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Many American Parents Have No Idea How Their Kids Are Doing in School

11 minute read
Anderson is a journalist, author and speaker. She spent 20 years covering finance including 10 at the New York Times before shifting her focus to learning. She is currently working on a book about the science of motivating teens (Crown, 2024).

In third grade, Cristyonna mostly got As and Bs on her report cards. At parent-teacher evenings, teachers were positive about her learning. So Shareeda Jones, her mother, was surprised when they moved neighborhoods and schools and her daughter’s new teacher told her Cristyonna was three grade levels behind in reading. “I was shocked,” Jones says. 

Many American parents would be shocked to know where their kids were actually achieving. Nationally, 90% of parents think their children are reading and doing math at or above grade level. In fact, 26% of eighth graders are proficient or above in math and 31% are proficient or above in English, according to Learning Heroes, an organization that collects data and creates resources to improve parent-teacher relationships.

What’s worse, 80% of parents say they are confident they understand how their child is achieving academically, and more than three-quarters say they feel their kids are prepared to enter and succeed at college and in the workplace. They don’t seem to know there’s a problem. Which means they won’t see any reason to try and help, by securing support at school or accessing tutoring services that may be available.

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Teachers are a bit more clear-eyed about parents’ insights into their kids attainment levels: 58% of them say most or all parents have a “clear understanding of how their child is achieving academically.” That’s a lot of parents who do not know where their child is performing.

There are two reasons for the staggering mismatch between what teachers know and what parents think. The first is that many report cards do not measure just achievement, or what a child knows, but a basket of items including attendance, effort, homework completion, and behavior. These are critically important inputs, and research shows they have a long-term impact on student outcomes. But they can muddy the waters in terms of what parents know about what their child has learned academically. A second grader might raise his hand a lot, work hard to complete his homework, and take part in class activities but be reading or doing math at a first grade level.

“Report card grades mask grade-level achievements,” explains Bibb Hubbard, co-founder of Learning Heroes, which regularly surveys representative samples of parents and teachers. “If your kid is bringing home a B you assume they are performing at the grade level.” This is often not the case. 

A child might be trying really hard and the teacher rewards that with good grades. But they are far behind on grade level work. That may never come up in conversation. In NYC, for example, 83% of parents report their kids get As or Bs on their report cards. In reality, 26% are performing at grade level with math.

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The second reason parents are in the dark about their children’s performance is that teachers are neither trained nor given ample time to have honest conversations with them. They rightly fear that they will be blamed, not believed, or not supported by their principals if they tell parents exactly where their children are performing. They are not required to provide results from diagnostic tests such as MAP and iReady, so called “formative” assessments teachers use to test where a child is performing as the year goes on. Standardized tests, measured against benchmarks and sent to parents, often arrive after the school year is over. 

In between unaware parents and stretched-too-thin educators sit millions of children who are languishing. Few parents will seek tutoring, summer school, or community help if they don't know there’s a problem. And no teacher can get 70% of a class up to grade level without broad level support, including a public acknowledgement that there’s a problem which the teachers did not create but they are meant to solve.

Hubbard is adamant that most parents are natural problem solvers and will take action if they know they need to, in spite of widely held views that some parents simply don't care. “There's a ton of bias that certain parents don’t care,” she said. “That’s not what we have found—ever. They care deeply. That B or C is masking a lot.”

Why It Matters

There has never been a more vital time to get school systems and parents on the same page. Students are still behind academically after the COVID-19 pandemic, and without support, their losses will compound, especially for low-income and minority students who already faced significant gaps.

Data collected for the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration with researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project show that by the spring of 2022, the average student was half a year behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading. 

Students learned far less in math, reading and history over the past three years compared to previous years. COVID-19 also exacerbated gaping pre-existing achievement gaps. By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts across the country had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts.

Children have resumed learning at largely the same pace as before the pandemic.But catching up will require more time in classrooms or with tutors, which is unlikely to happen if parents don’t know how far behind their kids are, and don’t know what to do about it. “The hardest hit communities—like Richmond, VA, St. Louis, MO, and New Haven, CT, where students fell behind by more than 1.5 years in math—would have to teach 150% of a typical year’s worth of material for three years in a row—just to catch up,” says CEPR faculty director Thomas Kane. “Are we just expecting them to talk a lot faster?” Kane asks. 

The Problem With Report Cards

Parents consistently say on surveys that the number one indicator they use to understand their child’s academic progress is report cards and grades. But ask teachers and you get a very different answer. When told to select the four most helpful sources of information that let you know whether a student is performing at grade level,” report cards come are near the bottom of the list, after results from classroom tests and quizzes, in-class observations, results from short low-stakes tests administered during the year such as MAP, iReady, results from end-of-year tests and interactions with students. Only one-third of teachers select report cards as a top indicator of a student’s academic progress.

Many hoped that Covid-19 would shed more light on the problem of both poor student performance and parents’ lack of knowledge about it. That did not happen. Schools have had to scramble with other issues, from staff shortages to declining enrolment, and parents are mostly happy to have kids back in school and learning. When 2022 state data came in, many state education departments celebrated gains over 2021—an unusually bad year. In truth, 2022 was still a difficult year compared to 2019, when things were hardly bright and sunny.

That parents are in the dark about their child’s progress is not that surprising. They are not curriculum specialists, and state standards have changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years. The U.S. has 50 definitions of grade level, and what is communicated to parents at two or three meetings a year varies by teacher, school, district and state. Rather than clarify things, Covid-19 made them murkier, with grades put on hold, assessments changing and the assumption that everyone was behind.

“It’s not true that everyone is in the same boat,” says Kane. 

And of course, no one really knows what boat they are in. 

Peter Bergman, an associate professor of economics at the University of Texas Austin, has spent his career trying to understand why such deep misperceptions exist between parents and schools. Before becoming a professor he was a teacher in Harlem, and the problem he faced wasn’t that everyone was getting As and Bs but rather Ds and Fs. Most parents in the school were low-income, very busy, and confused by report cards. “If they're not hearing anything terrible going on, they're going to assume things are fine,” he said. “They're not fine.”

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Bergman and his colleagues surveyed parents in West Virginia schools about how much work parents thought their children had missed in school. More than 50% said none. Only 20% of kids were getting all their work done, meaning a lot of parents were mistaken about that work.

Bergman has explored ways to improve communications. In a pioneering study published in 2019, Bergman and a co-author found that sending parents weekly text messages about students’ absences and missing assignments, and a monthly warning about failing grades, improved high school students’ attendance by 12% and reduced course failures by 28%. Others have replicated the findings. Bergman says researchers are still figuring out what works best, but so far, they know that to be effective the messages need to be personalized to the student, timely, and offer actionable information. When kids miss a lot of assignments, the mountain can feel too big to climb. “Missed assignments pile up so quickly,” he explains. “If you wait six weeks for report cards to come out, it’s just too much to make up all at once.”

Since the 1990s, many districts have moved to standards-based grading, a way of separating academic mastery from other important engagement measures such as attendance, participation and homework completion. But these have proven to be confusing to parents, as they provide so many different data points (1-4, 1-5) on a variety of standards. One is certainly cause for worry, but is two? Or three?  

Sue Brookhart, professor emerita of education at Duquesne University says the move to standards-based grades is important and long overdue. ​”There's a lot that goes into grades that shouldn’t,” she says, including things like effort and behavior. “It's not that you shouldn’t assess that—just assess it separately.” 

What to do 

While educators debate whether letter grades, standards-based grades or no grades is the best way to motivate students and improve achievement, parents need to ask how their child is performing.

In April, Learning Heroes launched a multi-city campaign called “Go Beyond Grades” to encourage parents to ask where their children are and help them find the resources they need. The organization suggests parents do three things, and provides scripts and resources to do each one: 1) Ask the teacher if your child is on grade level; 2) Be in the know about what is expected for grade level (the organization explains how); 3) Connect to programs that can help get your child the support they need, be it tutoring or after-school help.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government has allocated $190 billion toward pandemic-related learning issues, including statewide tutoring programs and summer enrichment work. But parents won’t use those programs if they don’t know their children are behind.

Besides shock, Jones said she felt “a little embarrassed and a little sad,” to find out Cristyonna was so far behind. “We could have been working on her reading if I knew there was a problem.” When she found out, she went on Amazon and bought Hooked on Phonics, which she had used as a child. It was money she did not have to spare, but she needed a plan. “You do what you have to do when it's your kids,” she says matter-of-factly. Jones now checks on Cristyonna’s reading, and spends more time reading with her.

Cristyonna’s school is helping, though they were reluctant to get involved until they saw Jones take charge. This is not an uncommon pattern, say education experts like Kane and Hubbard. Schools are often reluctant to raise red flags when they can’t offer much in the way of support (again: teachers are stretched thin). But some parents feel lost. 

“We have to give each other grace,” Jones says. “It's not that we [parents] don't want to help, it’s that we don't know what to do. It’s the same with the teachers. It's not that they don't want to help, they just don’t really know how to do family engagement.”

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