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May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

Test Success, Family Style

Family test preparation workshops in an urban school raise student achievement and boost parent involvement.

Test Success, Family Style- thumbnail
In my first years of teaching at P.S. 198, I felt as though I were in one of those Choose Your Own Adventure or Give Yourself Goosebumps books, in which the reader, as the main character, is forced to make difficult choices and must then turn to specific pages to see what happens. Like a character in one of those books, I found myself in quite a predicament.
It was my second year teaching 4th grade at P.S. 198 in Spanish Harlem, New York City. The school had just gotten off a list of schools taken over by the state because of low performance. The school had a high poverty rate, with 79 percent of students qualifying for free lunch. Parent involvement was historically low: At a recent schoolwide Math Night, only four parents showed up.
Yet that year my 4th graders would take two three-day, high-stakes, statewide exams—the New York State English Language Arts test (NYS ELA) and the New York State Math test. The results of these tests would be the single most important determinant in the students' middle school placement, their promotional status, the evaluation of my teaching, and the perceived progress of the entire school. Only three of my 24 students had passed their 3rd grade reading test the previous year and only three had passed their 3rd grade math test.
I could either accept that parent involvement “just doesn't happen” in low-income urban schools and make the best of what I had or take some positive steps to resolve the situation. I chose to begin a parent outreach program that would focus on bringing parents in as vital members of a team that prepared students for test success.

How to Build It . . .

The connection between my university training and classroom learning hasn't always been straightforward. One piece of graduate school wisdom has stayed with me, however, and served as the groundwork for the family test preparation workshops. I was taught to start parent communication “early and positive.”
At the beginning of each school year, I make sure I go down to the cafeteria to meet parents in the morning and chat with them outside the school at the end of the day. During the first week of school, I send home letters that introduce me as both a teacher and a person and that include my goals and expectations for our year together. I make an effort to reach all parents by phone early in the year—especially those I don't get to meet in person.
I always want my first contact with parents to be positive, and I try to sustain the momentum with subsequent letters and phone calls. On Curriculum Night in October, when I lay out the classroom goals and general curricular themes, I mention the dates of the two upcoming high-stakes tests and explain that I will hold two family test preparation workshops—one in English language arts and one in math—to help ensure student success. I remind parents once again about the workshops during the November parent-teacher conferences. To help ensure high participation in the workshops, I send numerous reminder letters home and offer extra credit to students to encourage their attendance. Most important, I call every family a day or two before the workshop for final confirmation.

. . . So They Will Come

Last year, on a Wednesday night in December, instead of doing their holiday shopping, 22 of 26 families came to room 209 to help their children prepare for the literacy test. Early in April, 23 of 26 families came to see how they could help their children in math.
The workshops do more than help the students prepare for the tests. They also convey a sense of purpose, lower students' stress levels by building capacity, and create a team vision with a common goal. When parents have limited proficiency in English, older siblings, parent volunteers, and school aides can be helpful. The principal's attendance at the workshops is also invaluable because it sends an important message about school values. Parents in upper-middle-class schools may buy test preparation books or computer programs, or they may hire tutors to prepare their children for these high-stakes exams. But a low-income urban school such as P.S. 198 can also compete—with intelligence, teamwork, and sheer will.
I hold the two-hour workshops five to seven weeks before each test. The ELA workshop usually takes place in mid-December and the math workshop in early April. I do not spend a great deal of class time focusing on test preparation before this point because that would constrain learning and detract from the richness of the curriculum. The students, however, have generally had a few test-based lessons and taken at least one practice test by the time the workshop takes place.
The family test preparation workshops usually start at 6:00 p.m., with the school principal, the PTA president, and the family/school coordinator in attendance. I distribute folders to parents containing graded student work and a sheet that explains their children's strengths and weaknesses in the subject matter. Parents sit with the students, eat pizza, and look over their child's work.
I provide an overview of the test, including the dates and times it will take place. The NYS ELA test, for example, is administered to 4th graders in early February over the course of three days. I walk the families through each test day's format and discuss the types of questions that will be asked. This experience serves as a wake-up call to some parents who suddenly realize the rigorousness of the test, and it calms the nerves of others who feel more comfortable when they fully understand the expectations.
With their parents looking on, students begin by taking a short practice test that includes sample questions. Afterward, parents and students share solutions, stumbling blocks, successes, and strategies, and they ask any questions they have. I then present test strategies that students may find helpful, such as underlining important information and using the process of elimination. I also recommend that parents help at home by reading with and to their children and by regularly checking homework. I hand out a sheet of general reading comprehension questions that parents can ask their children about the reading the students do at home, and I demonstrate how parents can check their children's writing using a standards-based rubric. In the math workshop, I suggest different math games and ways to “mathematize” the students' daily lives, and I end with suggestions for additional resources that are available in school, on the Internet, or in bookstores.

A Success Story

Although I believed the workshops forged stronger family-school relationships, increased parent involvement, and raised test scores, I wanted concrete evidence supporting their effectiveness. I decided to collect relevant data about my students, their families, and the work we did together during the year. I surveyed students, parents, and teachers, and I sifted through attendance and testing data.
Parents found the workshops to be helpful and effective in increasing their knowledge and involvement. My research also indicated that family workshops were an effective tool for communicating specific homework emphases. In the weeks leading up to a regularly scheduled math test, 81 percent of my students reported that their families were helping them in math. Parents were also increasingly able to discuss the needs of their children using education terminology. For example, parents phoned me with comments like “Antonio is still having trouble with sequencing,” or “Danielle needs to practice adding more details in her essays.”
An added benefit of involving parents in the test preparation process was that I could continue to teach my classes in a meaningful and engaged manner. In many schools, test preparation has practically taken over the curriculum. An endless, joyless, disjointed barrage of test preparation workbooks often diminishes content-area instruction. Because I was confident that my students were getting specific, connected test preparation reinforced at home, I had the freedom to teach in a more lively and content-rich manner in the classroom.
Test scores also improved dramatically as a result of the workshops. After parent participation in the outreach program and the family workshops, 57 percent of the same cohort that had done so poorly on the tests the previous year passed the NYS ELA test; 74 percent passed the NYS math test. The success rate was even higher in subsequent years. In my 2002–2003 4th grade class, 92 percent passed the ELA test and 96 percent passed the math test. During my four years teaching at P.S. 198, the average passing rate of my students on the ELA test was 76 percent, compared with 47 percent in their 3rd grade year—an increase of 29 percent. In math, the average passing rate for my 4th graders was 79 percent, compared with 49 percent in their previous year, for an increase of 30 percent.

Who Gets the Credit?

I polled students in the weeks following the math test and asked them who they thought deserved the most credit for their test success. On average, they gave me 28 percent of the credit and gave themselves and their families 26 percent each. The remaining 20 percent of the credit went to “other helpers,” such as paraprofessionals, support teachers, after-school counselors, and fellow students. I thought the 26 percent that the students gave to their parents was significant because—as most parents of 9-year-olds will attest—their children do not often give them credit for anything.
I can now say with confidence that the parent outreach program was successful. I asked parents for help, and both their response and the end results were tremendous.

Research on Parent Engagement

In countless communities and in countless studies of the common elements of successful schools, parent engagement has always been identified as an essential component of school success. Unfortunately, parent involvement frequently isn't happening, especially in low-performing, underresourced urban schools.
Teachers are ready, willing, but often unable to effectively engage parents. In a study of 3,700 elementary schools, Epstein and Becker (1982) found that although most teachers agreed on the importance of parent involvement, they also reported a considerable lack of knowledge about how to implement effective programs. Epstein and Dauber (1991) attributed this circumstance to a deficiency in teacher education and professional development programs. In a related study, Epstein (1987) found that although administrators also recognize the importance of family involvement, they often leave parent outreach in the hands of the teachers.
Research shows that parents are an untapped resource. A report of the Education Commission for the States (Wyman, 2001) found that two of every three urban teachers rated parent involvement at their schools as either fair or poor. Although parents care about their children's education and want to be involved (Epstein, 1998), they often refrain from school involvement because of cultural norms that discourage interference with teacher autonomy (Yao, 1988), lack of confidence in their level of education and their ability to help, or the perception that schools are inadequately reaching out to them. In fact, Epstein (1986) found that more than 80 percent of the parents participating in a Maryland study stated that they would be considerably more involved if teachers did a better job of informing them about how they could help.

A Work of Love and Skill

My study on parent workshop effectiveness does not attempt to establish direct causation between parent involvement and student achievement. Many larger studies and good educator instincts have done that already. My data do suggest, however, that when a teacher makes a concerted effort to reach out to parents, everyone benefits.
The success of the program also confirms that teachers should communicate with parents early and often, and in positive ways. They should set clear goals for a parent outreach program. My goal, for example, related to the high-stakes 4th grade tests. A 1st grade teacher's goal might relate to reading.
Principals also have a role to play. They can provide support by offering ideas, planning time, and compensation for parent outreach programs. Teacher education and professional development programs can include classes, workshops, and training that focus on how teachers can involve parents in meaningful ways. Policymakers can mandate professional development that connects parent involvement and improved student achievement to those schools experiencing low achievement or low parent involvement.
Educators should expect all students to achieve at high levels and all parents to be involved in this process regardless of socioeconomic status or past history. When parents are meaningfully involved in their children's education, they are an invaluable resource, no matter the neighborhood or the tax bracket, no matter their skin color or the language they speak. As the great Victorian thinker John Ruskin once said, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

Epstein, J. L. (1986). Parents' reactions to teacher practices of parent involvement. The Elementary School Journal, 86(3), 277–293.

Epstein, J. L. (1987). Parent involvement: What research says to administrators. Education and Urban Society, 19, 119–136.

Epstein, J. L. (1998). What we learn from international studies of school-family-community partnerships. Childhood Education, 392–394.

Epstein, J. L., & Becker, H. (1982). Teachers' reported practices of parent involvement: Problems and possibilities. Elementary School Journal, 83, 103–114.

Epstein, J. L., & Dauber, S. L. (1991). School programs and teacher practices of parent involvement in inner-city elementary and middle schools. Elementary School Journal, 91(3), 289–304.

Wyman, W. (2001). Teaching quality. The Progress of Education Reform 1991–2001, 2(4). Education Commission of the States.

Yao, E. (1988). Working effectively with Asian immigrant parents. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(3), 223–225.

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