Each year, millions of American parents receive results for their children from federally-mandated tests given in math and reading to students in grades 3-8.1 Most of the time, it goes something like this:
In late August, a mother receives an envelope in the mail with a report on test scores for her son, who just started fifth grade. They reflect results for the state tests he took four months prior, in the spring of his fourth-grade year. The report shows that he received a score in the “Partially Meets Standards” range for both Math and English Language Arts. According to the report, this means that his school, in consultation with his family, “should consider whether the student needs additional academic assistance to succeed in this subject.”
That’s about the extent of it. The family receives little or no other guidance to help them understand what this means or what they should do about it. As a result, they may miss or disregard important warning signs or educational opportunities that, if heeded promptly, could put their child on a fundamentally different academic pathway.
What if, instead, the scenario went more like this?
A teacher schedules a brief conference with the mother of one of her new fifth grade students. The teacher says: “We just received your son’s test score report from last year, when he was in fourth grade. When I look at how he performed in Math and English Language Arts, I have some concerns because students with his same results tend to struggle when they get to high school, a few years from now, and they actually fail to graduate at almost twice the rate of the typical student. However, I want you know to know that, together, we can change this. Just by making a moderate amount of progress this year, we can cut that elevated risk in half, and if he makes two good years of academic growth, we can eliminate it. I’d like to walk you through my plan for him to make that growth and what role we can each play.”
In this policy brief, we will argue that, for parents and educators, the second option is better and can become commonplace if states take the lead in leveraging their existing data systems more thoughtfully and strategically.
Newly published research suggests that an individual student’s results on state tests, as early as third grade, are predictive of long-term educational outcomes, such as high school graduation and advanced course taking. This finding has the potential to inform teacher communication with parents, who have tended to view test scores as less valuable than other indicators of academic progress, such as class grades.2
Rather than receiving a traditional test results report with a raw score and an achievement category, parents could see how students with performance patterns and demographic traits similar to their child’s tended to fare in the future. Communicating with families about the likely trajectory of their children’s schooling outcomes—outcomes like graduation that are understandable and important—may help educators engage families more effectively, celebrate students who are on a strong academic path, and support students who may be struggling.
Forecasting Long-Term Student Outcomes
There is ample evidence that test achievement serves as a good indicator of an individual student’s future academic prospects. A newly published analysis by CALDER and EdNavigator buttresses that evidence and shows the extent to which tests from elementary grades can forecast long-term academic success.3
Consider a student who shows steady improvement in math by progressing from the 30th percentile in third grade to the 40th percentile in fourth grade and the 50th percentile in fifth grade. Our modeling suggests that this student has a 40 percent lower risk of not graduating high school than a peer with the same math results in the opposite order: 50th percentile in third grade, 40th percentile in fourth grade, and 30th percentile in fifth grade.
To many educators and parents, these score differences may seem small and easily attributable to chance. However, over large populations of students, we find that they hold practical significance and can be used to offer families valuable information about a student’s current academic standing and future opportunities for improvement.
High school graduation is not the only outcome that can be predicted using elementary test scores. Results can also be used to estimate a student’s probability of completing advanced coursework in high school or scoring in the top half of the performance distribution in eighth and tenth grade math—achievements that strongly predict college readiness, matriculation, and graduation. Early identification of students with high potential could be used to direct supports that reduce the share of those students who “slip” to lower performance levels in subsequent years.4
Test Scores as Communication Tools
Test scores have not always been used effectively as communication tools. Typically, test results are presented in terms of achievement categories that rate student proficiency relative to state learning standards, like "Approaching Basic" or "Mastery." Those categories – and the scale scores associated with them—have changed regularly in the past two decades, with varying definitions of what it means to be meeting standards or performing on grade level.
Many parents pay little attention, choosing instead to focus on report card grades and whether their children struggle with homework assignments.5 Indifference toward tests could be due to the dense, intangible way in which student performance and its implications are described. For instance, this is how Smarter Balanced (the assessment used as the annual test in a number of states) describes the four possible achievement levels on its math exams for grades 3-5:6
Level 4 The student has exceeded the achievement standard and demonstrates advanced progress toward mastery of the knowledge and skills in mathematics needed for likely success in future coursework.
Level 3 The student has met the achievement standard and demonstrates progress toward mastery of the knowledge and skills in mathematics needed for likely success in future coursework.
Level 2 The student has nearly met the achievement standard and may require further development to demonstrate the knowledge and skills in mathematics needed for likely success in future coursework.
Level 1 The student has not met the achievement standard and needs substantial improvement to demonstrate the knowledge and skills in mathematics needed for likely success in future coursework.
It is no easy task to communicate test results to millions of families in a consistent way, without panicking parents. Even so, this language may not send as clear a message as a parent needs. What does it mean, for instance, if a student “may require” further development after “nearly meeting” the achievement standard for Level 2? Based on 2018-19 results for the Smarter Balanced administration in California, a fourth grader scoring Level 2 in math could be performing as low as the 30th percentile for all test takers, which would signal elevated risk, or above the 50th percentile, which would be associated with far lower risk. In such cases, our current communication tools are not always equipped to convey that the same achievement level could mean very different things for a student.
In contrast, all families are familiar with the concept of high school graduation and they overwhelmingly expect their children to achieve this goal.7 By framing test scores in terms of whether a student has an elevated risk of not graduating high school, for example, we can make results easier to digest and more meaningful for parents.
On the flip side, some parents may not realize just how well their children are doing in school. Forecasts might convey to parents that their students are on a promising or elite academic trajectory, with the possibility of completing the most challenging coursework offered in high school, and positioning them well for college work.
Imagine, for instance, that the scenario described at the outset of this brief was a bit different, focusing on a student who is doing well, despite challenges, such as coming from a high-poverty background. Surely the student's parent would appreciate a conversation where the teacher was able say:
“I just wanted to let you know that your son is doing exceptionally well in math. I think that if he stays on this trajectory, he could be taking advanced math classes in high school that would actually get him college credits. I hope to see the continued learning that he’s clearly made in prior grades again this year. Nice job to both of you!”
This type of positive reinforcement may be particularly important for historically disadvantaged students. Existing evidence suggests that they are more likely to experience performance drops in high school, despite having relatively high test scores in elementary grades.8
Parents need clearer information to develop an accurate understanding of their child’s progress, as they tend to overestimate how well their children are doing. Currently, surveys indicate that more than 90 percent of American parents, across demographic groups, believe their children are performing at the appropriate level for their age—or above it—despite state and national test results (like Smarter Balanced in California) suggesting the figure is far lower.9
Providing Clarity to Families
It is reasonable to ask why it is necessary to provide new information to parents when they already have access to a wide array of indicators about their child’s progress, from report cards to parent-teacher conferences.
Certainly, report cards can be an effective way to communicate with parents, and research has confirmed that grades are predictive of future success.10 But they also have limitations.11
- Report card grades are subjective, with standards varying not only from school-to-school but classroom-to-classroom.12
- Parents tend to place more stock in the accuracy of grades in describing achievement than do teachers, who report that grades reflect effort and progress in addition to overall mastery of material.5
- Report cards can be dense and difficult to interpret, with dozens of individual standards (or more) rated separately, and little or no summary.
- Assessment results are not usually included on report cards. In the case of benchmark assessments (e.g., NWEA’s MAP tool), schools may not report results to parents at all, choosing instead to use them only to inform instruction. When assessments and report cards tell a different story about a student’s progress, it is unclear when and how these different pieces of information are to be synthesized and reconciled.
Importantly, report cards—like traditional test score reports—are inherently retrospective. They capture what a child has accomplished to-date, reflect teachers' perceptions of student effort, and offer relatively little detail about how present performance relates to the future. A parent may be left to guess what happens next for a student like theirs.
School systems and states should make every effort to provide clarity about how well students are progressing academically. While some schools are surely doing a good job of conveying where students stand and some parents will be on top of this issue, for others, students’ academic standing is likely to be obscured. Indeed, the current COVID-19 crisis is bringing this issue home to many parents who, when more directly involved with learning taking place in the home, are finding that their children are not where they expected them to be academically.13
Academic forecasts hold the promise of added clarity for teachers and parents. They can consider multiple years of performance together, even if a student’s performance varies over time, which is relatively common. Estimates can incorporate variables related to student circumstances as well as performance, including factors such as whether a family qualifies for free or reduced price lunch, whether a student is an English Language Learner, and whether a student receives special education services. And they can project academic performance down the road, offering more time for educators and families to collaborate on supports, when necessary.
Recommendations for States
We recommend that state education agencies (SEAs) use recent test scores to forecast the likelihood of individual students achieving key educational outcomes and share those projections with educators and families, as appropriate. Specifically, we suggest the following guidelines:
- State should use their own longitudinal data, where possible. Data drawn from in-state will be most accurate. However, as described in our recent working paper, some states may need to combine multiple segments of panel data while others may need to create models using parameters from other states. Even imperfect data sets can yield good projections.
- Forecasts should be informed by multiple years of test outcomes, if available. More data points will increase the accuracy of these estimates.
- Invite parents to request and review forecast reports with teachers—if they choose. Projections should be made universally available. Of course, not all parents may be interested in the concept of forecasts or able to act on the information. There is no reason to obligate them. However, many families will be eager for any guidance on how to support their children and will accept an opportunity to review their child’s results with a teacher.
- Emphasize collaborative conversations, not alarms. The objective of providing forecasts should be to build a successful, targeted team effort for academic recovery and progress at the student level, not to discourage or demoralize.
- Help parents understand what needs to happen next. For some students, the road to improving academic trajectory will be long and could require coordinated supports in-school and at-home. Parents will be eager to know what role they can play. Together, parents and educators can use forecasts to inform key decisions, such as:
- Participation in extended-day or -year options offered by schools
- Grade repeating
- Adjustments to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and future IEP goals
- Course placement
- In-home supports and routines
- Supplemental tutoring
Student results on state tests can be made more useful to families. By leveraging large data systems, states can help families understand what the results mean for a student’s future outlook and how that outlook can improve if the student makes academic gains. The recommendations in this brief can be acted upon by nearly all states using data already on-hand. It is essential that the emphasis remain on supporting and empowering collaboration between educators and parents.
1Note that we use the terms “parents” and “families” interchangeably to refer to students’ legal guardians.
2Learning Heroes (2018). “Parents 2018: Going Beyond Good Grades."
3Goldhaber, Dan; Wolff, Malcolm; and Daly, Timothy (2020). Assessing the Accuracy of Elementary School Test Scores as Predictors of Students’ High School Outcomes. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), American Institutes for Research.
4EdNavigator (2018). Lost in the Crowd.
5Learning Heroes (2018).
6Smarter Balanced (accessed July 2020): Reporting Achievement Level Descriptors.
7McQuiggan, M. and Megra, M. (2017). Parent and Family Involvement in Education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016 (NCES 2017-102). U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.
8Goldhaber et al. (2020).
9Learning Heroes (2019). Parents 2019: As the Stakes Get Higher for Kids, Why Do We Lose Parents?
10Borghans, L. et al. (2016) “What Grades and Achievement Tests Measure.” HCEO Working Paper Series Working Paper 2016-022.
11EdNavigator (2018). Muddled: How Confusing Information from Schools Is Failing American Families.
12Gershenson, Seth (2020). Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement. Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
13Hawkins, Beth (2020). "Following School Closures, a ‘Rude Awakening’ for Parents: How Remote Education Is Revealing Alarming Learning Gaps, Particularly for Low-Income Families." The 74 Million.