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

Voices From the Field

As told to the FINE team by Linda Foote, Technology Integration Specialist for Poway Unified School District, this article discusses how data helps students create their learning goals and helps parents create family goals to support their children’s learning. The article also shares ideas for how to build community around data.

Who had a better year? The student who scored the highest on a standardized test at the end of the school year, or, the student who achieved the most growth on that test from the beginning of the year to the end? In recent years, parents and teachers in Poway Unified School District have addressed this question by redefining student success in terms of growth.

Poway Unified School District extends over 100 square miles in the northwestern section of San Diego County. Poway Unified serves approximately 34,000 students, the majority of whom are White, followed by Asian (16%) and Hispanic (11%), with around 10% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

In Poway, students in grades K–8 are assessed three times a year—fall, winter, and spring—using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association.1 The MAP assessment is based on Item Response Theory.2 In this computerized testing approach, the difficulty of each question is based on how well a student answers all the previous questions. The final score is a gauge of a child's achievement level irrespective of grade level.

Partnering with Parents around data to Differentiate Learning

The benefit of an individualized testing system is that it gives parents insight into specific aspects of a child’s learning and guides parents in how they can best support their child through learning activities in the home throughout the year. For example, unlike a standardized test that might reveal only that a 1st grader is functioning at the 99th percentile, the MAP system illuminates whether this child is at a 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade level or beyond, and the particular areas of his or her strengths.

Fall: At the fall parent–teacher conference, parents receive their child’s scores on the MAP assessment taken at the beginning of the school year as well as their child’s self-identified goals and strategies. Parents also use this as an opportunity to create “family goals” to support the student’s learning at home (e.g., setting a limit for time on video games, creating a time and space for homework and reading). Goal-setting helps children and parents see the connections between what children can do and what they need to do to reach the next level of success.

Winter, Spring, and Summer: In the winter and spring, score reports are sent home so that the family can track their child’s progress. To avoid the summer slump, parents can identify in the spring exactly what their child is on the cusp of learning so that learning can continue and be reinforced after school lets out. Throughout the year, parents are able to access a district website to see the types of academic activities their child is expected to accomplish at the next level of learning, empowering parents to tailor activities that their child can complete in the home for that particular learning level. This website has extensive resources for parents, especially at the elementary school level, to work on learning projects with their child. Before this system was put into place, parents would often purchase workbooks with grade-level activities for their children at local stores; but the workbooks wouldn’t necessarily match a specific child’s learning needs. Students have more success when the work they do at home is tailored to their individual strengths and needs.

Building a Community around Data

In order for a differentiated data learning system such as this to work, it is important that parents, teachers, administrators, and students come together around data, agree on its purpose, and share data openly. Poway has worked hard to build this data community through a variety of strategies:

  • Emphasize parent–child interactions around data, goal setting, and learning: After students receive their MAP scores, teachers work with them individually to develop goals that will help them reach the next level of learning. For example, a child who struggles with reading comprehension might set the goal of always summarizing the meaning of each paragraph after she reads it. Parents not only review their child’s data but they also receive the goals students set so that they can support learning in very specific ways. In some classrooms, parents and children come together to set mutual goals for the student as well as for the family. Beginning this process in kindergarten and first grade sets the trajectory for developing a habit of continuous collaboration and improvement in order to succeed in school and in life.
  • Help teachers and administrators feel comfortable sharing data with families: When the district first adopted this system, many administrators and teachers, especially those in high performing schools, felt threatened by giving so much information to parents. Many teachers were fearful that the tests would be used as evaluation tools and that if their class did not have tremendous growth it would be held against them. Administrators have therefore worked with families to help them understand that the purpose of this tool is not to rate teachers, but rather to help children grow and to understand strategies that work best for learning. Moreover, the district has invested in a remarkable amount of professional development for teachers so that they can effectively share data during parent–teacher conferences,3 feel confident interpreting scores, and support student and family goal setting with skill and expertise.
  • Use concrete examples to convey the purpose of assessment: In virtually all presentations, educators use analogies to help parents and the community understand the purpose of the testing. One example of this is the visual of a child climbing a ladder (see Slide 1 in text box below). A different analogy commonly used is that assessments of learning are like a “medical autopsy” and occur after learning has taken place, whereas assessments for learning are like a “check-up” and take place while it’s happening.
  • Avoid creating environments where parents place pressure on students to perform: In many of Poway’s high performing schools, parents put pressure on children to perform. Initially, many teachers were afraid that the new system would put even more pressure on students and make many of them even more anxious. When the system was first adopted, parents began to inquire how to help their children "pass" the assessment. As the educational community, district staff needed to assure parents that this was a formative assessment and therefore preparation was unnecessary. Instead, the tenor of the conversation gradually turned to helping parents understand the scores and how they could support good learning at their child’s level at home.
  • Support parents who need extra assistance: Through this work, the district staff has learned that many parents are savvy and quite skilled at securing the support their children need. Parents receive regular progress reports, and if they have concerns, district staff can even take time to strategize what types of activities parents can do with their students at home to ensure they can achieve maximum growth. Quite often parents will share other challenges they’re facing that make it difficult for them to support their child’s academic growth. With district support, parents develop strategies to help them overcome their difficult circumstances, while ensuring their children’s academic needs are met.

To learn more, visit:

For sample activities that students and parents can use to help set goals, visit:

You can also visit the parent portal at:

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

Slide 1.

Slide 2.

These slides illustrate the difference between measuring student success in terms of the student’s rankings compared to other students (slide 1), and measuring the student’s growth from the previous assessment (slide 2). In slide 1, the girl on the right appears to be performing at a lower level than the girl on the left, yet in slide 2 you can see that the girl on the right has actually made bigger academic gains since the last assessment.

The above slides were part of a June, 2009, seminar entitled, Poway's Way: Students and Teachers "Owning" Assessments that Truly Measure the Growth of Learning. In this archived teleconference, the Superintendent of Poway Unified School District explains how the District uses frequent assessments to measure student growth, encourage students to set goals for their own learning, and share the data with parents to encourage them to support student learning goals. To view the archived presentation, please visit:

2. Item Response Theory is explained in more detail here:
3. See:

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