Assessment and Parents
Parents are important educational stakeholders, and their relationship with assessment is bi-directional in that they both influence their child’s results and are also influenced by those results. The term parent is used to refer to anyone fulfilling parental or guardian roles (i.e., caring for and making educational decisions on behalf of the child). Hence, in addition to or instead of a biological parent, this person could be a grandparent, step-parent, carer, foster parent, adoptive parent, other relative, guardian, or, in some cultures, a collective group of adults.
Popular conceptions of how and why familiar tests work hold the same ontological status as impetus theory—dead wrong in the main, but close enough to guide everyday work in familiar settings. (pp. 491–492)
Braun and Mislevy (2005) argue that although many assumptions that nonexperts use to guide their interpretation of test or assessment data may be wrong, in low stake situations, minimal harm arises.
Intuitive Test Theory
An assessment measures what it says it does (e.g., a reading test measures reading rather than the student’s familiarity with the test format, language proficiency, or only a narrow aspect of the domain, etc.).
Assessments with similar titles will tell you similar information about student achievement within a domain.
Scores are objective.
Assessments are more or less interchangeable (i.e., you could substitute one assessment for another and get essentially the same result).
Assessments should be scored by adding up points for each item and generating a percentage correct.
Traditional percentage correct cut points are appropriate measures of proficiency (i.e., an A = 90% correct, pass = 50% correct, etc.).
You can tell if a test item is good just by looking at it.
Multiple choice tests measure recall.
Multiple choice tests, standardized tests, and high-stakes tests are all synonymous.
Nonexperts, including most parents, often attribute far too much weight to an individual result and seldom acknowledge the presence of any form of measurement error. These assumptions help explain why parents are often reported as supporting “objective” forms of assessment like standardized testing and appear less concerned than teachers about student test anxiety and “over testing” (Brookhart 2013; Harris 2015).
Parents as Assessment Users
Neo-liberal management approaches around assessment clearly acknowledge parents as a stakeholder group entitled to assessment information. Parents are told about their child’s assessment results via a range of reporting mechanisms which may include parent-teacher conferences, report cards (including narrative comments and/or grades), student work samples, informal conversations with the teacher, and student test scores. In most international jurisdictions, at least at specific grade levels, schools are required to report information in particular ways to parents in an effort to increase transparency and accurate communication of student progress (e.g., disclose scores for specific tests, report using letter grades, tie reporting to national standards). However, while there are often mandates or guidelines about how information is to be provided to parents, seldom is there any meaningful verification that parents actually understand the messages as intended (Timperley and Robinson 2004). This is potentially concerning given the intuitive assumptions that underlie many parent interpretations. Nor is there much consultation about what parents actually want to know regarding their child’s progress and how that information could be best conveyed to them (Timperley and Robinson 2004).
Parents clearly have multiple uses for assessment data. Data can help parents understand how their child is progressing academically in relation to expectations. This is a major rationale for why parents seem to value the clear and “objective” data from standardized testing (Brookhart 2013; Buckendahl 2016), despite evidence that parents seldom understand the principles of test design sufficiently to interpret such data accurately or fully understand its limitations (Nichols and Berliner 2007). While norm referenced results may not shed much light on the student’s specific strengths and weaknesses, parents may find it reassuring when their child compares well against their peers. Parents’ personal experiences of and therefore familiarity with assessments they themselves took as students may also help explain their general preference for more traditional forms of assessment (e.g., exams, standardized tests, essays). This means that the introduction of new or innovative assessment practices (e.g., portfolios, performance assessments, self- or peer assessments) may face resistance until parents are convinced such procedures produce valid results. Nevertheless, studies suggest that parents generally support new assessment practices if they can be educated to see that these assessments improve their child’s learning and still meet their own data needs (Harris 2015).
It is vital that parents are able to accurately understand their child’s progress so that they can act appropriately in response to assessment data. For example, they can provide extra homework support, enroll their child in outside tutoring, or purchase and use targeted learning resources at home. While teacher narrative comments may be more informative for parents wanting to support their child’s learning, there is evidence that teachers often do not fully disclose problems with student performance to parents, particularly when students are in primary school and/or belong to minority or low socioeconomic groups (Timperley and Robinson 2004). Additionally, parents and teachers may have different understandings of what teacher grades, comments, and test scores actually mean (Timperley and Robinson 2004). Harris (2015) found that parents appeared far less concerned about potential negative impacts from standardized testing (e.g., student test anxiety, over testing) than teachers, perhaps because they viewed that the objective and “clear” information about how students performed was sufficiently valuable to compensate for any negative experiences the student might have.
The global rise of mandatory and publicly reported standardized testing has also introduced another major use parents in many jurisdictions may have for assessment data: selecting a school for their child. Parents may use publicly available assessment data to determine if a particular school is successful and therefore the kind of school they want for their child (Nichols and Berliner 2007). Parent interpretations of these data may be heavily influenced by media coverage that often misinterprets data or exaggerates the significance of score differences between schools (Buckendahl 2016). Using assessment data rather than school reputation to inform school choice is relatively new. It can potentially “simplify” decisions for parents in that school test scores are easily compared; it is intuitively appropriate to choose the one with the highest test results. This, of course, ignores other important characteristics or services that schools have and which may be valuable to particular children. Within a school, choice can also be seen in parental decisions to request a new class or teacher for their child based on reports or tests.
Parent Impacts on Student Assessment Attitudes, Actions, and Outcomes
While demographic factors (e.g., socioeconomic status, ethnicity, language background) are correlated with student performance on assessments, parental expectations for their child’s achievement appear to be most influential (Davis-Kean 2005; Fan and Chen 2001). Student perceptions of their parents’ expectations and support impact upon their confidence, goal-orientation, and value for and interest in assessment tasks (Bong 2008). Studies suggest that while individual parent/child interactions around assessment differ, many students may be concerned about parent displeasure over poor results or hopeful of rewards or praise upon a successful performance (Bong 2008; Hall et al. 2004; Carless and Lam 2014; Peterson and Irving 2008). Parents may pressure their child to be successful on assessment tasks because they believe academic success will lead to a desirable career or other positive consequences, and this leads some to tightly monitor their child’s progress (Carless and Lam 2014). Parents may also reward or punish their child based on assessment results, using results to make decisions which impact on other aspects of the child’s life (e.g., taking privileges away from a child because of poor report card or test scores Brown and Harris 2016). Parents can also undermine student learning by completing take-home assessments for them or “overhelping” in an effort to improve the child’s academic results.
However, parental pressure does not appear to be equivalent across groups. For example, students from high socioeconomic status schools report considerably more parental pressure than their low socioeconomic status peers (Peterson and Irving 2008) and children from some cultural groups (e.g., Confucian heritage backgrounds, Carless and Lam 2014) also appear to be under more pressure to perform. Consequences are also unlikely to be equivalent. For lower achievers, assessment data can reinforce potentially negative views of a child’s academic potential or abilities (e.g., “my child is not good at math,” “my child is not very smart,” “my child does not test well”). When these are shared with the child, they can potentially reduce the student’s self-image and efficacy as a learner.
Hence, there are likely to be significant differences in the ways parents discuss assessment and their expectations with their children, which are influenced by factors like culture, previous academic success, and socioeconomic status. However, across countries studies clearly indicate that when parents have unrealistic or overly high expectations, students tend to develop anxiety and/or negative emotions relating to assessment (Vogl and Pekrun 2016). Student actions around assessment are also clearly related to these conceptions and emotions. For example, conflict with parents around assessment results can encourage students to cheat (in an effort to artificially raise scores) or fail to seek help (to avoid looking incompetent) (Bong 2008). Hence, student assessment results can potentially impact upon relationships within their immediate and extended families and become a source of pride or shame.
Parent Impacts on Assessment Policy and Practice
While parents may have little direct say in how their child is assessed, they still collectively influence assessment policy and practice in multiple ways. Their needs and desires (or perceptions of these) often shape or are used to justify policy and practice, with policy makers often drawing on the common assumption that parents support standardized testing because they see it as objective and approve of comparative uses of such data (Brookhart 2013; Buckendahl 2016). For example, educational authorities have often justified the public release of school assessment data in easily comparable forms (e.g., NAPLAN test results in Australia, formal league tables around Key Stage testing results in England, etc.) as being about transparency and accountability to stakeholders such as parents. Individual schools may also standardize assessment and reporting procedures to try to create consistency in reporting to parents.
However, while parents may seldom have any actual say in assessment practices, they can and do sometimes resist assessment reforms. For example, Sadler and Good (2006) reported an instance in the United States where the peer-grading assessments was legally banned in certain States after a parent instigated court case stemming from a child’s experience of being bullied by peers during peer grading. Pockets of parent resistance to standardized testing, particularly when used as a school and teacher accountability mechanism, can also be seen in the growing “opt out” movements within the United States and others adopting such neoliberal approaches to accountability, with parents refusing to let their children participate in testing (Buckendahl 2016).
Parents, as carers of students, clearly both influence and use assessment. They may use assessment results to determine their own child’s current or future academic achievement and potential or may draw on assessment data to inform school choice decisions. Their attitudes towards assessment and interpretations of their child’s results can strongly influence their child’s motivation and self-efficacy as a learner. Likewise, many assessment reforms are sold as being about creating better transparency and accountability to stakeholders like parents. While parents may not be able to directly dictate how their child is going to be assessed, they can and do resist some reforms via legally challenging them or preventing their own child from participating.
What is clear is that parents are entitled to clear and accurate information about how their child is progressing academically. While it may be tempting for teachers to hide or downplay student academic weaknesses in an effort to protect student well-being, this is unlikely to be beneficial for students in the longer term as it may prevent parents from providing or seeking the additional help the student needs. It can cause considerable tension within the family and between families and schools if poor results on high-stakes assessments (e.g., a high school graduation test) arise without adequate warning. More work is clearly needed to better understand how parent interpretations of assessment grades may differ from those intended by teachers in order to ensure alignment and partnership between parents and teachers around the educational outcomes for each child.
It is also important to continue to debunk interpretations of assessment based on the intuitive assumptions most nonexpert parents would draw on when making sense of results. While parents clearly deserve access to data about the performance of their child’s school, providing test data as the main indicator of school success is likely to be problematic. There is serious risk that test data will be misinterpreted (e.g., small differences in scores would be considered evidence of superior/inferior performance rather than chance). Unfortunately, as Mansell (2013) identifies, discussions about assessment results within the media are seldom helpful in correcting such misinterpretations as they tend to report data in ways which are sensationalized and/or politically charged. Hence, if public reporting of such scores is to continue, it is important that teachers and members of the psychometric community increase their efforts in supporting parents to accurately interpret data so that valid conclusions are drawn (Buckendahl 2016). This means that teachers need to develop good ways to communicate assessment limitations in language that diverse groups of parents can understand. Assessment experts also need to work with the media to encourage accurate and thoughtful rather than sensationalized coverage of assessment data.
Parent views on assessment clearly matter because they influence national, State, and school level policy and practice as well the attitudes and efforts of their own children. Parents’ own data needs must be carefully considered by classroom teachers, educational policy makers, and test designers, particularly those with responsibilities around the design of reporting mechanisms. Those responsible for designing assessments and reporting them to parents must be sure that parents understand clearly (a) the assessment mode, (b) the assessment purpose, and (c) how results can be validly interpreted. Careful work in this area will help parental interpretations of data to be based on robust grounds rather than on simplistic intuitions about assessments.
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