Starkville Parent Nights Focus on Test Taking Skills

June 5, 2003

As students, teachers, and schools face increasing pressure to improve student performance on standardized tests, involving parents as a critical "fourth partner" in improvement efforts makes more than just good sense. In fact, involving parents improves student learning. As the new research synthesis from Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp (2002) shows: "programs and interventions that engage families in supporting their children's learning at home are linked to improved student achievement."

Henderson and Mapp (2002) also articulate specific characteristics of effective parent involvement programs. Among their key findings, they note that: 1) family and community involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than more general forms of involvement, and 2) programs that successfully connect with families and community invite involvement, are welcoming, and address specific parental and community needs.

During spring 2003, Armstrong Middle School in Starkville, Mississippi implemented a new parent program that provides a good model of how schools can involve parents in student learning in a way that is consistent with these findings. At the Armstrong Parent Nights, activities were definitely linked to student learning, as parents took sample tests, answering questions that are exactly like those on the writing portion of the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT). In the process, they gained firsthand knowledge of some of the tasks their child faces, learned test-taking skills, and received sample tests to complete with their child. These Parent Nights connected with parents by creating a welcoming environment and offering creative ways to help students succeed on high-stakes tests.

Links to Student Learning
Says Assistant Starkville School District Superintendent Janet Henderson, "We wanted the parents to experience what the children experience in the classroom….It is a unique concept and it impresses upon the parents what this test is all about. Research tell us the more that parents are involved in the children's educational experience, the more likely the child is going to be successful in school. We want the parents there because this impacts their child's future." (Tabb, 2003)

On their sample MCT question, parents were asked to write about what kind of job they would like to have when they grow up, and why. The MCT uses rubrics (clearly defined criteria) to assess different levels of writing proficiency. Diana Heineck is a seventh grade teacher at Armstrong who helped participating parents understand and prepare for the test, which students would take later that week. Heineck (personal communication, May 6, 2003) recalls the parents' learning experience:

They came in, took the test, and had an opportunity to check their own answers against the keys we posted. We also provided a copy of the two test samples they didn't take. There were several times when we were able to sit down with a couple of parents and go over specific problems-that was perhaps the most rewarding part for me. We also provided parents with a cartoon-like test-taking hint page with preparation tips, etc. All in all, it was a positive experience; one we'd like to do much earlier in the year next year.
After they experienced the sample tests and worked with teachers on specific questions and concerns, parents were given copies of the sample tests to take home and review with their child. Following Armstrong's lead, the Stargazers Team at Henderson Intermediate in Starkville implemented its own "testing night" for parents of sixth graders, also sending sample tests home with parents. Later, teacher Kristy Grosinke (personal communication, May 5, 2003) heard from several students that their parents had gone through the sample tests with them at home.

Connecting with Parents
Schools should provide a welcoming environment for parents, who in some cases may have had negative experiences with their own or their child's school. These notes from Henderson Intermediate School teacher Kimberly Hill (personal communication, May 8, 2003) reveal her school's commitment to engaging and welcoming parents.
We had the parents sign in and enter their child's name into a bucket. We pulled one name and that parent won the basket to share with their child (it was filled with chocolate, drinks, other snacks, and two movie tickets). Then we gave the rest of the parents a homework pass to give to their child. Ms. Miller talked about the test and some of the methods we were using to review for the test in our classroom and allowed the parents to ask questions. Ms. Kristy got thick hamburgers donated from Hardee's and juice was also provided.
By engaging directly in tasks that students are required to perform, parents can learn to overcome insecurities that they themselves might possess about school work and test taking. As Janice McGee, the parent of a seventh grader in Diana Heineck's English class, told the Starkville Daily News: "More parents should participate in this so they can go home and encourage their child as well. It really takes the fear away on the parent's part so they can help their child face any fears they may have about writing." (Tabb, 2003)

One strength of parent "test nights" is that they link parent involvement to a particular aspect of student learning. More than merely asking parents to generically "support" their children, this approach gives parents tools to help their children on a specific task-performing well on mandated state tests-that is of vital importance to students, teachers, schools, and communities. Because parent "test nights" have proven to be fun while meeting a real need, the practice has been spreading quickly throughout the Starkville School District.

Valuing Parent Involvement
AIM teachers and administrators understand the importance of parent involvement, but they also know that effectively involving parents can be a difficult goal to achieve. In fact, when participants at AIM's 2003 Leadership Symposium assessed their schools' progress on AIM's Implementation Benchmarks, many concluded that their schools needed to create more programs to promote AIM's Key Design Element Number Four: Strong Links between Family, School, and Community. The Armstrong Parent Nights, by focusing on test taking skills, offer a fine example of how AIM schools can involve parents in their child's education in a way that is both friendly and pragmatic. For more ideas on "what works" in parent and community involvement, see Henderson and Mapp's complete research synthesis at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site. (