For many educators, the end of the school year is near, which includes navigating how to communicate a lot of information with parents and other caregivers.
High school teachers are in the midst of processes such as state testing, graduation eligibility, and forecasting classes for next year. Middle and elementary school teachers are looking at transitioning students to the next grade level, and part of that process includes looking at math and reading indicators.
This is as good a time as any to revisit what and how we communicate with our students as well as the important people in their lives. We want to make sure we exchange test information (and so much more) with our students and their loved ones, not at them.
What it looked like for me
I often tell my students about my experiences in school. I struggled with motivation, perseverance, and engagement. Usually, that would result in the school reaching out to my parents. I always dreaded the phone call home and it happened more often than I like to admit.
We want to make sure we exchange test information (and so much more) with our students and their loved ones, not at them.
One reason for the dread: too often the call was about my deficits and my voice was not heard. It was usually about a low test score, a bad grade, or some missing assignment. Information was being told; my parents and I were not stakeholders in the process.
More than that, even if I had the opportunity to communicate about something school-related, I did not know how to talk about my issues in school. And conversely, my parents did not know how to discuss school with me other than a grade A–F or a particular score on a test.
Repeating the pattern
Even though I had such negative experiences in school, when I first began teaching, I did the exact same things to my students. I usually only communicated when I had concerning data to report home and boiled it down to numbers, often with an overemphasis on deficits, which can have a negative impact on learners’ success, well-being, and self-efficacy. Negative impacts can look like students withdrawing, being reluctant to talk about school and schoolwork, or even not wanting to go to school.
Of course, I didn’t mean to have this negative impact on my students. I had to learn more about responsive teaching and learning practices to figure out better ways to communicate learning information (more than test scores!) with them and their loved ones instead of at them.
Doing things differently
So what have I learned over the years? Here are 10 tips for exchanging test information with learners and their caregivers that have made a big difference for me:
Gather valuable learner context information that can inform empowering “moves”
What does this mean and what does this look like? Engaging caregivers and students about their culture, background, strengths, identities, needs, and other pieces from home. This can help the learning journey be accessible, inclusive, engaging, and successful for all learners.
This exchange also provides you with extremely valuable information that can potentially reduce the need for reactive measures. For example, in a recent unit, I noticed a student was starting to struggle to engage, communicate, and demonstrate movement along the learning path. With an email home describing the change and asking for their assistance, I got valuable information about the time of year coinciding with a family member’s death. This helped me provide some socio-emotional supports for the student.
- Have families meet with you as often as needed to discuss their child’s progress.
- Encourage them to have a quiet, comfortable place for their child to study at home, if possible, and free of digital distractions.
- Remind them that it’s important for their child to be well rested on school days and especially on the day of a test. Children who are tired are less able to pay attention in class or to handle the demands of a test.
Ask students and caregivers for help strengthening the learning culture in your room
Building the spaces, relationships, and routines of responsive teaching and learning processes is hard work yet highly impactful. It’s ok to ask students and caregivers for help with it.
I do not want my students to feel like I did: helpless and resentful about bad news and the lack of clarity about how to use my strengths to achieve success.
Reaching out to hear how caregivers can assist extends the available time for practice and demonstration of learning outside the bell-to-bell. For example, over the course of my last two units, I realized a few students were close to mastery and needed some supplemental practice time. In a phone call, I exchanged information with their caregivers to figure out how to support students to use practice routines at home. Thus, we were able to extend the learning space, build relationships, and find a workable home routine. When it came time for the mid-unit assessment, the students demonstrated a significant increase in proficiency, which prevented the need for at-school interventions.
- Suggest activities to do at home to help improve a child’s understanding of schoolwork. For example, help families understand the importance of providing books and other materials for their child to read. Share with them our eBook How to support reading at home: A guide for families. Tell them about Bedtime Math.
- Point out academic strengths and weaknesses and how they can help address areas of concern outside the classroom, particularly if assessment results point to specific things they can do.
Engage learners and caregivers in identifying quality assessment processes
Educators, learners, and caregivers working together can identify what will help increase motivation, engagement, and success and decrease unfairness or bias throughout the learning journey. Calling home, emailing, or having quick meetings about students’ strengths can help increase the quality of assessment processes.
Ask about how students best show what they know and can do or even what time of day they are most awake. This information is golden and can be used to shape assessment processes that are “show me what you know” experiences instead of “gotcha” events. For example, in my time as a special education teacher, I had several students taking medication at certain times of the day. Sometimes medications impact students’ abilities to feel awake or focused. When caregivers and I discussed this, we found best-fit options, such as arranging assessment processes that aligned with students’ energy and focus patterns. Adjusting processes based on this valuable information resulted in fewer “problem” behaviors, such as reluctance, disruption, and absence, and more positive outcomes, such as success in meeting challenging learning goals.
- Explain the purpose of the assessment, such as the difference between those used to inform classroom instruction and those needed to meet state requirements.
- If your students are preparing to take MAP® Growth™, share our Family Toolkit with their caregivers (it’s also available in Spanish).
- Share which tests are administered in your classroom and how the results of each are used.
- Send a communication about when tests are being given, when results will be available, and how families will receive the results.
- Share their child’s learning progress using assessment results as well as your classroom observations. Remind caregivers that assessment is just one data point, and that you always look at the full picture.
We can change
Thinking back to my high school years and those phone calls home, I do not want my students to feel like I did: helpless and resentful about bad news and the lack of clarity about how to use my strengths to achieve success. Emphasizing the value of communication exchanges about students’ strengths (more than test scores!) can help you garner valuable information to create authentic learning partnerships with students and caregivers that are truly responsive, empowering, and effective.
Learning partnerships with students and caregivers can not only maximize students’ success, well-being, and efficacy but also reduce the burden on educators. For more tips about communication exchanges, read “Last but not least: The role of communication in assessment empowerment.” To learn more about assessment empowerment, read our eBook, Assessment empowerment 101: What it is, why it matters, and how to do it. Finally, here are some discussion prompts that can help you continue to think about this work:
- What successful communication exchanges have you had with students and their caregivers this year?
- How did successful exchanges inform your responsive teaching and learning plans, or “moves”?
- Think of an upcoming learning goal. What information about learner context could you gather from caregivers or students? How could it inform success with the learning goal? How might you go about gathering that context?
- In what ways can the tips shared in this blog post validate the hard work you’re already doing?
- In what ways can the tips in this post inform your next steps?