The Report Card, a novel by Andrew Clements (2004), deals with the issues of grades, testing, and achievement in school. The main character, Nora, calls the system into question in a way that makes her parents and teachers reconsider their ideas about what education means. Unlike many other Clements novels, such as Frindle or The School Story, this book does not show a character starting a widespread revolution or making the national news. Nora’s actions affect only herself, her family, and her school. Her victory at the end does not change the world, but it gives her a measure of control over her own life.
As The Report Card begins, Nora has just received her grades for the first term of fifth grade. Her friend Stephen is scared when he sees she got all Ds and a C; he thinks she is sure to get in trouble. Nora is just mad about the C because she was aiming for straight Ds. She wants these bad grades because she wants to show the adults in her life how problematic the grading system is. She did it for Stephen because he is a nice, hardworking kid whose grades make him feel badly about himself.
Nora is a genius. She remembers everything that happens to her, and she analyzes everything she remembers. However, nobody but Nora knows how smart she is. When she was about two, she saw her big sister, Ann, doing a 500-piece puzzle. She could see how all the pieces went together, so she kept pointing out the pieces Ann needed. When Ann realized Nora could pick out any piece that belonged anywhere on the puzzle, she went to get their mother. Mom asked Nora to do the trick again, but Nora refused. She did not like to perform; she just wanted to be herself. Until that day, she did not know she was smart. Afterward, she was careful to hide her intelligence.
Even though Nora got her bad grades on purpose, they scare her. Nora does not like attention, and she hates upsetting her parents. However, she knows her parents get overexcited about school issues. She learned that back in kindergarten.
When Nora started kindergarten, she already knew she did not want to be known for being smart. She knew the schoolwork would be too easy for her, so she did not do it. Instead she hid under the table every day and pretended to be a cat. She was only five, so she had no idea how important parents and teachers thought school was. She thought they would get used to the idea that she was a cat and leave her alone. They did not. Her teacher called her parents, and everyone at school started thinking Nora might have a learning disability. Everyone started looking at her funny, and she hated that. She stopped being a cat and started being a copycat instead. She decided to copy a different kid every day until she figured out how to become the average of all of them. As she copied the other kids, she learned more about how smart she was. She also learned to respect the other kids for working so hard to do what she could do easily. Above all, she loved copying Stephen because, even though he was not smart, he was a hard worker and he was kind and fair. Nora and Stephen became best friends.
Nora was happy at school until fourth grade, when kids in her district started Connecticut Mastery Testing. Nora read about these tests on the Internet and figured out how many questions she needed to miss to get average scores. She did not care about her scores, but Stephen did. The tests were hard for him, and they put him under a lot of pressure. The pressure just made him do worse, and his low scores made him feel badly about himself. He started getting mad at himself when he had trouble understanding material in school, and he worried about all kinds of tests, even those in his best subjects. Other kids changed their attitudes at the same time Stephen did. They sorted themselves into the smart kids, the average kids, and the dumb kids. Nora could see that Stephen thought of himself as a dumb kid, and she did not think anyone deserved that label.
Now Nora and Stephen are in fifth grade, and this year’s grades determine who gets into advanced junior high classes. Nora can see that the pressure is getting terrible for Stephen. She knows it will only get worse unless she helps.
After thinking this through, Nora goes downstairs to a meal of steak and baked potatoes. Her parents always make a nice meal for report card day. After dinner, each kid opens up his or her report card and reads the grades out loud. Ann, now a junior in high school, goes first. She is an intense, hardworking student who takes honors and advanced placement classes. Her grades are all As and A pluses, except for an A minus in driver’s education, “but that won’t count in my class rank.” Nora’s parents are thrilled.
Todd, who is in eighth grade, reads his grades next. Unlike Ann and Nora, he does not find schoolwork easy. He works hard, though, because he knows how important grades are to his parents. He gets an assortment of As and Bs, including a B minus in English. Mom calls this report card “pretty good,” but she does not like the B minus. “I’d think you’d be a little disappointed with that,” she says. Dad agrees, reminding Todd that he is almost in high school. In Dad’s opinion, it is time for Todd to get busy and work hard for grades that will get him into a good college.
When it is Nora’s turn, she panics. She refuses to read her report card out loud, saying that fifth-grade grades are not important:
They’re all based on a bunch of stupid information that anybody with half a brain can memorize. Tests and grades and all of it—it’s all...just stupid.
(The entire section is 2350 words.)