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Evaluating student progress
At the beginning of classes in September, most teachers provide students with an outline of their courses, either for the semester or for the full school year. The outline usually includes plans for evaluating student achievement throughout, showing the allocation of percentages of the final mark to class participation and homework, to major projects or essays, to short tests, and to full-length exams. It's good for parents to become familiar with this information so that they can help their kids balance the emphasis on different phases of each subject in which they enroll. The teacher usually writes comments on the student projects or assignments throughout the semester. Report cards at the end of the semester and of the course usually include the mark or the letter achieved and a general comment.
Beyond the report card
For a fuller assessment of how your teen is coping in high school, make a point of attending parent-teacher nights so that you can talk individually with each teacher. You may have to make the rounds of from four to eight different subject teachers. If it's not possible to schedule time to see each teacher in one night, talk with your teen to choose which teachers to meet and which ones to talk with by phone or to meet another day. Each subject teacher keeps a record of student attendance, assignments, and tests. In your meeting with each teacher, ask basic questions.
• Is my teen attending your class?
• Is my teen behaving in your class?
• Does my teen complete homework assignments and hand them in on time?
• How is my teen doing in tests?
Most highschool teachers return essays and assignments with a mark and any comments to the students. If you have concerns about these assignments, bring a marked one to the interview and ask the teacher to discuss what problems your teen's work shows. If the teacher suggests that your teen needs additional help with general study skills, inquire about programs the school offers -- for example, a tutorial on study or work habits or remedial classes. Many high schools offer workshops designed to boost academic skills.
When you suspect there's a problem, always call the school; don't wait for a teacher to call you. At the high-school level, teachers are responsible for many more students, so the system for reporting back to parents can sometimes break down. If you wait, you may lose valuable time that could have been spent helping your teen. To make an appointment with a teacher, call the school and leave a message with your home or work telephone number. The school secretary will be able to tell you what unassigned periods the teacher has and when you might expect a return call.
Many of the activities your teen takes part in at high school can't be graded and won't show up on his report card but are, nevertheless, very important. Clubs, teams, student government, and community service are all part of the high-school experience. Encourage your teens to get involved and applaud their efforts. Sometimes when a student is going through a bad patch at school – classes are boring, he's struggling with math – it's the drama club or basketball practice that keeps him going. The friendships they make and the experiences they gain make high school a place they want to be. Kids who participate in activities outside of class have greater motivation, and do better academically.
What do low marks signify?
Marks typically take a nosedive when a young person changes schools, and the change to high school also occurs for most students during puberty. Just as your teens are coping with a changing body, possibly with attendant mood swings or new sexual thoughts and feelings, they face a more challenging curriculum and the new experience of being low man on the social totem pole in a much wider society. Within the first year or two, most students adapt and their marks return to what's normal for them.
But it's important to be able to read your own child. The poor marks your teen receives, whether on assignments, tests, or end-of-semester report cards, might signal any number of other issues. Do they signify academic problems, a psychological problem like depression, societal pressures to conform to preconceived notions of what a girl should do or want, or peer pressures to reject parental values or participate in drug use?
Of course, the quality of the school, your family life, your teen's personal motivation, her friendships, and her intellectual ability all play a role in her school success. A teen whose parents are divorcing, or one who is the target of a bully, or one who has broken up with her boyfriend may not be able to focus in class and may get lower marks than usual. If the personal situation is temporary, time and the academic boost that comes from working smarter, not harder, will help restore the student to his or her previous level of achievement.
A teen who continues to struggle with particular subjects in school, even though he appears to be working hard at them, may already be living up to his academic potential. Some people don't have the intellectual or memory skills needed to handle successfully the courses necessary for admission to college or university. But if you're unsure whether it's your teen's performance or potential that's in question, suggest that he take aptitude tests.
Who to talk to
Page 2 of 3 – Find out the help options available to your teen on page 3.
Most high-school guidance departments can offer the kind of aptitude tests and interest inventories that help a student learn about himself. If not, you might contact a psychologist and inquire about the tests available and the related fees. Check your health-care plan to see if a psychologist's fees and aptitude tests are covered.
Most people like to see an objective analysis of their capabilities and interests, and students may be relieved to find that the test reveals what they already knew -- for example, that they learn best from hands-on experience and don't learn easily from reading and writing. Such an official analysis might end months of miserable conflict between parent and child about their academic achievement. Parents should not impose the goal of a university degree if their child gives no immediate evidence of interest in or ability to pursue that goal.
You can both consider other options for his future and be prepared to accept that your teen may not be best served by what the school system has to offer at this time. Be aware of your teen's strengths and his interests. Set an achievement target that your teen supports.
If he's getting 50s and you want 80s, compromise and set a target for the mid-60s as a first step. The worst thing a parent can do is to assume the child is lazy or unmotivated, warns psychologist Harvey Mandel, author of Could Do Better: Why Children Underachieve and What to Do about It (HarperCollins, 1995), a step-by-step guide to helping parents help their kids who are underachieving. "Too many parents make the assumption that, if my child fails now, his life is over. Parents need to know that teens can survive most of the difficulties they will ever encounter... Don't give up hope."
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