The blog post is the first in a two-part series for educators on communicating with families about achievement testing. In Part 2 of the series, we will provide tips for educators on helping families interpret test scores.
We at ERB know how challenging it can be for educators to effectively and clearly communicate with parents about testing—everything from why summative assessment is necessary in the first place, to how test scores can be used in the classroom (and beyond), to how to navigate the nuances of the results and what they mean in a broader context.
We regularly hear concerns from educators who seek guidance with this very task. It’s a challenge Dr. Alexandra Sundman, Head of the Middle School for Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Maryland, encounters on a regular basis. Sundman says she wants advisors and learning specialists at her school to feel empowered to work closely with parents and caregivers, many of whom struggle to make sense of what test scores mean about their child’s academic performance and overall well-being.
It’s important to clarify to families that these tests are not statements about their child’s fixed ability level. Rather, they serve as a measure of what a student has learned up to this point and where gaps exist at an individual and class level.
“The desire to keep a growth mindset in these conversations is really important,” Sundman says.
We’ve compiled a list of tips and strategies below to help enhance your communication with parents and families, starting with the procedures and reasoning behind student testing.
“The desire to keep a growth mindset in these conversations is really important.”— Dr. Alexandra Sundman, Head of the Middle School, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart
6 Tips to Engage Students’ Families Before Test Day
Some communicating with parents and families about testing happens before the exam actually takes place. Here are six strategies to help you get started.
1. Share your school’s testing philosophy.
The words assessment and testing can spark feelings of anxiety or nervousness, and parents and caregivers may wonder why a test is being administered in the first place. Whether in person or via another mode of communication—a one-pager, a guide, even a video—it can be helpful to explain your school’s reasons for a given assessment upfront and educate families about your testing philosophy starting early on in the school year.
It’s often beneficial to remind parents that the intention of summative assessment is not to categorize or “rank” a student but rather to understand what they have learned and how they have progressed over time. The aim is to gather information so you can develop more targeted interventions for students and improve curriculum design. The scores are one piece of a larger puzzle about understanding academic performance and the whole child. It’s about growth; not just numbers.
2. Help familiarize families with the test.
Oftentimes, families want to get a sense of what test their student will be taking so they can ensure the student has the time and information needed to prepare and thrive. Sharing basic information such as test dates, times, and locations is also essential.
You might also point them to resources provided by the test provider, such as testing guides and information on its website. At ERB, we have a dedicated landing page for families about our achievement tests, including the Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP), Milestones, and Writing Assessment Program (WrAP).
3. Slowly introduce families to testing details over time.
Allisen Haworth, Division Head at the Epiphany School in Washington, brings up testing with families gradually throughout the school year, as she mentioned at the 2023 ERB Conference. Her efforts start early in the school year with brief mentions of ERB testing in coffee conversations with families. Then, test dates are added to school calendars and highlighted in classroom newsletters and all-school communications.
“I usually write a letter for our all-school newsletter about assessment in general at the school and all the different ways that assessment happens as a way of [knowing] children well,” Haworth said at the conference. This includes achievement testing administered by external providers like ERB, as well as more informal strategies like one-on-one interviews with students.
Taking this approach helps to normalize the concept of achievement testing among families while avoiding overwhelming them with too much information at once.
4. Help quell test anxiety.
Research shows that students at high-achieving schools—including many independent schools—are at high-risk for behavioral and mental health challenges, in part because they are learning in especially competitive environments. Parents may feel a similar sense of anxiety as their child prepares for the test.
Reducing test anxiety among families and students often requires encouraging parents and caregivers to view summative assessment as an opportunity to help their student grow. You can also remind parents or caregivers to simply focus on controlling what they can. This often means:
- Having their student adequately prepare beforehand to improve their confidence going into test day
- Getting rest and eating well in the days leading up to the assessment
- Confirming the time and location of the test beforehand
- Arriving early so the student feels relaxed rather than rushed upon arrival
5. Provide a glimpse of how and when scores are shared.
It’s important to be transparent with students’ parents and caregivers about what results will be shared and when—including how they can access test scores and available resources if they have questions.
At ERB, families can access test scores in different ways. We recommend that ERB member schools try out our new ERB Family Report tool in 360 Access, which can present student achievement data—including key findings and next steps—in a more digestible format for families.
6. Explain what achievement test scores will mean in context.
As the Latin School of Chicago’s go-to resource for student performance data and insights, Amanda Taglia, the school’s testing coordinator, sends out a video to families dissecting some of the key terms associated with student testing. What is a scaled score? A norm? A stanine? A student percentile?
In whatever formats you choose, it’s important to remind families that test scores are a snapshot in time, and many factors can affect their performance on achievement tests—incidences on campus or at home, class size, and attitudes toward testing, to name a few. In this way, assessments can shed light on not just academic performance but also students’ overall well-being.
“It’s a lot of education, a lot of conversations, and just reassuring [families] that we are looking out for their child,” Taglia says.
Learn more about ERB’s score reporting options for students’ families.