For an increasing number of students, report cards with traditional letter grades are a thing of the past. Instead of A’s and B’s, their report cards might have 2’s and 3’s or unfamiliar letter grades like O and P. This new look is a result of standards-based grading, an approach in which students receive scores for both academic achievement and student work habits.

Standards-based report cards have been most commonly used at the elementary level, but some middle schools and high schools are adopting them, too. In states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, some school districts have moved to standards-based grading to show how students are meeting the standards.

What Is Standards-Based Grading?

Standards-based grading, sometimes called proficiency grading, is a method for teachers to measure how students are doing in meeting the learning goals for their grade as determined by their state’s standards. Learning goals, sometimes called learning standards, are the academic skills your child should know or be able to do for his grade level by the end of the school year.

Standards-based report cards give a grade for each learning goal, so students receive multiple grades in each subject area. In 5th grade math, for example, you’ll see the subject broken into several categories, such as operations/algebraic thinking and fractions. Under each category, you’ll see a list of math skills your child should be able to do, as well as a grade showing how your child is doing.

Work habits—educators may call this learning behavior or success attributes—are graded separately to provide an accurate picture of your child’s academic achievement. Behavior includes aspects like completing tasks on time, going to class prepared, and contributing positively to class discussions.

How Standards-Based Grades Differ From Traditional Letter Grades

Providing grades for academic proficiency and work habits gives parents more information about the areas in which their child needs to improve than the traditional letter grading system. The traditional grading system combines many elements—test scores, quizzes, completed homework, classroom participation, coming to school on time, extra credit—and averages the semester’s work into a percentage that correlates with a letter grade.

Miguel Boriss, an 8th grade science teacher in Bellingham, Wash., explains letter grades this way: “One student might bring home a B because she did all the work, turned in all her homework, and participated in class but didn’t quite understand the concepts. Another student might bring home a B because he aced all the tests and quizzes but didn’t do any of the homework and didn’t participate in class,” he says. “Each student earns the same grade but for very different reasons, and the grade doesn’t tell parents very much about what the student knows.”

Because standards-based report cards separate the two, you can see if your child needs help with an academic concept or can’t remember to turn in homework. Both should be addressed. An overarching goal in education these days is to develop students who not only master academic content but also demonstrate attributes for successful learning beyond school.

How Progress Is Measured

Schools vary in their report card scales and terminology, but often they use a four-part scale to denote levels of achievement with descriptors such as:

  • Excels (4)
  • Proficient (3)
  • Approaching Proficiency (2)
  • Well Below Proficiency or Not Yet (1)

“The big switch with standards-based grading is we work by levels, not percentages,” says Ken O’Connor, independent educational consultant and author of A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades. It’s more useful to know that your child has met a standard than that she has a B with 84 percent. Each grade on the report card represents a skill or knowledge standard your child has had the opportunity to learn, so it’s a meaningful snapshot of academic achievement. For behavior, report cards often use numbers, plus signs, or minus signs.

In some schools, it’s possible to earn top grades during the first grading period because proficiency is what is expected at the time of the report card. In others, students are measured against year-end standards and they mostly earn 1’s in the first grading period, 2’s during the second, and then the 3’s begin to appear as they master the learning targets. That grading approach is less common, O’Connor says. It’s important to ask your child’s teacher which time frame is being used.

How Do You Know How Your Child Is Doing?

The number of categories on a standards-based report card can make your head spin. To help parents understand them, many districts post frequently asked questions and sample report cards on their websites. Because districts vary, don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher to explain the grading and how your school defines behavior. Many schools using standards-based grading also allow quiz retakes and late homework, which can feel strange to parents, but the goal is for students to master the standards. Find out how your school works.

If you’re confused by what the levels mean, you’re not alone. Keep in mind that a 3 or “proficient” isn’t the same as a B. It means your child has met state standards, and that’s good. (In some states, the new Common Core standards will be raising the academic bar.)

Also, even top students can earn a 2 or “approaching proficiency” grade, which can be a shock for some families. But it’s more important to know if your child is struggling with a concept than to see a slew of top grades because of stellar work habits. On the upside, early low scores aren’t averaged into the final grade—so once your child masters the concept, her final grade shows that. Along the way, O’Connor suggests checking your school’s online reporting system and communicating with your child’s teachers before problems go too far. “The report card should never come as a surprise,” he says.

Level 4, or the top level, may be the trickiest to understand. If your child earned A’s on traditional report cards, she may have received them for meeting the teacher’s requirements, not necessarily for excelling at or going beyond grade level according to state standard. In the new system, 4’s may be harder to come by (and 3’s should be celebrated). However, earning 4’s should be achievable in the classroom, O’Connor says, and it’s important that teachers’ lessons offer opportunities for students to excel and reach level 4. This is an area schools may be developing if they’ve recently adopted standards-based grading and are still determining standards for level 3.

As the grading system becomes familiar, you’ll get more comfortable. The important thing is that your child is learning and making progress. Celebrate learning, and the grades will follow.

Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting, and family travel for online, national, and regional magazines. She lives in Bellingham, Wash., with her husband and two children.