Do good grades = performing at grade level?

Determining a child’s academic progress is complicated. There are many different measures used to help determine how a student is doing academically — teacher observations, in-class assignments, quizzes and tests, report cards, benchmark exams, and standardized tests, to name a few. But when these different measuring sticks provide conflicting answers, parents may not know whether there child is truly “at grade level” or not.

Nearly eight in 10 U.S. parents (79 percent) say their child is receiving mostly B grades or better on their report cards, and almost nine in 10 believe their child is performing at or above grade level in reading (88 percent) and math (89 percent), according to a Gallup-Learning Heroes study of nearly 2,000 K-12 public school parents conducted in fall 2023.

And among parents who say their child is below grade level, more than a third (36 percent) note that they see mostly B’s or better on their child’s report card. “…[T]raditionally good grades (such as a B or better) don’t always indicate that a child is performing at grade level.”

“If a parent were to use traditionally good grades as an isolated measure of grade-level performance, some might not realize their child is not at grade level,” continues the Gallup-Learning Heroes study.

Enter, for example, performance on other academic measures such as standardized assessments.

Less than half of Minnesota K-12 students are meeting grade-level benchmarks in math or reading, as measured by the state’s standardized test called the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA). Less than a third (32 percent) of Minnesota 4th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level on the most recent reading National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Forty-one percent of Minnesota 4th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level on the math NAEP. Among 8th graders, less than a third (32 percent) met or exceeded the proficient level in math, and less than a third (30 percent) in reading. Nationally, the results are similar. (Note: NAEP “proficient” means the student demonstrates “solid academic performance and competency”; it does not represent grade-level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards like state assessments.)

ACT scores have declined for the sixth consecutive year. Graduation rates remain steady in the low 80 percent range despite high school student proficiency in math and reading declining.

Test scores are not the only indicator of success, but they are objective, standardized measures of grade-level achievement on academic or proficiency standards, notes the Gallup-Learning Heroes study. “Such tests are administered and scored in a consistent way and ask students to answer questions from a common question bank so that it’s possible to compare performance across students, classrooms, schools or districts and to estimate students’ knowledge and skills at a single point in time.”

This complexity — that “grades are not always a good match to other academic measures” — may be preventing parents from first knowing their child is behind to then discussing their concerns with their child’s teacher and trying to understand the disconnect, to determining next steps to support their child’s learning.

During the Gallup-Learning Heroes study, parents were presented a hypothetical scenario where their child receives a B in math but on both a district-wide math benchmark test and on a year-end math test scores below grade level. Over half of respondents stated they would be very or extremely (56 percent) concerned if this were true, with black parents the most likely to say they would be concerned (72 percent).

“Grades don’t necessarily reflect grade-level mastery,” says Bibb Hubbard, founder of Learning Heroes. “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.”

As the DFL-controlled Minnesota legislature prioritizes provisions aimed at masking the problems in Minnesota schools, teachers and parents should be intentional about forging a partnership to ensure the full picture of a child’s academic achievement is known, presented, and understood.