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Smart School Communication Improves Student Outcomes

A creative way to engage parents in test readiness and improve school PR

Image of student holding red paper heart

Standardized testing—do these two words raise your blood pressure? It seems as though the school year all comes down to testing, doesn’t it? For administrators, your school grade, your school reputation, your school brand, all rely heavily on the results of how students from your school perform on test days.

Parent engagement is connected to higher scores

According to the research, there is a positive relationship between parent involvement and improved scores on standardized tests. This means, how well your school communicates with your students’ parents about helping their children prepare for standardized tests plays a role in whether your school makes or breaks the grade.

Having had children in the public school system for the past ten years, we have seen many state tests come and go. Besides the accepted support with their homework, our role as parents leading up to the testing period has been limited to making sure they get enough sleep and a good breakfast. Sometimes we even donate healthy snacks through the school PTO.

Thanks to schools that practice healthy home-school communication habits, parents become key players in helping students put forth their best effort on test days. It has become a tradition in my home to make sure that my kids are physically ready for tests the next morning. I wonder sometimes if some schools typically view the role of parents in preparing students for these tests as primarily focused on physical nurturing. In general, the unspoken message I feel schools send are: Parents, you get them rested and fed, then leave them with the school and we’ll do the rest.

Did you know that students can suffer from harmful stress as a result of testing pressure? Struggling students can internalize the idea that they are “bad” or “worthless” if they don’t perform well on tests and can lose curiosity and a love of learning as a result (source). We know schools care about the emotional well-being of their students, so is it possible to engage parents to help students with testing beyond providing the basic physical necessities? 

The invitation

This year, in the weeks preceding standardized testing at our daughter’s school, I received a surprising letter from her teacher. This is what it said:

Dear Parents:

Next week, your child will be taking our state’s standardized test. 

By working together, we can make your child’s test experience positive and successful. Here are some suggestions that you can do to help your child succeed:

  • Make sure your child gets a good night's rest.
  • Have your child eat a healthy breakfast at home or in the cafeteria at school. 
  • Make sure your child arrives at school on time.
  • Gently encourage your child to do their best.

Please take a moment to write an encouraging note on the attached paper. Return this note in a sealed envelope before the test, and I will give it to your child the first morning of the test. 

Thanks for your help!

Your child's teacher

What a great, out-of-the-box idea! While the teacher covered the basic needs of the students prior to test day, she also provided a wonderful idea to help ease the mental stress of test-taking for my child—this teacher gave me the chance to write a special note of encouragement for my daughter to read just before the test. I jumped at the opportunity and wrote it immediately!

While I tend to put too many things off, I did not push off this important assignment. I sat down first thing and wrote a letter to express my love for my child. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes, and I feel very grateful to this teacher who thought to include me, and all parents, in the success of the class. It was clear to me that this teacher had the emotional well-being of my child in mind. To me, this is a hallmark example of the power of including all team players in the success of a student.

The letter

The teacher’s invitation went beyond the physical preparedness of my student and touched on the mental preparedness that often goes overlooked during testing. So, is this type of an approach to parent engagement really worthwhile?

In a world spilling over with technology, handwritten letters are more than just a way to communicate. Writing allows us to encapsulate our feelings in the moment, turning something abstract into something concrete. As William Wordsworth describes it, we fill the paper with the “breathings of [our] heart.” 

...we fill the paper with the breathings of our heart.

Two years ago in a Ted Talk in Switzerland, Canadian historian, Sonia Cancian, shared valuable information regarding letters. Sonia’s research is based on love letters written between Italian migrants and distant loved ones between 1946 and 1971. She cites Sir Jack Goody who described one of the core reasons for writing letters—writing letters has “important repercussions on people’s emotions, not simply expressing already existing feelings but in creating or expanding those sentiments through a process of reflexivity” (Goody, J., 1998. Food and Love: A Cultural History of East and West. London and New York, Verso, 107.)

As food becomes fast, we rediscover the need to slow down and enjoy what we eat. As fashion becomes disposable, with new collections every two months, we rediscover vintage fashion of well hand-stitched pieces. As our smartphones suggest words before we even thought of them, we rediscover the time, to take the time, to think about, to ponder over, what and how to write. We rediscover our innate ability to write creatively to lovers and loved ones.

Frankly, I have a lot of good intentions as a parent. It’s impossible for me to realize most of the amazing parenting ideas I see on Pinterest. While there are many ways I demonstrate my love to my children every day—providing a home, food, and clothing—in the rush of the routine, I sometimes fall short. When it comes to taking time in other ways, I often miss moments where I can support my children. My husband and I both enjoy reading to our younger children at night or chatting with them about their day as they grow older, making sure to give them a hug and kiss goodnight (when they’ll let us). Expressing my affection to my children beyond the everyday routine, opportunities, especially during testing times when children feel pressure to do well, is both welcome and worthwhile.

The result

The idea to invite parents to write a letter to their children to be read prior to standardized testing is a unique move. It speaks volumes of parent engagement inclusion. How refreshing! The specific and simple invitation for parents to “work together” with this teacher is direct evidence of a desire for cooperation between teachers and parents. I’m not sure I can think of too many characteristics of a successful school that can top that. 

I am thankful to this insightful teacher who thought of the power and potential in connecting her students to their parents through an encouraging letter. Perhaps she was thinking to help her students much like a study where looking at pictures of a loved one helps reduce pain. To me, that’s just what this letter was for—to help ease anxiety and boost confidence before the students had to tackle that exam. 

My family’s connection to the school grew astronomically. Reflecting on this teacher’s invitation, I appreciate how it opened the door to parent engagement in a positive as well as an economical way. I am thankful for this teacher’s foresight, giving me a chance to share my love and encouragement with my child just before she faced her test on her own. 

Public education has changed a lot through the years, but one factor remains relevant and even critical to student success—parent engagement. Research continues to show that such engagement not only improves student achievement, it also lowers absenteeism and reinforces the confidence your students’ parents have in their children’s education. When parents and others are involved, students earn higher test scores as well as higher grades—aside from improved behavior and social skills.

I am grateful for a thoughtful teacher who offered up a moment before the test for parents to encourage and express their love for their children through a simple, encouraging word. Involving families is simply a win-win!