American Students and Families are Getting Lost in an Avalanche of Confusing Information

Mother reviews daughter's academic goals

This essay is part of a series of responses from education leaders to a Carnegie Corporation-commissioned challenge paper on the importance of family engagement in student success.

There’s no shortage of evidence that America’s public schools aren’t working as well as they should for all American families. Beyond the shamefully persistent gaps in educational opportunity and achievement that divide students of different races and more- and less-privileged backgrounds, there’s the fact that, despite plenty of advantages, American kids are not keeping up with their international peers in general.

Why is this happening? Over the years, education leaders and policymakers have pointed to a wide range of culprits, from mushy learning standards and poor teacher training to inadequate school funding and high class sizes. Here’s another to add to the list, one that doesn’t get much attention but should: confusing information about how students are actually doing in school.

In New Orleans and Boston, where our organization provides direct, hands-on educational support to hundreds of working parents, we have observed that the entire process of communicating the progress of individual students to their families is a mess. Parents have access to more information about students than ever, and yet the avalanche of data has become its own problem. Parents get lost among individual fragments of data that are difficult to interpret and tell divergent stories about student performance. This incoherence makes it easy for families to overestimate the performance of their children, to miss warning signs of major problems, and to pass up learning opportunities that have the power to reshape a child’s basic educational trajectory.

Here are four major ways we see this problem manifest itself for families:

1. Report cards are ridiculously confusing

When we began supporting one New Orleans mom working as a housekeeper in a downtown hotel, she shared her son’s report card, which showed a string of performance ratings like “AB” and “B.” She naturally assumed those ratings were positive—As and Bs. In fact, they stood for terms like “Approaching Basic.” Her son was struggling in school, but you wouldn’t know it without reading the fine print. Given that report cards serve as the official record of each student’s educational progress and the primary way schools communicate about student performance, you’d think that schools would invest a huge amount of time and energy to get them right—to ensure they are crystal clear, accurate, parent friendly, and oriented towards specific actions that students, parents, and teachers all need to take to ensure each student’s success. But you’d be wrong. Every day we see report cards full of baffling codes and acronyms that are incomprehensible to parents, with little explanation or analysis.

2. Information comes in bits and pieces, not as a complete picture

Alongside report cards, parents are getting a constant stream of data from reading assessments, state tests, end-of-course exams, and graded student work. The results are scored in different ways and require different kinds of interpretation, and they sometimes conflict with whatever story the student’s official grades tell, as was the case with Amalia, a seventh grader outside of New Orleans who earns straight As yet has scored below grade level on most state tests for the past three years. It’s on parents to sort through all this data and figure out what it means and which sources to trust; rarely does anyone help them with that analysis, explain the discrepancies, or offer the big-picture perspective. When in doubt, parents tend to focus on the most positive data point and disregard the others—which means results that should be bright red warning lights get lost or overlooked.

3. Sometimes, schools literally speak a different language

One report card we saw recently included a series of terse comments like “student is in danger of failing.” For any parent, this would be alarming. But there was one big problem for the mom who shared it with us: she spoke only Spanish, and the report card was entirely in English. According to federal law, schools must communicate all key information to parents whose English is limited in a language they can understand. And this family was far from the only non-English speaking family at her school, where over 40 percent of all students are English Language Learners. Did none of them get report cards in Spanish? How are their parents supposed to understand what’s going on, support their child’s education, or interact with teachers when they face such a fundamental language barrier?

4. Bad news tends to be sugarcoated

Many schools have adopted terminology like “progressing” to describe student progress in lieu of traditional grades or ratings. But these terms also can be a way to evade communicating the news that a student is struggling. After all, what happens if a student ends the school year “progressing” in a subject or skill? Isn’t that another way to say he or she has not learned it? This tendency to play down difficult situations extends to parent-teacher conferences and other interactions, where teachers tend to sugarcoat problems and use coded language that a parent may not realize indicates a problem. For instance, when a teacher says, “Michael is really trying hard,” the true message may actually be “Michael is not doing well in class, but he is compliant and does his work.” But the parent hears “my son is working hard in school and will be okay.”

Why should we care about all of this? Because confusing information makes it all but impossible for parents to engage in their child’s education effectively or understand how to respond when problems arise. We have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t want the best for their child, and we’ve seen that parents engage quickly and assertively when they become fully aware of a problem. Among parents who are balancing the never-ending demands of work and family obligations and also trying to stay on top of what’s happening at school, however, the most common reaction to confusing or mixed messages is not to assume something is wrong and try to get clarity, but to trust that someone will say something if there’s a serious issue and hope for the best. Sadly, most of the time nobody does, and the best never comes.

David Keeling is a founding partner of EdNavigator, a nonprofit organization that connects busy families with personal education advisors who help them find a path to success in school and beyond. 

This essay was first published in The 74, a publication that receives philanthropic support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.