One by one, Champaign County schools are closing their doors on another academic year. Students are running headlong into summer; parents are adjusting family schedules; teachers are packing up their desks.
Everyone, however, must still encounter that final moment of truth – as delivered by report cards. Teachers must prepare them, students must face them, parents must make decisions based on them – as has been the case for generations.
There has probably always been general dislike for this necessary educational tradition. Oh, kids who receive money for good grades gleefully celebrate report card day. Such an incentive was never even considered in the Scott household. My parents would have gone broke paying us for A’s, but we also knew it was our job to work hard at school.
As a teacher, I dreaded grade card time, when my organizational shortcomings became glaringly-clear as the deadline loomed. There was always a flurry of grading: homework papers that had somehow piled up, unit projects, chapter tests, semester exams.
After filling numbers into little boxes in my gradebook – or later a computer grid – came the math part. In the early 70’s, I did all the calculations by hand. With nine-week grades, exam grades, semester averages, and final grades for 150 students, the end of the year was a nightmare of sums and averages figured on piles of scratch paper.
I thanked my lucky stars when hand-held calculators finally became affordable. And when I eventually mastered the art of the online gradebook, I appreciated being able to retrieve updated student averages with just a couple computer clicks.
Decades ago, grade cards were actually cards, a piece of folded cardstock issued six times a year and returned to the teacher, complete with parent signature. My father’s junior report card resembled my grade cards: official cover page, inside pages displaying grades and attendance, and a back page of printed comment possibilities concerning attitude and conduct. Although actual form has moved from cards covered with handwritten grades to computer printouts on thin paper and now to images on a Smartphone screen, the purpose of report cards has remained unchanged.
Students have always run the gamut of reactions to their report cards: shock, surprise, joy, anger, relief, or dread – all induced by the finality of some letter or symbol attached to their school work.
Grading scales and notation systems have come and gone and come back again: percentages; ABCDF; checkmarks; O for outstanding, S for satisfactory, N for needs improvement. Of one fact, however, we can be sure. Students will continue to insist: “She gave me a D!” but “I got an A!”
Finally, then, parents must interpret their children’s grade reports four times each year. Of course, the bottom line of any report card is the final grade in each subject, to be included in student files and on transcripts for years to come.
Some parents use report card results for short-term punishments and rewards, basing weekend plans or shopping trips on newly-reported grades.
Many others, however, give teacher comments careful consideration. Schools often provide a numbered list of remarks to give a fuller picture of student effort and attitude. But the most effective comments are also the most time-consuming: observations written in the teacher’s own words specifically for that student are the most helpful and most appreciated.
I find some modern grade cards rather daunting, even intimidating. Report cards quoting standards and coding numbers from a list of state-mandated benchmarks obviously provide a maximum of information, but too much educational jargon can be a lot to wade through and interpret.
Ever the observer of language use, I find it interesting that words like “deportment” and “penmanship” on old grade cards eventually became “conduct” and “handwriting” and have further morphed into “citizenship” and “keyboarding skills.”
The wording of comments has also been updated over the years. In 1939 my father’s teachers could choose from “indolent,” “commendable,” and “inclined to mischief.” A friend shared that her elementary grade cards in the 1950’s listed her height and weight, as well as comments concerning appropriate handkerchief use and the cleanliness of her teeth.
My father’s teachers wrote his grades on his report card themselves. His marks for English, American History, Physics, Algebra II, and Music were written in five different handwriting styles.
For many years, GHS teachers submitted handwritten grade sheets to the principal who passed them on to business teacher Nellie Pickering. For a couple of days, Mrs. Pickering commandeered the assistant principal’s office to supervise a group of her very best students. The girls, sworn to privacy, worked quickly and efficiently to transfer those grades to report cards.
In forty years, I could never convince my students that I did not like grades or report cards. They always thought that sending reports about bad grades to their parents must be the pinnacle of pleasure in any teacher’s life. It was futile to explain the frustration of having only 13 grades, A-F with plusses and minuses, to describe the myriad of strengths, weaknesses, and achievements of my 150 students.
The preparation of, reaction to, and interpretation of report cards will continue. An important part of life is to learn how to face a moment of truth – and move on. Somehow, though, I will always remember my little-girl nerves on the last day of school, just seconds before a jubilant “I passed!”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.