Report Card Memories

Report Card Memories

My wife and I recently moved into a new house, which brought me back into touch with that box of stuff where you throw old keepsakes that you have no actual use for, but which for some reason you want to keep anyway.

Old photos, my varsity letters in high school hockey and lacrosse, the TV Guide from the week I was born, and of course, a smattering of random report cards from over the years.

The TV Guide, along with a “baby book” of infant milestones parents are meant to record, indicate the fact that my box of random stuff was started by my mother and somehow came into my possession over the years. Most days I don’t feel that old, except that the TV listings for the day of my birth show that the Ed Sullivan Show was still on at the time.

That some of my grade school report cards, of all things, have remained in my family’s possession for so long makes me predisposed to trust that a widely circulated image of the report card of someone’s “great grandfather from 1926” is authentic. The image can be seen on Reddit, and it is, to use a word from someone who was in school in 1926…a hoot.

The report card is organized under three broad categories, “attitude toward school work,” “recitations,” and “conduct” with individual observations under each, and space to check the relevant boxes month-to-month.

The individual observations include:

Under “attitude toward school work”


     Wastes Time

     Gets Too Much Help

     Gives Up Too Easily


Under “recitations” 

     Comes Poorly Prepared

     Appears Not to Try



Under “conduct”

     Restless and Inattentive 

     Inclined to Mischief


     Annoys Others

     Whispers Too Much

This person who would go on to become someone’s great grandfather has negative marks in every box for every problem under “conduct” for every month recorded, with the exception of “Rude” where he was never cited, and the month of December, when he was only cited for “Whispers Too Much.”

You can just picture this kid, right, a pain in the teacher’s side? A daydreamer? Or maybe ants in the pants?

It’s interesting to note how the evaluation is nearly entirely predicated on a system of demerits, a chance to record all the times the student falls short of teacher expectations. Nowhere is there space to note what a student does well. On this report card, excellence would be represented primarily by blanks in the boxes.

The report card from 1926 is a chance to reflect on how much things have changed. 

Or have they?

While my report cards from the 1970s and 1980s aren’t quite the same as the one from 1926, they’re not all that different. Sure, there are more opportunities for noticing the positive, e.g., “Reading Fluency” but there’s still plenty of space to accentuate the negative. 

I felt actual pangs of retrospective shame at the years of “need improvement” being marked next to the “Penmanship” box. It’s a struggle I never won, and thanks to the rise of the personal computer by the time I was part way through college, it’s a battle that became moot.

Perhaps we believe that letter grades are somehow more objective, more meaningful, and more positive (when they’re good, I suppose) than what the student in 1926 was subjected to, but in my conversations with students too often anything less than an A is often viewed as some form of failure. 

Report cards over the years have tended to not convey all that much about what students are learning. This is changing somewhat with alternative, standards-based report cards (example here), which employ lists of individual criteria under different subjects or even sub-parts of a subject, on which students are then rated on a scale of proficiency.

There is no doubt that these are an improvement. As tools for communicating between a teacher and the student’s parent or guardian as to what’s happening in school, they have much to recommend them.

But here’s my advice on what to do with report cards once that communication has happened. 

Throw them away.

There’s no moment of positive nostalgia to be gained from looking at those old report cards, even when they have lots of positive things in them because the larger temptation is to wonder why someone thought there were so many things wrong with you, and you begin to wonder if those things are still true.

I could do all kinds of good things then, read books well above my grade level, do fast math multiplication like the wind, but it’s weird how those things fade, while the defects seem fixed. We should remember that when we use report cards to communicate about the lives and work of students.