– Grades beep, rattle, and hum.

But grades don’t speak.

It’s report card week in Brookline, and as usual we got a heads-up e-mail from the high school headmaster, prodding us to ask our sons and daughters to hand over their quarterly assessment. “The report card is an important school communication,” he concluded.

One thing every parent of a high schooler knows is how little communication there is between home and school, especially compared to the mountain of notices, bulletins, and newsletters that come our way during the K – 8 years, not to mention the PTO breakfasts and principal’s coffees and “special” events. (For the record: I do like parent/teacher conferences.) Eli is a junior in high school, and I met his teachers once at an open house event. Yes, I had a nice and helpful conversation with a few of them. However, that and a few visits Jimmy made to similar open houses constitute the extent of home/school communication in the last three years. I’m generally okay with that, but I am not okay with grades standing in for communication.

Grades might be aggregated data, and they might even be signals, but, because they lack (a) teachers’ interpretation and (b) opportunity for direct feedback, they cannot be communication.

Without commentary, what does an “A” even mean? I took a course in high school — Journalism — for which I had NO homework and NO papers and NO quizzes. All I had to do was show up. I showed up; I got an “A.” That grade, therefore, did not mean excellent or smart or hard work or any good personal quality a parent might associate with a high grade. It meant only this: she showed up.

I got one “C” in high school, in typing, which is so weird, because I am an excellent touch typist, and I was then. However, I did sit in the back row of typewriters and silently and dutifully typed strings of fdsajkl; and later added the tricky y’s and b’s and the terrifying row of numerals. Two of my friends, Andy and Bobby, sat at the front and joked with the teacher, another Jane, who was only 23 years old. (She seemed old enough to me at the time, when I was 15, but I think of her youth now and wonder if we were all too close in age.) The boys sailed through that class (grade=A for excellent flirting) because they made the teacher smile. Me? I was just a typing drudge (grade=C for no personality) in the back row. That’s my interpretation. I don’t actually know.

And, yet, in Calculus I got an “A,” and that was a real A: I worked hard, I loved it, and I did well. How does it compare to the same grade I got in my journalism class? It seems equivalent, and yet it is not.

Thirty years later, I’m reading my son’s report card. What do I make of the A’s? Excellence, or excellent personality? And the not-A’s? Genuine academic struggle, apathy, behavior?

I can only take these marks as signals, like the microwave beeping or my phone vibrating. In their tinny voices, they get us to do something: talk to the student.

And while that talk with Eli will constitute real communication, the grades do not.

What would make those grades talk? I’d like to see the letter and the data points elaborated with remarks. Putting such a report card together would be immensely time-consuming for the faculty, I realize. However, it would also be thoughtful and illuminating and, I dare say, educational for both the student and his parents.

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