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Do You Know How Your Child Is Really Doing in School?

In our recent report, Muddled, we share real-life case studies of four students and families to show how confusing the report cards, test results and other information parents get from schools can be. For families who are trying hard to give their kids a good education, it’s hugely frustrating. How are you supposed to help, if no one is clearly explaining how your child is doing—or worse, telling you everything is fine, when it really isn’t?

Every day, our Navigators help families of all backgrounds get the full picture of their students’ performance. We asked them for their top tips for parents. Here’s what they said:

1. Know what your child is supposed to be learning

You don’t need to be an educational expert. But every state publishes what students should be able to do at each grade level — a set of skills called “standards.” Ask your child’s teacher about them or find them online, so you know what to look for. If you know your child should be able to quickly multiply and divide numbers between 1-10 by the end of 3rd grade, for example, you can check her homework and quizzes to see if they include that kind of work. The National PTA offers handy, parent-friendly guides for each grade level, as do most states – print out the ones for your child for easy reference.

2. Pay attention

Many parents focus on report card grades and test results. Those are certainly important, but homework assignments and other school work can also help you gauge how well your child is doing. Look closely at the work that comes home or is shared online through your school’s parent portal. Does your child seem to be doing the things described in the learning standards?  Is your child able to do everything covered in assignments or only some of it?  If the latter, ask the teacher if that’s to be expected or is a cause for worry.  In short: Watch actively and speak up.

3. Trust but verify

Compare your child’s grades to other sources of information you may receive about their progress in school, such as testing results. You may find, for example, that your child is getting a B in English, but earning test scores that suggest he is not fully proficient in reading. Why? If you see that happening, it’s time for a talk with his teacher.

4. Ask direct questions and listen for direct answers

Sharing bad news is always difficult, and it’s common for well-intentioned educators to downplay negative information. For example, they may emphasize how hard a student is working without saying outright that she is behind in class. Listen carefully during parent-teacher conferences and ask follow-up questions until you get the clarity you need: What is hardest for her? How can we make sure she catches up?

5. Be wary of “wait and see”

Sometimes, waiting for more information makes sense. A single test score isn’t always reason to panic. At other times, you may be pretty sure you have all the information you need, and it’s time to act. In those cases, trust your instincts. “Waiting and seeing” is easy for schools, because three months of it doesn’t cost them anything. For your child, on the other hand, three months might be a third of his sophomore year. 

6. Push for challenges

One of the most common reasons kids fall behind in school is that they simply aren’t given a chance to tackle sufficiently challenging work. They may do well in class and get good grades, but the material they get is actually too easy. They and their families often don’t realize this until much later on, when they change to a school with higher standards or apply to college and learn that they need remediation. Listen to what your child says about her classes and school work. If you hear her saying it’s “easy” or “boring,” it might mean she’s not being challenged enough. If she’s doing well in class already, ask the teacher what she should focus on next.