For many parents, report cards are a primary way to know how their child is doing in school. But grades tell a different story than other measures, such as year-end tests, about how the nation’s students are performing academically. As a result, when parents put more emphasis on one metric over another, they may not be getting the full picture of their child’s grade-level performance.
That is the problem uncovered in a new nationally representative survey of parents of U.S. children in grades K-12 conducted by Gallup and Learning Heroes. The study finds that about nine in 10 parents of K-12 students believe their child is at or above grade level in reading (88%) and math (89%). However, other measures such as year-end tests generally report a much lower portion of students at or above grade level.
A key reason for this disconnect may be that the majority of parents (64%) use report cards as a primary measure to track their child’s progress. These report cards often show traditionally good grades: The Gallup-Learning Heroes study shows that nearly eight in 10 parents (79%) report that their child receives grades of mostly B’s or better. While benchmark and year-end tests aren’t necessarily a better indicator, the disconnect between grades and other academic measures raises important questions about whether parents are getting all the information they need to evaluate their child’s performance -- and to intervene or advocate for more educational support, if needed.
Nine in 10 Parents Say Their Child Is at or Above Grade Level
Just under nine in 10 parents of K-12 students believe their child is at or above grade level in reading (88%) or math (89%).
However, parents’ understanding of their children’s achievement is at odds with other measures, such as year-end achievement tests. Standardized achievement tests generally report a much lower portion of students as “proficient” or at grade level, ranging from roughly 30% to 50%, depending on the age and content area. For example, data from The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” reported in 2022 that only 36% of fourth graders were proficient in math. Another commonly used assessment, the Smarter Balanced Assessment System, suggested that before the pandemic, 46% of fourth graders were at or above grade level in math. While assessments are not a perfect reflection of student progress, the scale of the disconnect between parental perceptions and assessment scores demonstrates that the full picture of a child’s progress often requires more than one data source.
Parents Most Often Rely on Report Card Grades to Know if Their Child Is on Track
Parents who rely primarily on grades to inform them of how their child is doing may not be seeing the entire picture.
The Gallup-Learning Heroes study shows that parents most often rely on report cards to know if their child is on track. Sixty-four percent of parents say these are among the three most helpful sources of information to determine if their child is at grade level. By contrast, barely a quarter of parents (26%) cite midyear benchmark tests as among the most helpful sources of information, and just 21% say the same of year-end state standardized tests.
Parents may need support to integrate information from other measures such as benchmark tests, year-end tests, and homework assignments into how they evaluate whether their child is performing at grade level. These other measures can be valuable information for parents who want to know if they should take action to support their child academically.
When Parents Know Their Child Is Below Grade Level, the Issue Becomes a Top Priority
Parents who recognize that their child is below grade level in math list their child’s math skills at the very top of 12 possible school-related worries or concerns they might have. In addition, they are about twice as likely to worry about the long-term impact of COVID-related disruptions on their child's math skills.
The priorities are much different for parents who believe their child is at or above grade level in math. Their child’s math (22%) and reading (20%) skills rank at the very bottom of the list of things they worry about. Instead, parents are more concerned about their child’s mental wellness, such as the impact of social media (71%), their child’s stress or anxiety (55%), or their emotional wellbeing (48%).
A similar finding is true for parents who believe their child is below grade level in reading, as 89% of these parents say they are somewhat or extremely worried about their child’s reading skills (and reading skills are the most-commonly cited concern among those who say their child is below grade level in reading).
Parents’ perceptions of their children’s academic progress paint a far rosier picture of U.S. student academic performance than the one presented by year-end assessments. With parents reporting that they focus far more on report-card grades than other indicators in gauging their children’s progress, it’s understandable that most believe all is well.
There are many reasons that a student who is not performing at grade level in reading or math may receive a B grade or better for that subject on their report card. It may reflect that student’s effort or improvement, how well other students in class are performing, attendance, or completion of and performance on in-class assignments. Regardless, parents should know that traditionally good grades can encompass widely varying performance levels.
When a student brings home a report card, parents should be encouraged to look closely at other performance indicators, such as assessments and diagnostics, graded assignments, and ongoing feedback from the teacher. Trusting partnerships between parents and teachers can support a holistic approach to evaluating student performance and will be crucial to ensuring student success.
Learn more about how The Gallup Panel works.