When Getting Good Grades and Working at Grade Level Are Not the Same Thing

Nearly 90% of parents in a recent survey believed their child was performing at grade level; 2022-23 data shows only 50% of students actually were.

Arundel Elementary School students in Baltimore, Maryland, at their school’s December book fair. (Baltimore City Public Schools/Facebook)

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Teachers no longer lead parent conferences at Arundel Elementary School.

The school, which serves 400 students pre-kindergarten through second grade in Maryland’s Baltimore City Public Schools, is rethinking the way it operates to boost parental involvement, said first-grade teacher Kaylah Crawford.

Crawford, who is in charge of family engagement at Arundel, said every student will lead their own parent-teacher conference this year, giving their families a glimpse of what they do in the classroom.

“Students will be leading their conferences by saying, ‘This is what I’m doing in school’ and then parents will be able to see (their child’s work) firsthand,” Crawford said. “It's more engaging for families to hear from the student about how they’re performing.”

Parent perception of their child’s educational progress is tricky for many schools around the nation. A recently released national study has unveiled there’s a stark gap between parents' knowledge of their child’s performance in school and their actual achievement in the classroom.

The study, released in November by Gallup and the nonprofit Learning Heroes, surveyed roughly 2,000 parents of K-12 public school students nationwide about their experiences with and perceptions of their child’s educational achievement.

Learning Heroes founder Bibb Hubbard (Learning Heroes)

What researchers found was that parents don’t have a complete understanding of their child’s progress, said Bibb Hubbard, founder of Learning Heroes, a national parent advocacy organization.

Nearly 9 out of 10 parents surveyed believe their child is performing at grade level in reading (88%) and math (89%) despite standardized tests showing far fewer students are on track. Federal data released in February showed that at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, public schools reported on average half of their students were below grade level.

“We just can’t afford to leave parents on the sidelines right now. We absolutely don't have 9 out of 10 students performing at or above grade level, unfortunately,” Hubbard told Maybach Media. “We need to give parents more information.”

The study also found that nearly two-thirds of parents (64%) said report cards — often considered the “holy grail” of measurements, Hubbard said — were important in determining whether their child is at grade level. And for 79% of parents surveyed, those report cards showed their children getting mostly B grades or better.

Hubbard said oftentimes, good grades equal “on grade level” for parents.

“That’s because they’ve not been told otherwise,” she said. “Grades don’t necessarily reflect grade-level mastery. You can also have your fourth grader getting an A or B in reading and that’s because they are reading at a second-grade level and they are getting B’s on their quizzes at a second-grade level.”

Arundel Elementary School Principal Kaylah Crawford (Kaylah Crawford)

Crawford said her building principal strives to be transparent with parents about grades, but recently it has become more evident that some students complete homework without understanding all of the content.

“(Turning in finished homework) doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re able to read or even always able to complete work independently,” Crawford said. “So one of the things that we’ve done to target some of those discrepancies is starting different family programming.”

Arundel Elementary School launched a program called Family University in December, Crawford said. Parents can communicate with school staff to learn more about what’s happening in the classroom. They will also get feedback about what their child needs to work on academically.

“We learned through every program that we have within the building that the goal is to teach the parents something that would better prepare them to have a scholar within the school system,” Crawford said.

When parents are more informed about their child’s academic progress, they are more likely to take action and discuss concerns with their child’s teacher, Hubbard said.

The study found that 97% of parents who know their child is below grade level in math are worried about their child’s math skills. Only 22% of the parents who knew their child was at or above grade level in math were concerned about their child’s math skills.

Parents were also asked about what worries they have about their children.

“For the parents who perceive their child to be at or above grade level, their top worries are social media and emotional well-being … reading and math fall to the very bottom of their worries,” Hubbard said. “For those parents who have information that their child is not performing at grade level, their number one worry is math or reading.”

Researchers also unearthed racial differences in parents' perceptions of how well their child was doing in school. The study introduced a hypothetical scenario to participants where their child receives a B in math but has two below-grade-level math test scores. While more than half of parents (56%) said they would be very or extremely concerned, Black parents were more likely to say they would be concerned (72%) compared with Hispanic (56%) and white parents (52%).

Black and Hispanic parents were also more aware of their child’s academic performance in the study, Hubbard said.

Black (42%) and Hispanic (40%) parents were found less likely than white parents (54%) to say their child was performing above grade level in reading, with a similar finding in math.

Contradicting a false narrative that Black parents don’t care about their child’s education, Hubbard said, “Black parents in particular are taking more action, thinking and more deeply worrying. The Black parent in this dataset really emerges as the super active parent that’s really focused on academics.”

Oakland REACH founder Lakisha Young (Oakland REACH)

Lakisha Young, co-founder of Oakland REACH, a parent empowerment group that recently launched a large-scale parent-led tutoring program, said Black parents in Oakland have been more aware that something isn’t right with their child’s achievement, but they don’t know what to do about it.

“They're definitely plugged in around something not being right,” Young said. “We asked our parents what was keeping them up at night and they just said, ‘I know my child's not reading on the level they should be. But I'm not really getting a lot of help from the school to figure out the best thing for me to do to move forward.’ ”

The parent perception problem in education is solvable, Hubbard said — parents need to look beyond their child’s grades and engage with teachers to get to the bottom of their achievement.

“Teachers say that the number one way to know how your child is achieving is to ask them,” Hubbard writes in the study. “Asking teachers to unpack those factors and focus on grade-level learning is how to know where to lean in and help.”

Young said when her own son is struggling in his eighth-grade classes, he’s not the one to inform her — his teachers are.

“I think things that continue to be helpful for families is to be able to feel like they can engage with the school and I think it really starts with building a relationship early,” Young said. “Kind of (letting) the school know, ‘I'm here, I'm accessible. I care. I want to understand these things about what's going on with my kid.’ ”

Learning Heroes has been working to boost parent engagement across the nation, most recently with its Go Beyond Grades campaign. The campaign partners with local nonprofits to connect parents with teachers and helps them understand achievement scores, among other resources.

In addition to the national project, Go Beyond Grades has local campaigns, most recently launched in St. Louis, Missouri, but is also in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Houston, Boston and Sacramento.

“Grades are important, but we need to unpack that a little bit and get some additional information about how your child is doing,” Hubbard said. “The call to action is pretty simple.”

Disclosure: The Carnegie Corporation of New York provides financial support to Learning Heroes and Maybach Media.

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