Beyond the Scantron: Two Parent Leaders on How to Make State Tests and Results Understandable for Parents

Teachers, students and parents participate in an outdoor learning demonstration for New York City schools in front of P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daley School. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

This piece is part of “Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools,” a three-week series produced in collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute to examine key elements of high-quality exams and illuminate why using them well and consistently matters to equitably serve all students. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our previous accountability series here.

Bibb Hubbard is the founder and president of Learning Heroes, an organization devoted to helping parents get the information they need to help their children advance academically. Cindi Williams is a co-founder of Learning Heroes and a principal at HCM Strategists. Both have been active in school reform efforts through their work with organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

In this conversation with us, the pair draw upon their work with parents and guardians — which includes an unprecedented amount of ethnographic, qualitative and quantitative research over the past five years — to discuss the role that quality assessments play in helping parents understand their children’s academic progress.

Courtesy of Bibb Hubbard
Courtesy of Cindi Williams

What role do high-quality assessments play in teaching, learning and accountability?

Hubbard: Let me start from the perspective of parents. They accept tests as a part of life. And they rely upon quizzes and exams to understand how their child is moving along and if they’re doing the work that’s expected of them.

So, as parents wade through what is most meaningful to pay attention to, the challenge is there are so many different types of tests. That is where it gets complicated. If you define a test as a quiz or an end-of-course exam, parents are all in. They get that those tests are baked into a report card grade, which is the main way they understand how their child is achieving.

That reliance on report card grades to measure how their child is achieving creates a significant perception gap among parents. Nine out of 10 parents report their child is at or above grade level in reading and math, despite the reality that only just over a third of students perform grade-level work according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But we know from talking with teachers and others that a report card grade doesn’t reflect grade-level mastery. There’s so much more baked into grade-level mastery, but nobody has shared that with parents. Being honest with parents can be hard for some teachers, so, if sharing information about grade-level mastery is not a job expectation, it largely isn’t happening.

When you get to other kinds of tests, such as district tests, parents don’t typically have access to those results. and it’s threatening to teachers to share the results with parents. And parents don’t know to ask about them. They just know it’s another test and it feels like it gets put into this overarching, too-much-testing category.

But in places where formative tests are shared with students and families, teachers talk openly and freely about Measures of Academic Progress results. Kids can cite their MAP results; parents can cite their MAP results.

Fifty-six percent of parents are totally fine with end-of-year state exams. But if you ask a parent whether that kind of test or a report card is more important to understanding how their child is doing, it is always the report card grade that wins out. Teachers are with their kids every day, so parents think that report card grades reflect whether their child is on track better than one test that happens once a year.

Our research found that teachers signal to parents that the state test doesn’t really matter, saying things like, “We don’t understand the test, we don’t see the items on the test, and they’re not aligned to the curriculum we’re teaching. Of course, the kids don’t know how to answer these questions.”

So, parents say, “Fine,” as opposed to asking, “Wait, why doesn’t my child know the answer to those questions that the state expects students in their grade to know?” It’s often easier for parents to trust the report card grade.

Data from TNTP’s “Opportunity Myth” report shows that most kids are getting A’s and B’s. So parents are correct in thinking that things are fine, based on the report card grades their children bring home. They are using the measure that they have.

I don’t believe that state test results are the sole measurement. But they do help provide parents with a more complete picture so they can ask why their child is getting a B in math but failed the state test. They can use that information to better advocate for their child.

Our theory of change is that if every parent can advocate effectively for their student because they have clear information about their child’s progress, that will help drive more equitable schools and continuous school improvement. Without schools and districts enabling parents to play that role, we perpetuate the status quo.

What sort of message or explanation resonates most with parents? The Byzantine nature of state standards and their alignment to tests is not intuitive. 

Williams: We have never made state tests and their results understandable for parents. We have compounded the formal opposition to them from teachers by giving parents an indecipherable piece of paper during the mid-summer.

There are innovative efforts to try to solve for that, such as NWEA’s through-year assessment, which embeds a comparable test in the classroom experience three times a year, and Texas’s effort to have parents “Log in, Learn More” about the students’ STAAR results. But with the exception of a few bright lights, student score reports are not developed with parents in mind; they are created by psychometricians to be “valid and reliable.” We can’t expect parents to find something meaningful that just isn’t.

Learning Heroes has provided technical work in about half of the states on school reports and school report grades. We are trying to make them more user-friendly for parents. In fact, we created a model score report and a model school report card based on our research to show states what “good” looks like, and South Dakota adopted it in its entirety.

Parents also don’t know its purpose. Is the state test to evaluate teachers? Is it for my child? Do schools get less money if they do poorly? Is it for grade promotion? Is it going to harm my child’s ability to get into college? I recall one parent asking me if colleges have access to her son’s state test scores. She didn’t want them hurting his chances of getting into college.

It is easy to discount the value of these exams if you don’t understand them.

So, what questions should parents be asking their teachers or principals about these tests, what their student scores mean and why they’re important? 

Hubbard: Take the summative test score to the teacher, ask them to help explain what it means for their child, and how can you support your child at home in making up for any skills they may lack or have not mastered. Ask them if your child is on grade level. Are they reading and doing math on grade level?

If we had a bumper sticker for parents and guardians, it would be: “Is my child on grade level?”

Williams: We need to put information in the same place at the same time.

We have focused, in our research, on how parents want to receive this information, and we are increasingly seeing the power of the school portal. Parents are literally checking it all the time to stay on top of assignments and grades and teacher notes. It is quickly replacing the traditional report card.

We often say at Learning Heroes that teachers and principals have become data scientists. They have so much information at their fingertips. It would be great if parents had that same access utilizing the parent/student portal and could see state test scores, report card grades and MAP results side by side.

Our research shows that the best way to demystify the test is to have a parent see the practice test with actual questions aligned to grade level. Their “aha” is that these are questions and problems that they would like their child to be able to know and do. We have worked with advocacy groups alongside organizations like Smarter Balanced to give parents access to practice tests.

Principals and teachers are the primary communication avenue to parents. How do you make that work well with information about testing? Parents are likely to assume their child is on grade level if they have been promoted, although the child actually may be behind.

Hubbard: The teacher communication channel is the most important one, bar none. We’re now thinking strategically and ambitiously about how to support changes in systems so that it is an expectation for principals and teachers to share a more holistic view of student data with parents and guardians. They currently do not, for the most part.

We’ve built some tools to promote that data exchange, and we are building out some professional development to help principals and teachers navigate those conversations. Our research has shown that because it isn’t an expectation for most teachers to share grade-level achievement data, they may be afraid that parents are going to blame them or not believe them.

And some teachers say they don’t have the resources or capacity to reach parents effectively, so we are thinking about this critical piece. A Learning Heroes micro-credential for teachers to show they are certified in how to engage parents around their children’s data is one idea we are pursuing.

We’ve heard from principals that they track how students are graded and how they are performing on formative and summative assessments, and the principals engage teachers when there is an egregious difference in results. They don’t want a “parent problem,” as one elementary school principal reported.

But principals need to be prepared for parents to have even high expectations of their teachers this fall. According to our 2020 national parent poll, an overwhelming majority of parents want a better understanding of what is expected of their child, where their child is academically, and will deepen their relationship with their child’s teacher(s). Parents want the information. And they deserve it.

Where do you get support at the policy level for this work, whether from superintendents or state education chiefs?

Hubbard: When push comes to shove, from a policy perspective, parent engagement has mostly been given lip service. The environment has changed rapidly during COVID-19, so we are eager to see what changes can be made to benefit families. And while there are many models of deep and meaningful family engagement, it isn’t as ubiquitous as it needs to be. Family engagement is more than “math night” or “science night” or a bake sale.

Williams: The other challenge is bias among teachers. There is persistent racial bias around low-income families not caring about their kids’ education from a teacher point of view.

There also are no incentives in the system to do parent engagement well. There’s no measurement, there’s no compliance, there’s no expectation, there’s no reporting, there’s no feedback loop. There are parent-teacher conferences, which are often arbitrary and meaningless. They could be really powerful.

Many teachers, based on our research, do not see a parental engagement as a good use of their time. But that may change if kids go in and out of school in the fall and winter because of COVID. In order to have continuity of learning, that parent may need to actually know what the teacher is trying to teach this year and vice versa. That’s why we’ve created a protocol for the parent-teacher conference to help parents ask for and share specific information about their child’s progress.

I want to separate out charter schools. I chaired the Charter Commission in Washington state, and I saw firsthand the systems that were in place not only to recruit parents but also to partner with them in meaningful ways from day one. The Parent engagement piece is cooked into their zeitgeist. There’s a staff person dedicated to parent engagement, and retention is a part of their measurement system. There is so much we can learn from charters about how to do this work effectively.

If resources were not a problem, what one or two improvements would you love to see changed around testing relative to parents?

Williams: I believe that embedded and invisible is the way to go. We must be smart enough to use the same test for multiple purposes. There is no reason parents can’t see this information three times a year, that it can be used for instructional differentiation and that it can be used to evaluate the school system.

Today, schools make tests into these big events where students are told, “Get to bed early, eat your breakfast, and, remember, this is a big day for your school.” We are raising the stakes for parents and students unnecessarily.

Hubbard: For me, it would be on the teacher side of things. I would like to give teachers the professional development and support for why these tests matter. We would give them the tools to view the items, see the results, communicate the results to parents in a way that fosters a true partnership and allows them to differentiate instruction.

Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative.

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.

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