Are Elementary School Grades Really that Important?


I have a voicemail waiting for me when I return to school on Monday from a very angry parent.  She is upset after seeing her fourth grade son’s report card yesterday because his grades in reading and math went down from an A- to a B+.  Really?  Are elementary school grades really that important in a child’s life?

According to her message, this mom is especially upset because the teacher did not contact her to advise her that the grades were “dropping” this trimester.

So, I will need to call this parent on Monday to explain my points of view which include:

  • The student received all +’s in the more important areas of Work Habits and Socialization.  To me that is way more important than an A or a B.

  • I have instructed our teachers to contact parents when a child’s grade drops significantly (e.g. from an A to a C).  I agree that there should not be surprises for parents, and that a significant drop may signal an issue.

  • In my opinion, going from an A- to a B+ is not significant, especially at the end of the school year when the curriculum should be the most challenging for students.

  • This is elementary school.  A child’s grades have no impact on his future.  (Makes me wonder if the parent is internalizing this as if they are HER grades…)

I am interested if you agree or disagree with me on this issue.  What would you tell this parent on Monday?

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17 thoughts on “Are Elementary School Grades Really that Important?

  1. You’re right on Dave. Too much pressure from early on for children to be ‘above average’ all the time. If every parent had an above average kid, wouldn’t that become the new average? With the stress and anxiety of childhood creating children who burn out by middle school, it’s time to help parents teach kids that the most important lessons of childhood are 1) feel good about yourself and live life with confidence and 2) learn to manage disappointments that occur in life. With those as the focus, children can manage anything that comes along!

  2. Dave,

    I agree with your points, and when I look at my own kids’ report cards, I focus on the descriptors and not the letter grades. But as long as the teachers are giving letter grades a all, especially as young as 4th grade, your points are, well, beside the point.

    We, in schools, can’t have it both ways. We can’t say on the one hand that the grades aren’t as important, and that a drop from A- to B is insignificant, while at the same time listing the letter grade at the top of each subject area section on the report card.

    As for your question about what to tell the parent, that’s a tough one. Rock and hard place time. There may be nothing you can say or do that will make a difference to a parent who has already taught her child that the difference between the A- and the B is worth calling the principal about. (Makes one wonder if there was a promise of a reward at the end of the year and the parent now faces the child’s disappointment at the loss of that reward.)

    So I say do whatever you can to make your points to this parent and come to some sort of closure, but then start working as part of the district leadership team to walk your talk. If the district doesn’t believe that grades are as significant and they don’t reflect what’s truly important, then the methods of student feedback should evolve to reflect that. Until they do, it’s hard to blame parents (or students) if they continue to place undue importance on letter grades.

  3. I think the first three things you are planning to tell her make perfect sense. The last, while I completely agree with it, may not go over as well. If elementary school grades have no impact on their future why do we give them? At least, that’s the question I would ask as a parent.

    Is there any way to get this parent to focus on their child’s learning rather than simply on the grade?

  4. The only way to get a parent to look at learning as opposed to grades is for the teachers and administration to make that the focus. As a society we do not, and though the grades may not have an impact directly, the fact that we give them and measure them means even if we say they are not that important, they must be or we would not keep track of it. There is a management adage that states “you can’t manage what you can’t measure and if you don’t want to manage it, don’t measure it”. The drop in grades for this student translates to about a 7% change. When managing anything 7%, is worth taking note. I do think however the anger of her call needed to be toned down. Education is a collaborative process and an angry phone call does not make for a smooth collaboration.

  5. Report cards go out at several points in the year in the year for one reason…to let parents know how the child is doing…nothing more. If the truth were told, there were plenty of papers that went home over the trimester that gave that same message. Was the parent not paying attention?

  6. Standards-based report cards….several school districts have chosen to go that route and it works great. Assessments are given and if the child doesn’t pass, the skill is retaught and retested, over and over until the child passes the assessment. By year-end, the child has had multiple opportunities to master each standard. Report cards are numbered. 1=area of concern; 2=progressing; 3=meets mastery; 4=exceeds mastery

  7. Well some comments here. We all know and lots of research concludes when you grade any work or place a mark on a report that becomes the focus – not the qualitative feedback that usually accompanies the work or the report. Its the specific feedback that improves learning not the grade.

    I think multiple opportunities to relearn the work are important as well.

    However if you are like us we are mandated across Australia to report student performance against a standard using a grade: c = standard, b = 12 months ahead of standard, A = 18 months ahead of standard.

    So what do you say – the grade is the grade however if she wants to know what the child has to learn to do to improve – willing to chat. As for the anger well – we all get angry its what we do with it that counts – anger doesn’t lead into partnership and cooperation which are the hallmarks of progress (but I’d keep that up my sleeve.

    Good Luck.

  8. I think your instructions to the teacher were right on the mark. As a veteran high school English teacher- now administrator, I found myself getting upset that this parent is taking time from your busy day to quibble (yes, quibble, about a drop in grade). What is this parent going to do when his/her child goes to high school and teachers don’t have the luxury of personally calling every parent of a child whose grade drops from A- to B+! I’m curious to know if your district has an online program for parents to view the teacher’s gradebook? Maybe that would help.

  9. One of the good things about your dilemma is that you have the luxury of think time since the parent has left you a voicemail. I would definitely take the time to visit with the child’s teacher and review their grades so that you are aware of the reason the child’s grade had a slight drop. I would also be prepared with a few ideas of how communication might improve between the school and home so that the parent is always aware of their child’s academic standing. As stated by the previous comment – access to your school’s online information system is a great suggestion. I agree that you are on track with your first 3 thoughts, but the third is one I would hesitate to share. Grades do mean something to elementary students because they are the way many school districts across the nation measure progress (if they are a true example of what a student can do when working independently). As an administrator you might look at this as an opportunity to have this very conversation with your staff. How do you go about choosing what to grade (formative/summative)? How and when do you communicate with parents regarding a change in a student’s academic performance? How would they work with this parent to come to a positive conclusion?

    Here’s hoping that your conversation with the parent came to a positive conclusion!

  10. Are you F***ing kidding me? How the F*** are you still with a job. Elementary grades are what form you for the rest of your life. If you don’t have your basic skills down by secind grade, you are f**** for the rest of your life a lot of the time. At least watch “Waiting for SUperman” to get a little more awareness since you obviously live in your own artificial bubble.

  11. Well said, Mikah. You certainly have a way with words, and I can tell that you must be quite persuasive in your line of work. You must have been on your high school debate team. I am sure that all really fine educators would agree that getting A’s in second grade is the best predictor of success in life. Conversely, of course, seven year olds who do not earn good grades are deemed to fail in life. I say, why don’t we just tell these little guys to give it up by the time they turn eight since there is no hope for them anyway. (BTW- you spelled “secind” wrong.)
    – Dave

  12. Dave,
    I think Mikah’s extreme viewpoint unfortunately does represent more parents than we would care to admit. I have a teacher who has had 6 meetings with a parent who child’s grades have slipped – all about blame and shame. In fact the teacher asked is there anything going right for your child?

    I have suggested to the teacher to focus on one thing (whatever discipline its in) and work on that. For me perhaps the issue is about expectations (us all wanting to be brain surgeons.. I think not) rather than focus on what skills or understandings need development.

    This same parent (a parent who is a teacher) wants grades on all work despite the research which I have presented. Now the shoe is on the other foot – I want a meeting with her (again) – something here about squeaky wheels getting the oil here.

  13. Dave, it looks like every blog needs a troll, and you seem to have found yours with the previous commenter. Too bad she, and others, don’t see if what’s important is not the grade on the report card, but the learning that happened. Growth that happens on the way to the “B” is better than the “A+” freely given. Grades are a tool, but just one tool.

  14. I am a parent of two school-age boys in a NYS suburb. We pay high taxes and have a “good” school system. My children receive letter grades simply because that is how it is done in the U.S. Overseas, the majority of quality school systems use the IB curriculum where there are no letter grades. Instead, a student’s progress is communicated in terms of attributes, e.g. “Your child shows great confidence when dealing with unknown situations.”

    Granted, there are pitfalls to a system without letter grades, but I agree with the fellow commentators – you cannot have it both ways. Do not tell a parent that letter grades have no impact on the future, but consistently use them to rate children.

    IMHO, children in Elementary school should be graded using attributes, not letters. If you believe in it, make it happen!

  15. Yeah, well in my school they award kids in 5th grade with the “Presidential Award.” It’s a big accolade for kids that keep straight “A” averages in 4th and 5th grade. It’s a big deal and gets a lot of attention going into the middle school. So maybe that parent was ticked off about being out of the running for the President Award-it actually comes from The White House. Furthermore-good grades and study habits in elementary school carries into the grades that do count-High School. Colleges are so expensive now that the best hope kids have to go without drowning in student loans are scholarships which are awarded to kids with ridiculous averages and high SAT scores…You seem to want to applaud mediocrity, Dave, and that’s fine, but it’s also a red flag that you are an educator and think a 7% drop in grade isn’t a big deal.

  16. Jill,
    Thanks for the comments. First, we stopped giving the Presidential award many years ago in my school so that is not at issue here. Second, I find it interesting that you consider a B+ as “mediocrity.” There are so many children who work their butts off in school, and are thrilled to get a B+. Especially when they were earning C grades in the past. If you define yourself or another person based on a subjective letter grade given by someone else then I feel sorry for you. Life is not about straight-A perfection, it is about effort, hard work, learning from mistakes, and always trying to improve oneself. Dumbing down the grading scale so lots of kids receive a mass-produced letter from “The White House” is ridiculous. It is a false accolade created by politicians. There are lots of students who get Bs and Cs even with very hard work. What message are we sending them? “You are not good enough because you are not perfect. You do not deserve a fake letter from the President even though you tried your hardest.”

    If you read my post more carefully you would have seen the emphasis I placed on the areas of “Work Habits and socialization.” These are the important areas of life, not letter grades. At my elementary school, we acknowledge strong effort and good citizenship, not straight As. If I were in charge of the world, I would abolish letter grades altogether and move to a standards based report card that emphasized formative assessments and growth over time, instead of a summative letter grade.
    BTW – the PARENT was not “out of the running” for the Presidential award, the CHILD was. By making this about the parent and not the student you have helped make my argument more sound. Thanks.

    – Dave

  17. Dave, all,

    You should research how non-US countries teach and grade their students. Specifically, check out the IB curriculum. I am an American with 3 kids ad have been fortunate to “try out” a few non-US teaching methods. Letter grades are proven to be worthless in developing and encouraging a child. Dave is right – abolish the letter grade and focus on the behaviors like hard work, dedication, etc.

    We often make statements like, “if I ruled the world…”. Well, no ken rules te world and there are many differing methods out there. You just need to step away and check out the “rest of the world”, beyond the US.

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