Is Policy a Lever for Change When it Comes to Parents Knowing the Truth?

By Duncan Robb -

Parents deserve a clear and accurate picture of their child’s learning. While this sounds like common sense, it sadly is not the current reality. Learning Heroes, a non-profit organization that works to give parents an accurate picture of their children’s academic and developmental performance, has consistently found for the past five years that about 90% of all parents think that their child is at or above grade level in reading and math. The recently released 2019 Nation’s Report Card tells us that the real number is closer to 35%. Stuck between perception and reality is a nation of parents who would advocate for their child’s academic success if only they had the whole story. The silver lining is that Learning Heroes’ research shows this disconnect is solvable. When given multiple measures of performance, parents’ mindsets shift, and they begin to question whether their child is on grade level, equipping them to be better advocates for their child’s education. This, we believe, will result in parents demanding changes in our schools, ultimately leading to better outcomes for all students, especially those historically underserved by the system.

HCM has had the privilege of partnering with Learning Heroes over the past five years to close this knowledge gap and provide parents with easy to access and understand information about their child’s academic performance. We have made progress in some states who are eager to improve their school report cards, score reports and overall approach to parent communications. Recently we asked the question a different way: How can state policy be a lever to address this problem?

Across the education policy landscape, there are some similar laws being enacted in a large or growing number of states that could and should lead to better communication to parents. Among them, these three popular legislative initiatives stand out as potential levers to provide parents with meaningful information at scale if some improvements are made.

  • Individualized Learning Plans: Thirty-four states have policies requiring each student to have a learning plan, at least in middle and high school, that is revised on a regular basis. These plans can be enhanced by including a requirement that the student’s scores on state, interim, and diagnostic assessments accompany information about course grades. For example, Kentucky’s individualized learning plan policy requires regular review by parents and teachers, yet doesn’t require that the plan use actual assessment scores as evidence of progress.
  • 3rd Grade Reading “On Track:” Twenty-four states require parental notification if their child is at risk of not being on track to read by third grade. Ten states are currently considering or revising early reading programs in state policy designed to make sure that students are proficient readers, and many more have existing programs in place. These programs often include requirements for district interventions, regular assessments, and robust reporting that accompanies extra state funding. Yet, parent communication is often omitted or underutilized. Idaho’s reading and literacy intervention programs include requirements to administer reading assessments for all K-3 public students. The law requires districts to provide an assessment report to the state, but not to parents. The statute reads as a policymaking tool, not a source of information to families.
  • Request for Proposal Requirements. State legislatures and departments of education tend to under-utilize the influence they wield over vendor behavior. Companies providing curriculum and assessments and teacher professional development can be incentivized to include effective communications tools for parents as a part of their RFP. All too often, the state assessment score report or the school report card is indecipherable, filled with jargon and percentages without the necessary context. Florida’s student assessment program statute is a good example of a state’s opportunity to influence assessment vendor behavior because it includes specific expectations for parents to be informed about their child’s results and that the description of performance must be clear. The same statute include the parameters through which the Commissioner can contract for assessment services, drawing a strong link between requirements for assessment reporting and vendor behavior.

Parents are a huge untapped asset in our collective desire to improve public education, yet they don’t know what they don’t know. Parents look to report cards for information about how their student is doing in school. However, anyone who has been a classroom teacher – myself included – will tell you that much more goes into a report card grade than a child’s performance on standards-aligned academic assessments. We need to work together to leverage these and other policies so that parents’ perception of student learning matches reality. We need parents to push for higher outcomes for their students, but they can’t if they are left in the dark.

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