educational outings that involve the whole family. Try not to base your goals on grades in particular. As parents, we have the most influential roles in our children’s lives, and we can show them how perceived failures can lead to new discoveries.

While it’s important to discuss your child’s report cards, try to keep things in perspective. Inordinate grade stress can cause students to shut down, which will likely impact the learning process – the ultimate goal of school. And finally, make sure the messages you send about grades are the ones you intend. If you are rewarding or punishing certain grades, you are sending messages that are specific to outcome. Punitive parenting typically does not address the underlying issue that led to the child’s low grade or lack of achievement in a specific area.

Look beyond the grades and consider your whole child. Doing so will keep your child ahead of any trends in education and prepared for the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing world.

Start the School Year Off Right

From the beginning of the school year, we have to remember that children are much more than their academic grades. As a teacher and mom of two elementary school students, I suggest that parents encourage participation in collaborative projects and public speaking opportunities for their kids. Working in a team toward a shared goal and presenting in front of a group of peers are critical life skills, and it can only help to develop them early.

Additionally, parents should praise kids for non-academic achievements, such as showing kindness and compassion. For example, if your child tells you he helped a classmate after a fall on the playground, make sure he knows you are proud of him. If your child is acknowledged with a character or citizenship award, respond with the same enthusiasm that you would if he received an honor roll certificate.  

Casey Dabney, mother of two and math teacher at Prince George High School, has a few more specifics for helping families start off on a positive track this school year:

1. Ask open-ended questions to converse daily with your student about subject or class-specific learning. Don’t let her get away with “We did nothing today.” Compel her to name a topic, a new vocabulary word, or tell a story.

2. Encourage your child to join his teacher’s group or other online notification system.

3. Parents should join appropriate groups or message boards to stay informed about major assignments and announcements.

4. Introduce yourself to teachers at the start of the year. Have a positive contact that will mitigate any problems or concerns that might arise later.

Photo: The Steward School

Melissa Face is the author of “I Love You More Than Coffee,” an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids ... a little more. She lives in Prince George with her husband and two children and teaches at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School. Read more at
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