HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 19: A first-grade Dual Language program teacher is teaching in English on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023 at Patterson Elementary School in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Shareeda Jones thought her daughter, Cristyonna, was doing well in third grade, getting mostly As and Bs at her elementary school in northeast Washington, DC.

“I thought the child was on Honor Roll,” Jones told CNN. “No Ds, no Fs. Never.”

Her lowest grade – a C – was in art.

But Cristyonna’s report card didn’t tell the full story. When fourth grade rolled around, she changed schools and had to take a new assessment, which showed she was three grade levels behind in reading.

Jones sought out her daughter’s teacher to push him to provide her with more reading support. She also took it upon herself to try to help her daughter.

“After we found out about everything, I instantly went into mommy mode and purchased Hooked on Phonics online,” Jones said.

Now Cristyonna’s fifth-grade teacher reports that she is still behind but has improved since last year.

Jones’ experience illustrates what a new report suggests – that overreliance on report cards to measure a child’s academic progress may be leading parents astray and preventing children from getting the support they need to learn.

According to the report by Gallup in partnership with the nonprofit Learning Heroes, almost 9 out of 10 US parents think their children are on grade level in math and reading, despite dismal national standardized test scores.

Grade inflation is real

That’s partly because of what the report calls “B-flation.”

Based on a representative sample of nearly 2,000 parents of K-12 public school students nationwide, the report finds that a majority of parents rely on grades as their main source of information about their child’s level of achievement. Seventy-nine percent of them say their kids are receiving mostly marks of B or better.

Even among the 1 in 10 parents who say their children are below grade level in reading, 36% still see mostly grades of B or better on their child’s report card, suggesting grade inflation is a real issue.

But report cards are just one way to measure a child’s progress. Grades reflect effort, homework completion, behavior, mastery of the learning standards and other factors and may not always provide a good measure of how well a child is advancing through school, according to the report.

Standardized test scores suggest there can be a big disconnect between grades and achievement. Only about a third of fourth-graders and eighth-graders were “proficient” in reading in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the nation’s report card. In math, just 36% of fourth-graders and 26% of eighth-graders were “proficient” in 2022.

The bottom line: Parents need to be aware that grading has changed dramatically since their school days and may need to view a B grade as a call to find out more by seeking out other sources of information – like ongoing feedback from their child’s teacher, their own observations, statewide tests and benchmark exams – to determine how their child is performing and to better support their child’s learning, the report says.

The gap between perceptions and standardized test results is wider for Blacks and Hispanics than for Whites. While more than 85% of Black and Hispanic parents say their child is at or above grade level reading or math, NAEP data shows just 17% of Black students and 21% of Hispanic students are proficient in reading.

“It is clear that a B grade at the K-12 level could actually indicate a wide range of reading and math achievement,” the new report said. “Absent a more holistic picture, parents could miss out on taking additional actions that could make a significant difference in ensuring their child receives the support they need to be successful.”

Measuring children’s progress is complex

Because evaluating a child’s academic progress is complex, with different measuring sticks often providing conflicting answers, Learning Heroes wants parents to look further than grades and work with teachers to better understand student performance, something teachers say requires consistent communication with them. Teachers use a student’s performance on in-class assignments and tests, their own observations and interactions with the child and standardized tests to measure a child’s progress.

“Integrating as many data points as possible is key to understanding whether a child is performing at their grade level,” the report said. “Knowing whether a child is ‘at grade level’ is critically important to supporting them, as parents who recognize their child is not performing at grade level can take different actions to best advocate for their child’s learning and support them at home.”

When parents are aware their child is not on grade level, they are much more likely to discuss their concerns with their child’s teacher and get the child access to interventions that can help them catch up, the report says. In a hypothetical scenario in which their child receives a B in math but has two below-grade-level math test scores, 56% of parents said they would be very or extremely concerned.

When it comes to higher education, the report found 61% of parents are very or extremely confident their child will be well prepared for college, but just 40% of 12th-graders taking the ACT met college readiness benchmarks in reading, 30% did so in math, and 51% met the benchmarks in English.

Back in DC, Jones is doing what she can to help her daughter,  who she says still has not received any additional help with reading – or with spelling, which is where she struggles most.

“I don’t think her school has the means for a reading tutor,” Jones said.

But Jones says she is determined to make sure her daughter doesn’t fall further behind. She makes Cristyonna read to her out loud for 15 minutes every day and pushes her to study spelling and vocabulary. She also plans to enroll her in an educational summer camp to help prepare her for middle school, which begins with the sixth grade.

Jones, who has dyslexia, knows what it is like to struggle with reading.
She says she was pushed through grade after grade and graduated high school unprepared for college. She wants something different for her daughter.

“I just hope for her to be able to succeed,” she said.