Navigating End-Of-Term Report Cards

As a parent, you're well aware that end-of-term report cards are more than a mere assortment of grades and comments. They are windows into your child's academic journey, offering valuable insights into their progress, strengths, and areas that could benefit from further attention.

With my background as a qualified teacher who has crafted countless report cards, I recognise the profound significance of these documents. I've witnessed firsthand the questions and uncertainties that parents often grapple with when deciphering their child's report card. In this blog, I aim to shed light on the multifaceted nature of end-of-term report cards.

We'll delve into their purpose, demystify what goes on behind every report, and equip parents with pragmatic insights on how to navigate, comprehend, and harness the wealth of information encapsulated within them.

So, let's embark on a journey to unveil the hidden gems within report cards and empower you, as parents, to make informed decisions that nurture your child's educational voyage.

When to Expect a Report Card

End-of-term report cards are a pivotal aspect of the educational journey, serving as a comprehensive snapshot of a student's academic performance, growth, and development.

These reports are typically issued at the culmination of each academic term, aligning with the school's academic calendar. Usually, these are at Christmas break, Easter break and when the Summer holidays begin when there is usually a more comprehensive report for the end-of-year summary.

The frequency of report cards in general can vary from school to school, ranging from weekly or monthly, to just once per year at the end of the year. This variance hinges on the structure of the school itself, its organisation and its stature as an institution. You can expect parents to demand a lot more feedback from a prestigious independent school than a state school.

What is the Purpose of Report Cards?

Beyond the conventional perception of report cards as a mere compilation of grades, they are intended to encapsulate a student's holistic educational experience. These reports should encompass a diverse array of purposes, reflecting a profound commitment to fostering growth and understanding within the educational ecosystem.

Report cards should serve as a multidimensional method to communicate not only a student's academic achievement but also the development of their life skills and their social and emotional growth over a specific period. The reports are based on evaluations of these factors from several figures of authority, usually their teachers in each subject and someone who spends more time with the student - such as their designated teacher for school registration at the start of the day or their assigned mentor.

It takes 60 hours or more of work for a single teacher to write report cards for their students. That's over a whole week out of their already busy schedule so it matters whether they are truly the best use of a teacher's time and benefitting students.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question may vary depending on what the school is and who you ask. We will delve into that a little deeper later on!

Comprehensive Assessment and Feedback

At its core, the report card is intended to provide data on assessments and feedback on students, providing an evaluative lens through which a student's performance can be summarised.

Curiously, they tend to start very young in primary school when they are heavily linked to statutory maths, reading and writing benchmarks that governments keep track of throughout primary school and beyond to ensure state schools are performing at an appropriate level. In some cases nowadays, the use of technology for assessing this allows parents to keep track of their development in these areas on a more regular basis as they often use iPads to complete the standardised tests.

Later in your child's school career, they will reflect predicted grades for GCSEs and A-Levels or at least represent an honest opinion on what level of attainment they are working at. You would hope!

Often, as the case was in my school, accompanying a grade describing the academic attainment of a student is some measure of effort or behaviour in class. In my case, it was a number between 1 and 5 where 1 was something of a model student. It's not something I particularly agree with as it can seldom be of any assistance by itself. Is an A5 arguably better than an A1? What does that mean for my child and how can they improve?

A good report card should meticulously detail the student's achievements, areas of proficiency, and, equally importantly, the domains warranting further cultivation. The report card illuminates a comprehensive spectrum of the student's academic journey - in that sense, I believe a good report card should include an example of older work in comparison to a newer example. This is unfortunately not up to the teacher and it's up to the school to decide on what the standardised format will be. I implore any parents, especially those who pay large fees, to consider advocating for change in this area.

There will usually be at least a few comments summarising their development, but take these with a pinch of salt. I've known many teachers over the years who have done a lot of copy-pasting in the midst of a late-night marking and report-making session after a 12-hour day.

Furthermore, it is implausible that a teacher will have significant feedback in the forefront of their memory for every single student, especially if your child is performing well enough to not warrant concern or the highest praise. Although teachers monitor their progress with the best intentions, it's impossible to give targeted feedback to everyone because of the scale of work and amount of pupils involved unless they are outliers in terms of behaviour and progress.

There is a lot of bias involved in the collection of notes and data for students, so please don't take it as gospel - it's simply flawed data. Think about how you only really bother to write a review for a product or service if it's been exceedingly good or bad.

The entire procedure for supplying this feedback can be shockingly disorganised and in my opinion, a big shake-up is needed to make them fit for their intended purpose. In this day and age of technology, I believe in the need for more regular data-driven reporting as well as self-evaluation techniques should be employed on a weekly or monthly basis to give the student back some control over their learning. At the moment though, we are stuck with what the school deems important and this is not going to change quickly!

Effective Communication Tool

Functioning as a bridge of communication between educators and parents, the report card plays a pivotal role in establishing a constructive and collaborative partnership between the school and the parents. You are both working in the interest of the children at the end of the day. Shockingly it's the schools in this modern age that spend more time in charge of a child's development than the parents who are often busy working.

A school report can create an avenue for meaningful dialogue, enabling teachers to impart insights into a student's learning habits, interpersonal dynamics, and any potential concerns that may warrant proactive intervention. In an ideal world, this would be comprehensive enough to include some real classroom anecdotes and pieces of work to build a fuller picture, perhaps in the form of a personal discussion face-to-face without the child present.

In my experience, there are too many examples of report cards having the same responses for students who are lumped in the same category. While I've always understood it from a time perspective, it runs the risk of destroying the integrity of report cards in general or unnecessarily seeding doubt in the minds of parents. Something along the lines of, "shows great potential if they only focused enough to apply it in class" gives very little for parents to work with and raises more questions than answers.

I'd love to see when schools and parents can commit to several physical meetings (or even digital via Zoom!) per year to have a real conversation all about the child's development, allowing some back and forth that is much more productive to weeding out some issues and identifying some strengths. In a big rush to get report cards out - there can be a tendency to "just get them done" on top of a mountain of tasks that are often completed in unpaid overtime.

When the two sides of adults responsible for a child's care and development come together face-to-face, it's much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kids can be very good at hiding what's really going on from even the most attentive parents. I strongly advise parents to take these "in-person" opportunities as much as possible, even if you have to push for them yourself should you have any concerns or take some holiday days.

It's a tragedy to think of the impact on a child's development from having the only bit of feedback from the institution responsible for their academic progress be a trivial grade and a 50-word summary of over 1000 hours in education after a school year. It's often the only bit of feedback parents get if they can't make a parent's meeting and in the age of technology, I find it unacceptable.

Facilitating Goal Setting

End-of-term report cards are intended to empower parents, along with their children, to embark on a journey of deliberate goal-setting through the use of feedback. Armed with a nuanced understanding of the student's progress, parents can collaboratively craft objectives to enhance specific areas of study. This collaborative approach instils a sense of ownership, responsibility, and shared commitment to educational growth.

Goal setting should be entirely individual to each student and therefore to each family as a whole. The most important part of goal setting from the perspective of the student is following the SMART principle. In my opinion, the most important part of this is to be realistic and attainable.

This becomes much more difficult when the benchmark on which you are setting these goals is based on grades alone. What really matters is where the student was beforehand in terms of motivation, focus and progress in ability. These goals should be made in tandem with a student so that they are intrinsically motivated to reach them.

Celebrating Achievements

Celebration is a cornerstone of motivation and empowerment within the educational realm. Report cards should offer a platform for acknowledging the diverse spectrum of achievements, both monumental and incremental.

By acknowledging these accomplishments, students are encouraged to persistently pursue excellence, thereby fostering a culture of continuous improvement. As parent it's up to you to know how best to approach this. It could be a visit to their favourite restaurant, toyshop, sweet shop or a trip to their favourite playground are daytime activity.

For rewarding in this way to be effective, we need to consider a balance of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Both are important, but one cannot outweigh the other without some consequences as we will discuss now.

Interpreting Report Card Information

The art of interpreting a report card goes beyond a cursory glance at the grades; it involves delving into the comprehensive insights that lie beneath the surface. As a parent, navigating the nuances of report card information requires a thoughtful approach. Here are some tips from a teacher's perspective.

Embracing Grades and Comments

While the grades offer a quantitative representation of academic performance, the comments provide a qualitative narrative that contextualizes the grades. These comments shed light on a child's engagement, effort, behaviour, and attitude towards learning.

A collaboration between the two facets unveils a more holistic portrait of the student's academic journey. The importance of including the student's perspective in these evaluations should not be understated. Depending on whether the grades received are better or worse than you or the student expected, communication is key to digging deeper into what may be going on.

Many students will be happier at school if they feel they have the freedom to learn and explore subjects at their own pace rather than be held to a high standard. It can often be a maturing moment that sucks the child-like joy of exploring a passion for a subject when they see the only framework for success is a high grade. I've seen this put students off studying it in elective years and beyond although they have shown such passion and wonder at the subject matter.

The school system is not set up to give space to play to individuals when catering to the larger student body - so be aware of the pressures that can be put on students by parents who have an expectation of what grades should be achieved, rather than focusing more on how their learning of the world is developing.

Identify Sources Of Motivation

Grades, as a form of external evaluation, do not genuinely motivate students. Motivation can be categorised into intrinsic, driven by personal interest, and extrinsic, fueled by external rewards or fear of negative consequences. Additionally, fear and avoidance play significant roles as motivators, compelling students to act to evade unfavourable outcomes - although not without significant potential side effects such as insomnia, chronic anxiety and last-minute cramming.

When it comes to grading, it primarily operates as an extrinsic motivator, both rewarding accomplishment and instilling fear of failure. In this sense, it acts as a double-edged sword, encouraging compliance for the sake of avoiding detrimental impacts on one's academic standing. However, the reality is that most individuals are propelled by genuine interest or necessity rather than imposed standards.

Extrinsic motivation aligns with the minimax principle, extrinsic motivation leads to the minimax principle. If the only thing you care about is something beyond the activity itself - an extrinsic reward such as the grade - it makes sense to do as little as possible to procure the highest possible reward (grade), which Arie Kruglanski, Chana Stein and Aviah Riter dubbed in 1977 the “minimax strategy” in instrumental behaviour. Cheating, shortcuts, cramming… all those make sense if the only goal is points or winning.

While some have strong views of abolishing grades entirely - for those passionate about subjects academic in nature, this unfortunately puts them at a disadvantage when trying to take that passion to the point where it can provide a livelihood for them in future as a profession.

Radical changes in a grading system are not going to synchronise with standards for employment, so it's best to be aware of the limited insight of grades alone and instead embrace other ways of motivation. That being said I think there are ages and stages that we should definitely not be putting labels and grades on a child's potential as early as most schools do.

Tracing Progress Over Time

Viewing report cards as snapshots in a dynamic world of learning is imperative. To gain a more profound perspective, compare the current report card with its predecessors of course, but be aware of the effect that at certain levels of education, providing one grade to represent ability is quite restrictive. Even old-school report cards can have more detail than the modern age version!

Recognising progress doesn't always entail monumental leaps. Consistent advancement, even in small strides, signifies an unwavering commitment to growth. By analysing trends and patterns across multiple terms, parents can potentially discern the trajectory of their child's development, but without an in-depth summary of an entire year of work with examples, it is hard to ascertain. For example here is a list of student scores:

Assignment 1 – 9/100 

Assignment 2 – 20/100 

Quiz 1 – 35/100 

Quiz 2 – 65/100 

Test 1 – 75/100 

Test 2 – 90/100 

If you average these scores, the student would get a 49% which would be a failing grade. But you can see that as the student is in class, they are continually growing and learning. It may be assumed y parents that they will fail the class.

Instead, this could be a child who did not understand the content of the class early on but is continually showing growth and progress. Make sure you are able to seek clarification on what went into this grading by the teacher and how it is accurately scaled or weighted for progress over time.

Embracing Individual Growth

Each student's academic journey is a unique narrative, woven with diverse threads of strengths, challenges, and developmental milestones. It's crucial to appreciate that not all students tread the same path of progress. Embracing individual growth entails acknowledging that each child's advancement is characterized by their distinct pace and context. Nurturing this individuality fosters a sense of self-awareness and an atmosphere conducive to exploration and growth.

Going gradeless can be done in a class of any size and of any type, though students may find it alarming and unfamiliar. Some faculty use something called “contract grading,” which still uses a traditional scale but puts some of the control in students’ hands. 

As parents, you can provide opportunities for students to make choices, which allows them to find at least a tiny bit of intrinsic motivation even in the most conventional of courses. Some extracurricular activities, workshops or rainy day projects - maybe even small ones - can be risk-free and contribute to intrinsic motivation.

An activity can be utterly fascinating, completely bizarre, incredibly useful or just plain fun. Connecting the dots between what they are learning in class and the more self-guided adventure in a subject can make all the difference to seeing the benefit of paying attention throughout the quest for knowledge. I know it did for me!

Are There Alternatives to Grading?

There are many spaces in education that are trying to find new ways to report on this learning so that a child is not penalised for being proficient on every topic. You may see differences in reporting such as rubrics or other scaled measures, but they are limited to younger years (below KS3) as beyond this stage they enter the standardised age of national testing.

A rubric is simply defined as a set of instructions and rules that are openly understood. Let's look at their effect on education with a couple of examples:

An undergraduate student in an American History course spent many hours working on her “museum display” of the Gold Rush. She received a “B” on her project with no other comments. She expressed concern that she had met the project guidelines and asked the professor what she could have done to get an “A.” The professor responded, “I reserve ‘A’ for a highly creative project.” When asked for an example, the professor replied, “Well, you could have presented it from the point of view of the Native Americans affected by the Gold Rush.”

What’s the problem here…? There are no explicit performance criteria to inform students in creating their projects or to guide the professor in assessing them. A rubric here could help address this situation. How do you think this student felt? Probably the same way that students in any course feel when the criteria for an assignment are ambiguous and the assessment seems arbitrary. When the curriculum is “hidden,” students who can’t guess what the expectations are will be more at risk than those who know how to “play the game” (Jackson, 1990).

Now, let’s look at another scenario: 

In an English department class, a professor introduced her students to the qualities of an effective oral presentation by showing them videotaped examples of excellent, as well as poor, speeches and presentations. Guided by the teacher, the students identified four key criteria (traits) that they agreed were important for an effective speech—content, organization, delivery, and language.

They defined each of these and what would constitute strong, middle, and weak performance on each trait. They then referred to these performance criteria when preparing their own speeches, and the teacher used the same criteria when providing feedback on, and grading, their presentations.

What’s going on in this scenario? Not only are there criteria that define the features of a speech, but the professor has shown strong and weak examples of oral presentations and even invited the students to generate evaluation criteria based on these examples and their own experiences.

Clearly, both students and professors use the criteria in talking about and giving feedback on the speeches. In other words, the learning process is anchored by a rubric--a scoring tool used to evaluate a performance in a given outcome area based on a list of criteria describing the characteristics of products or performances at varying levels of accomplishment.

When to Seek Additional Support

Amid the information in a report card, we've established it may or may not be obvious if and when intervention may be required. Identifying when to seek additional support is an essential aspect of effective parental engagement in your child's education. For tips from a parent who also tutors here on Sherpa, read the blog 'How Do You Know if Your Child Needs a Tutor?' Otherwise, heed my advice:

Consistent Decline

Persistent fluctuations in academic performance, characterised by a consistent decline over successive terms, are cues to engage in proactive dialogue with the teacher if you haven't already. By understanding the potential triggers behind this trend and filling in any blanks of their time away from home, parents and educators should collaborate on strategies to mitigate the challenges they are facing and facilitate improvement.

There may be limited resources available to help with this from your school itself, but it is always worth asking what support is available. There could be after-school study clubs, lunchtime tutorials in a subject, one-to-one tutoring on offer as well as learning support where they can catch up on work and be monitored for any special educational needs. There is nothing wrong with needing this support and it's far better than trying to push through with just 'hard work and determination'.

Should you come to the realisation that support from a one-to-one tutor is necessary, I can't recommend Sherpa enough. Their qualified teachers and easy-to-use platform give you access to the best tuition in the UK while saving time and money doing it from home. Imagine if your child's teacher could spend an hour one-on-one with you targeting their weaknesses and bolstering their strengths in the evening after school. That's exactly what Sherpa does, resulting in dramatic boosts in confidence and improvement of 2 grades on average!

Persistent Struggles

Should a student consistently encounter obstacles within a specific subject or domain, the prospect of seeking supplementary support arises. Engaging in discussions with teachers to identify targeted interventions, such as tutoring or specialized assistance, can be instrumental in addressing these challenges and fostering academic growth.

It's incumbent on all those who oversee a child to be vigilant for any behaviour changes or struggles. We must hold a space for them to talk freely if they believe they are in need of support because they think and act differently to those around them considered normal.

As mentioned in another Sherpa blog, 23% of students have Special Educational Needs (SEN) and 1 in 100 have some form of autism. School is simultaneously the place where these needs will be most visible but also most efficiently masked by the need to be accepted in the daunting social environment young children find themselves in daily.

Nurturing Emotional Well-Being

Report cards should also reach beyond the realm of academics and encompass glimpses of a student's emotional landscape - but they seldom do. It's a scary thought but your child spends around 44% of their waking life during term time in the care of their school, so they hold a significant role in developing them socially and emotionally.

Adults tend to see things that affect a child before they themselves even realise it and teachers are no different. This can be a sensitive subject to address with parents but I always recommend hearing it out and making your own decision on how to proceed.

If comments on the report card raise concerns about emotional well-being, behaviour, or social interactions, addressing these aspects is paramount. Connecting with the school's counsellor or support staff can facilitate a holistic approach to nurturing emotional well-being and fostering a conducive learning environment.

Success Stories and Anecdotes

I've witnessed numerous success stories throughout my teaching career, where students have overcome challenges and shown remarkable growth. One such instance involved a student who initially struggled with maths but the real problem was they were suffering from so much distraction in the lower set that they couldn't follow the lesson in class.

It took a personal touch to realise the child had undiscovered special educational needs (SEN) and required more one-on-one time and help with the lesson material. The dedicated support from teachers and parents developed a newfound passion for the subject and improved significantly over the course of a year.

In this instance, the child was scoring badly on their report cards and without further effort into searching for what might be the reason from the teaching staff, it is unlikely they would have improved as so many haven't before them.

This often comes from teachers more than parents as they see them most in that environment and know when something seems wrong, but it can also happen vice versa. If you feel something the teacher is saying isn't adding up in the report card to the child you know - it pays dividends to investigate it early and request more support where available.

It's stories like this that make me wonder how much of the truth the parents of these children know or do they just assume they are bad at maths and that's the end of it? With the right support and enough time and motivation, although cliché, almost anything is possible!


End-of-term report cards are better than no feedback at all, but they often lack the detail of what a student needs to know about their abilities and progress to improve. It's important to listen to the warning signs, but reports can give very little context to truly enable parents to facilitate change. Try to find the appropriate time and channels to have an open dialogue with the teacher directly, even if all seems well.

In either of these cases, use them as feedback as part of a larger conversation with the student directly. It's just as important to hear about how the student feels about their learning journey as it is to hear from their teacher. There is unfortunately an unavoidable existence of biases in any kind of report, whether unconsciously applied or as a result of the very human pressures teachers face in the workplace.

By understanding the purpose of these reports, interpreting the information thoughtfully, and seeking support when needed, parents can actively engage in their child's education journey and celebrate the successes along the way. Remember, the intention for report cards is not just about the grades – they are about nurturing holistic growth and fostering a love for learning.

Author's profile picture

Russell Kilgour

25th October

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