In New York City elementary schools, report cards are shrinking from 12 pages to four. In some Fairfax County, Va., schools, they've expanded to 11 pages. In Chicago, they now include 51 subcategories and a section on character development.
The style, shape, content, and purpose of report cards are all up for grabs as public school districts debate how best to measure student progress.
"Report cards are the symbolic crux of the reform issues," says Grant Wiggins, an education consultant and researcher in Pennington, N.J. Many of the questions that surround report cards are those at the heart of education itself, he suggests.
Should report cards be closely aligned to new state standards, even though parents may have to wade through a long checklist of skills and abilities? Some Wisconsin school districts are taking this step to give parents a clearer sense of what's expected of their children.
Or should the reports be brief and more "user-friendly"? New York's new schools chancellor, Joel Klein, recently announced a move in this direction to lift a burden off teachers and encourage more parents to actually read the report cards.
And an even more important question: What should be graded and reported? Progress? Effort? How a student stacks up against others?
"All of the above" would probably be the best answer, say some experts, and yet they question how a single form can convey so many shades of meaning and still communicate clearly and simply.
"No one's figured that out yet," Dr. Wiggins says.
The administration of Harold Levy, New York's previous schools chancellor, had designed a 12-page report card for elementary schools that included more than 100 categories. Some had the ring of true education jargon, relying on descriptions such as "understands the communicative, associative, and distributive properties."
But even apart from its language, the report card became the bane of many teachers, some of whom had to fill out more than 300 pages each marking period.
It also confused some parents. The card relied on letter grades but used a system in which "A" meant "area of concern" and "C" signified "consistently demonstrates" and was actually the highest grade.
Many teachers and parents sighed with relief when Mr. Klein recently announced the demise of the 12-page report card. Yet there were others who thought complaints about the extra paperwork missed the point.
"They were too long and too complex, and the new one will only take all of two minutes," says Allison Harris, a first-grade teacher in a Queens public school. But the many categories on the longer form served a purpose, she adds. "The old ones did make teachers sit and think, and they were a really good way to get home to parents a sense of the help that was needed, especially those parents you don't talk to, you don't see."
Prodded by more-specific state standards for what students should know and be able to do in each grade, many school systems now favor the more complex forms, says Thomas Guskey, a professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
"The dilemma is that many school districts charge ahead, developing more- detailed reports without involving parents or clarifying core issues about purpose," he says.
Wiggins, however, sees the current struggle over report cards as a classic piece of the education reform cycle. When schools are forced to change, he says, so are report cards, and often there's a parental backlash.
In the early 1900s, when waves of immigrants flooded US public schools, Wiggins says, there was a cry for accountability that eventually produced the A-through-F grading system and the single-page report card that endured for many decades.
In recent years, however, many educators concluded that summing up a student's performance with a single letter grade was too harsh and failed to take into account attitude and effort.
The result was a movement toward longer and more-descriptive report cards, which are now further complicated by a drive to align them with detailed state standards.
For some parents, report cards alone will never be sufficient. "I don't care what the form is," says Lynn Tucker, mother of a seventh-grader in a New York public school. "There's just a limit to how much you can learn from these things."
Ms. Tucker and her husband, John, are baffled by their daughter's most recent report card, even though it's just one page. They wonder why her "mark" in French class is 100, while her "performance level" is only a 3 (on a scale of 1 to 4), and how she received a 96 and a 3 in math, a subject she tells them she doesn't understand at all.
The bottom line, says Harris, the first-grade teacher, is that "a two-minute conversation with a parent is still better than the best report card."