A parent's guide to assessment

Mar 26, 2013 at 4:00 p.m. ET

These days, schools are using student assessment data not only to evaluate the children's performance, but also to change the way teachers teach and assure that the students get help where they need it most.

Students on computers

Contributed by Holly Bremerkamp

Like most parents, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how my child is performing in school and all of the things I can do to make sure she’s excelling. At night, I sit at the kitchen table with her and look over her homework to make sure it’s complete. I encourage her to ask questions when she’s in class and comes across something that she doesn’t understand. I try to expose her to technology that can open up new learning experiences. In short, I’m leaving no stone unturned. This might sound familiar to you.

Much of what I know now as a parent I learned during my 10 years as an English teacher, when I would spend days and nights trying to figure out what my students needed to succeed and how I could help them get there. Through my later experience working for the school district in St. Louis and now for CTB/McGraw-Hill, I’ve come to understand the value of one particular tool in helping students develop academically — and it’s one you might not expect: Assessment data.

Testing and assessments

If you’re around my age, your vision of assessment probably involves having to memorize a lot of facts sitting at a desk with a No. 2 pencil. In most cases, the tests you took served only a few purposes: To determine your grade in a particular class, which classes you might be placed in the following school year, or perhaps even whether you were able to graduate.

Some tests our children take today not only look very little like the ones from when we were growing up, they’re used in totally different ways. Pencils and paper have been replaced by computers and adaptive learning systems. And now schools are using student assessment not only to evaluate performance, they’re using it to change the way their teachers teach by identifying the areas where their students need the most help.

The very process of assessment has changed, as well. Schools no longer wait until the end of a marking period to administer assessments; they do so earlier and more frequently in an effort to pay close attention to how each student is progressing academically and give teachers the feedback they need to tailor their instruction to meet those students’ unique needs.

How parents can use assessment data

Teachers aren’t the only ones who can take advantage of assessment data. Many schools also make this data available to parents, who can use it to monitor the areas where their child may need extra help. This may seem like a complicated process, but it isn’t meant to be. Student assessment reports are designed to be easily interpreted, primarily by teachers but by parents, too. (If you’re having trouble understanding or obtaining your child’s report, don’t be afraid to speak with one of his or her teachers. Most likely, they’ll be happy to help.)

Once parents have used the assessment reports to figure out where their child needs to improve, they can talk with their child’s teacher about the best way to drive this improvement — whether through a tutor, additional homework assignments or more intensive instruction. Assessment can also be used to highlight a child’s strengths. If parents know where their child is particularly strong — and sometimes it may surprise you — they can work with their child’s teacher to select enrichment activities that further build on areas of strength.

Student assessment data is a powerful tool that parents should be aware of and harness as they work to make sure their child is developing the skills he or she needs to be successful. Simply put, I’ve found that looking at my daughter’s assessment data gives me far more insight into how she’s performing and where she needs to improve than a simple letter grade ever could. I encourage all parents to shake off their preconceptions about assessment and begin having conversations with their child’s teachers about how they can use data to help their child develop academically. I know my daughter’s education wouldn’t be the same without it.

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