Thursday / April 25

How to Keep Your Standards-Based Report Card Simple and Family Friendly

School leaders engaged in grading reforms all struggle with revising the report card. They recognize that their current report card offers little useful information to parents and families about students’ performance in school, and want to provide a better, more comprehensive, and more informative reporting tool.

Unfortunately, most leaders go overboard in the process. Many develop a highly detailed, multiple-page report card that lists all the standards or learning goals for each elementary grade level or secondary course. This not only overwhelms parents and families with information they don’t understand and don’t know how to use, but it also replicates data already available to them in the gradebook. The primary goal of developing a better communication device that helps guide improvements in student learning is lost.

Other leaders address the challenge of summarizing evidence from the gradebook by developing broader and more inclusive essential standards (DuFour et al., 2010; Jakicic, 2017), priority standards (Ainsworth, 2015; Spearman, 2020), or power standards (Ainsworth, 2003; Reeves, 2007) for the report card. Regrettably, a review of the essential, priority, and power standards developed by different school districts and states reveals little consistency or agreement. Developing agents not only list different essential, priority, or power standards, they offer different defining characteristics. This leaves leaders having to face the question, “Why are our power standards different from our neighboring districts?”

[This article is adapted from Chapter 5 in Engaging Parents and Families in Grading Reform by T. R. Guskey (Corwin, 2024)]

A far better solution lies in work already completed by professional organizations of teachers in each academic discipline (see Figure 1). These organizations have all developed detailed standards for student learning in their respective disciplines. They typically group these standards in five or six strands or domains – the number of categories most parents and families consider interpretable (Swan, et al., 2014). These strands provide an excellent way to organize and summarize students’ learning on the report card.

Figure 1. Professional Organizations of Teachers That Have Developed Standards
for Student Learning

Reporting by subject area strands allows teachers to meaningfully summarize students’ performance on the report card without duplicating information already reported in the gradebook.

Instead of reporting on twenty, thirty, or more individual language arts standards on the report card, teachers summarize students’ performance in language arts in the areas of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and language skills (e.g., grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.). For detail on the specific standards addressed in each strand, teachers simply refer parents and families to the gradebook.

In addition, while the standards for student learning change with each grade level, the strands do not. Hence, the same report card can be used across all grade levels. This greatly simplifies report card interpretation for parents and families, who no longer need to adapt to and interpret a new report card every year. Table 1 summarizes the differences between gradebook standards and report card strands.

Table 1. Differences Between Gradebook Standards and Report Card Strands

Remember, however, that the report card does not replace the gradebook; nor can the gradebook replace the report card. Each serves its own unique purpose. The report card offers a summary and interim evaluation by teachers of students’ performance at that time in the school year. Parents and families want to know if their children are on track for success and, if not, what specific improvements are needed. Gradebooks provide the detailed evidence upon which teachers base their interim evaluations and provide the specifics needed to target improvement efforts.

Report card design is much more a challenge in effective communication than it is about documenting and quantifying students’ achievement. Those who take on this challenge must focus primarily on clarity, understanding, and the usefulness of the information provided rather than on its detail and comprehensiveness.

In addition, report cards should not create bookkeeping nightmares for teachers that require them to duplicate information already available to parents and families in the gradebook. Instead, report cards should communicate teachers’ summary judgments of students’ performance during the reporting period, as specified in a purpose statement for grading. Using the report card in combination with the gradebook reduces the reporting burden for teachers while giving parents and families the information they need to follow their children’s progress in school and to guide improvements when needed.


Ainsworth, L. (2003). Power standards: Identifying the standards that matter the most. Advanced Learning Press.

Ainsworth, L. (2015, February 25). Priority standards: The power of focus. Education Week Blog.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Solution Tree.

Jakicic, C. (2017, May 22). Are essential standards a part of the assessment process? All Things Assessment, Solution Tree.

Reeves, D. B. (2007). Power standards: How leaders add value to state and national standards. In Josey-Bass Publishers, The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (2nd ed., pp. 239–248). Jossey-Bass.

Spearman, M. M. (2020, July). Priority standards. South Carolina Department of Education.

Swan, G., Guskey, T. R., & Jung, L. A. (2014). Parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 26 (3), 289–299.

Written by

Thomas R. Guskey, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the College of Education, University of Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Chicago and former middle school teacher, he served as an administrator in the Chicago Public Schools and was the first Director of the Center for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning, a national educational research center. He is the author/editor of twenty-eight books and over three hundred published articles and book chapters.

No comments

leave a comment