Why do nearly all parents think their children are doing just fine in school? Maybe it’s because the information they receive about student progress is totally incoherent.

There’s no shortage of evidence that America’s public schools aren’t working as well as they should for all families. Beyond the shamefully persistent gaps in educational opportunity and achievement that divide students of different races and more- and less-privileged backgrounds, there’s the fact that, despite plenty of advantages, American kids are not keeping up with their international peers in general.

Yet American parents remain optimistic. They tend to believe that their local schools are pretty good and that their own children are doing very well. In fact, more than 90 percent of American parents, across socioeconomic lines, believe their kids are on or above grade level, meaning they can successfully tackle the core work for students of their age. They are on-schedule, so to speak, to be ready for college and long term success in work and life.

The actual percentage, however, is much lower. Consider that only 39 percent of the more than 2 million students who took the ACT in 2017 earned college-ready scores in at least three of the test’s four subjects. Of the 1.8 million students in the Class of 2017 who took the SAT, only 46 percent met or exceeded college and career readiness benchmarks. About 70 percent of high school graduates go straight to college, but many of them arrive unprepared and in need of costly, time-consuming remediation before they can do college-level work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly half of them do not earn a degree within six years. The hard truth: Most students are less educated than their parents believe.

The hard truth: Most students are less educated than their parents believe.

Why is there such a chasm between perception and reality?

There are many possible explanations. Over the years, education leaders and policymakers have pointed to a wide range of culprits, from mushy learning standards and poor teacher training to inadequate school funding and high class sizes. Another common one is that parents are blind to any performance shortcomings in their children because they love them so much.

Here’s another to add to the list — one that doesn’t get much attention, but should: Confusing information about how students are actually doing in school.

In New Orleans and Boston, our organization partners with local employers and community organizations to bring expert educational support to hundreds of working parents. Through these partnerships, participating employees are connected to a personal education advisor — a “Navigator” — who meets with them at work or through a mobile app to answer questions, offer advice, and help them achieve their educational goals. Navigators are veteran teachers, school principals and counselors with deep local roots in their community, and they gain an intimate view of each family’s educational experiences.

The entire process of communicating the progress of individual students to their families is a mess.

In the course of our work, we have observed that the entire process of communicating the progress of individual students to their families is a mess. Parents have access to more information about students than ever, and yet the avalanche of data has become its own problem. They get lost in difficult-to-interpret report cards and test results, and spun around by overly positive messages from educators about how well students are doing. This incoherence makes it easy for families to overestimate the performance of their children, miss warning signs of major problems, and pass up learning opportunities that have the power to reshape a child’s basic educational trajectory.

The mixed messages and data lead to inaction; uncertain about what matters and what doesn’t, many parents give up trying and trust that somebody will say something if there’s a serious problem. Teachers and school officials, for their part, frequently interpret this response as disinterest or a lack of engagement, rather than a sign that their message is simply not getting through. When it finally does, it’s usually because the situation has reached a crisis point — and by then it may be too late.

Together, we can do better. First, we need to understand the nuances of the problem in greater detail. Below, we offer four case studies based on real students whose parents participate with EdNavigator. They are all different ages and attend different types of schools. Each one highlights a different way that confusing or misleading information leaves parents muddled.