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FINE Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Using Student Data to Engage Families

Voices From the Field

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the New York City Department of Education's Deputy Chancellor in the Division of Performance & Accountability, discusses five lessons gleaned from the ARIS Parent Link data system, one of the many tools NYC schools employ to help educators and families evaluate student learning and support student achievement.

Maria is the mother of a fourth grader and an eighth grader in New York City public schools. She knows her children take a variety of tests over the course of the school year but wonders how to find out the results and keep track of her children’s progress.

Tao is the father of an eleventh grader at an NYC high school. Tao believes his son is on track for college but wants to be better prepared for upcoming parent–teacher conferences to discuss his son’s course load and transcript.

New York City public schools serve over 960,000 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic (40%), followed by Black (30%), Asian Pacific Islander (15%), and White (14%). The majority of students are from low-income families, with 72% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

In an effort to support parents like Maria and Tao, the NYC Department of Education launched ARIS Parent Link in May 2009. ARIS Parent Link makes available to parents New York City’s Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS)—a secure online platform where educators can access and explore important information about student learning. Through ARIS Parent Link, parents have on-demand access to the same student data as teachers and school leaders, including attendance and biographical information, course grades and transcripts, and results from formative and state assessments. This information is updated throughout the year, and provides parents with ongoing insight into their children’s progress. By allowing parents to directly access this information, ARIS Parent Link empowers parents to monitor their children’s learning and engage in more informed conversations with teachers.

Increasingly, states and school districts are devoting resources to building longitudinal student data systems. Giving parents access can help maximize this investment by ensuring that student data becomes part of the foundation for family–school partnerships. In NYC, we are continuously learning how to improve parents’ access to data, help parents understand their child’s data in relation to learning standards and school requirements, and enable parents to use this information to support and advocate for their child. Below we share some of the lessons we have learned from ARIS Parent Link, in the hope that our experience sparks conversations in other communities about making student data a catalyst for meaningful family involvement.

Lesson 1: Involve parents in the design process to ensure the data is user-friendly

Before we rolled out ARIS Parent Link citywide, we piloted early prototypes with focus groups of parents throughout NYC and incorporated their feedback into the final system design. We learned that it wasn’t enough to share the data that educators had access to—we needed to make it user-friendly and valuable. We also discovered that the system allowed us to share information that had never reached parents before. By including daily attendance, course grades, and formative assessments, we were able to give parents access to useful information updated frequently.

We also improved the site by including short tutorials that help parents interpret the data available for their child. These tutorials were developed based on questions and feedback we received in our initial parent focus groups. By getting feedback from parents, we learned what parts of the site were confusing and how we could explain concepts more clearly. In each tutorial, an animated teacher and parent talk with one another about a recent assessment, modelling for parents how to understand their child’s specific score and how to help their child progress to the next level.

Lesson 2: Customize outreach to promote parent awareness and access

A challenging aspect of this work, especially in a school district the size of NYC, is making parents aware of the ARIS Parent Link site and getting them the tools they need to access the system. As you might expect, one of the most effective ways to reach parents is through schools themselves. Our central team supports all schools each year by giving them personalized materials that they can send to parents, including usernames and passwords for ARIS Parent Link. We also offer school-based workshops that create linkages between the data in ARIS Parent Link and related instructional issues that schools want to discuss with parents. These workshops can help school personnel recognize the value of ARIS Parent Link as a powerful tool to meaningfully engage parents.

Not surprisingly, we have found that ARIS Parent Link is used most successfully in schools that prioritize parent involvement and where parents, teachers, and school leaders all work together. Some especially successful schools have designed unique strategies based on the particular needs of families in their communities. For example, one school with a high number of children from a nearby homeless shelter has set up a parent room in the school with a washer and dryer, microwave, mini-library, and computers. Parents are welcome to use this room, and while there, they are encouraged to log into ARIS Parent Link and can receive help in understanding their child’s information.

Our central team has also engaged the broader community in an effort to connect with public school parents. Our team attends local events and visits community locations like food pantries, libraries, and parks to reach families outside of school. Armed with internet-connected laptops, we use these events as opportunities to showcase the system to parents and to distribute to authorized parents their usernames and passwords so that they can log in immediately. We have also partnered with a number of community-based organizations in NYC to help build awareness about ARIS Parent Link.

Another key aspect of this work is making the information contained in ARIS Parent Link understandable by all parents who access it. ARIS Parent Link is currently available in nine languages (we are adding a tenth this fall) so that parents can view data and other supports in the language they feel most comfortable reading. Additionally, because test scores, grades, and transcript information are all provided in one place, parents have better context to interpret and use test results—in whatever language they use to access the site.

Using data to help parents hold schools accountable

In a recent webinar, Jennifer Saltzstein, Program Director for ARIS Parent Link, described how ARIS Parent Link not only provides student-level data, but also gives parents school-level data that they can use to hold schools accountable.

She explains, “In New York City there is significant effort to hold schools accountable and New York City has a robust accountability system. ARIS Parent Link gives parents a way to look at school-wide accountability reports including progress reports, school surveys, quality review and state report cards. ARIS Parent Link provides parents the support to use and interpret the reports, to support their child’s school, and to find schools that are right for their student at the time of transition”.

Click here to view an example of a presentation used in parent training workshops about ARIS Parent Link.

For more information about the recent webinar about student data use, click here.

Lesson 3: Support parents to use technology effectively

Many parents need technology training such as how to use a computer, set up an email address, and log in to ARIS Parent Link. To reach parents citywide, we train community-based organizations, school parent coordinators, and school leaders, and they in turn work with parents. These parent trainings typically take place in a computer lab where parents can log in and get training on basic computer use. In NYC, parent coordinators have been very helpful in our quest to train parents as they are often the first point of contact and can guide parents who have questions. We have also found that while parents may not be comfortable with technology themselves, their children can be great guides to help them use email and navigate web sites.

Lesson 4: Track usage to measure impact

Understanding the impact of our work is critical. We are just beginning to access data that lets us understand how often users return to ARIS Parent Link, and what they find most useful within the site. By tracking site activity, we are able to understand what information parents are accessing and what pages they tend to use most frequently. We are also able to track how many people at a school have logged on to the system each month and the number of times they have done so (anonymously—we do not track any specific, identified parents). This information helps us understand our degree of success in our outreach efforts. It also helps us target improvements to the site. We know, for example, that parents often use the tutorials for NY State exams in English language arts and math. As a result, we are updating those tutorials this fall to make them more valuable for parents.

This year, we are again targeting citywide outreach to coincide with parent–teacher conferences, and we plan to track the relationship between ARIS Parent Link adoption and parent–teacher conference attendance. Anecdotally, we are finding that ARIS Parent Link creates a complementary cycle in which teachers encourage parents to use the site and then, as parents log on and have questions about the data, teachers end up logging into ARIS more frequently themselves. In this way, providing parents and teachers with the same information creates a more data-driven, results-oriented school system.

Lesson 5: Keep improving the system

There are a number of next steps for ARIS Parent Link. To improve our outreach in underserved areas, this year we will be providing 128 schools with computers dedicated to parent use; we will also help these schools identify ways to attract parents to their buildings. Our hope is that by providing these additional computers, ARIS Parent Link will become a catalyst at these schools for getting parents more involved in their children’s education. We will use innovative strategies discovered through this program to improve outreach and support for schools citywide.

The ARIS system will soon include features that allow schools to upload additional information about their students that will create a more complete picture of each student’s progress. This will allow us to share even more information with parents. In addition, we will soon begin posting news for parents on a weekly basis on the ARIS Parent Link homepage.

We are pleased with the progress we have made thus far. Since we launched ARIS Parent Link in May of 2009, parents of over 300,000 students have logged on to access information in NYC. This year, as we continue to work closely with school leaders to support the use of ARIS Parent Link, we are looking forward to seeing increases in the number of parents who avail themselves of this informative tool and return to the site regularly throughout the school year to get updates about their children’s progress.

For more information on ARIS Parent Link, please visit:

This resource is part of the October 2010 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project