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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Changing the Conversation: Sharing Education Data With Families

Research Digest

Harvard Family Research Project’s (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP. For more information about the research summarized1 in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.


Across the nation, school districts are turning to technology as a means of growing and sustaining parent involvement. Technology-based activities, such as chronicling daily school events on Twitter and Facebook, are becoming commonplace. One technological intervention promising to augment home–school communication and keep parents involved is the use of a Student Information System (SIS) and its optional “parent portal” features. 

Simply put, an SIS is a software program designed to manage student data for education organizations. These data systems are widely used; all 50 states have them in place to track student performance (Data for Action, 2011). Some districts use an SIS on a smaller and more personal level to house information such as attendance, grades, and standardized test scores for their own purposes.

More and more often, such districts are purchasing and enabling online “parent portals” as part of their SIS bundles. Doing so allows parents to log in to the system to see their child’s data, review class-specific content, receive automatic progress updates, read teacher comments, track attendance, and contact teachers with questions or concerns. School districts have spent more than $1 billion on SIS and parent portals over the past decade (Tucker, 2010). 

Providing parents with access to SIS data through these online portals helps to foster a sense of shared responsibility between the school and parents for promoting student learning. Yet simply giving parents access to data through SIS portals is not enough to create this sense of shared responsibility. School systems must educate parents, as well as teachers who input the data, on how that data may be useful in helping to support student learning. If data sharing is mainly about parents’ access to the SIS and lacks this education and training component, as this research study reveals, then parent portals will not live up to their true potential for helping families support student learning.  

A limited number of studies have addressed SIS parent portal use. For example, Ellis (2008) found that teachers’ use of an SIS increased communication with parents. Mathern (2009) found that parents’ accessing of portal information through an SIS improved home–school communication but did not impact student grades, GPA, or attendance. Koch (2010) found the use of SIS portals to be a good source of information and a convenient way for parents to communicate with schools. What remains largely unexamined, however, is how parents actually use data found in parent portals to impact student learning, and if portal usage can help sustain parent involvement during a time—the middle and high school years—when it tends to decline.

The current study addressed that gap by examining what motivated parents of middle school students to use an SIS parent portal and how they used the information they saw. The study examined how parents with access to their child’s grades on all individual assignments, attendance, and teacher comments used those data to support their child’s learning. The findings offer insight into how a parent portal may foster, deepen, and sustain parent involvement. Further, the results provide information about the presumed linkages between parental access to data and improved student learning. 


The study addressed the following research questions:
1. Why do parents use a parent portal?
2. Does parent access to a parent portal support home–school communication?
3. How do parents use data provided via a parent portal?
4. Does use of a parent portal help to offset the traditional decline in parental involvement as children move through middle school?


This study involved both quantitative and qualitative inquiry. I used a 20-question survey, based on one used by Shayne (2008), to gather data regarding parental demographics, trends in home–school communication and parent portal usage habits, and experiences and opinions regarding the portal. In addition, I conducted a focus group interview to assess parental feelings and experiences related to portal use.

I conducted the study at a suburban Massachusetts middle school of 900 students in its first year of using a parent portal. On the first day of school, the principal sent a letter to parents notifying them about the availability of a parent portal. Parents who returned a signed contract to join the portal received an email containing an access code, a password, and 14 pages of directions for account setup and details of portal features. Parents who contacted the school with questions about the portal were directed to email the district’s technology help desk. 

I invited 620 portal users to participate in both the survey and focus group. Ultimately, I received 153 survey responses, representing 25 percent of portal users, and engaged 10 volunteer participants in the focus group.


Why do parents use a parent portal? Parents were motivated to use the portal out of their concern for their child’s academic performance. More specifically, parents used the portal as the preferred means of checking or monitoring their child’s current grades but did not access the portal to view their child’s attendance or their teachers’ open-ended comments about class work, behavior, and other issues. Parents also reported feeling it was their “responsibility” to access data through the portal once they had been granted access. 

Does parent access to a parent portal support home–school communication? Most parents perceived the portal as an effective means of home–school communication that supported, but did not completely replace, traditional home–school communication, such as parent phone calls, email, and report cards. Results revealed that the parent portal was the most utilized, and the most preferred, means of home–school communication among all of the communication methods that the school offered. Findings also suggested that use of the portal increased parents’ communication with teachers, specifically through email correspondence set up or accessed through the portal.

How do parents use data provided via a parent portal? Findings suggested that most parents used the portal to check on their child’s grades. Most parents found the information useful because it made them “aware” of their child’s general school progress. Most parents reported that having access to this information improved communication with their child, especially about student “accountability” for task completion and students’ “behaviors.” In addition, parents believed that their access to the portal improved their child’s attitude toward school, and the majority of parents perceived that their portal use resulted in their child’s showing improvement in school. 

All of those findings were promising; however, the study’s results revealed that parents were not using the portal data to their full capacity. Few parents used the data to discuss specific school performance concerns or patterns and habits (e.g., consistent homework completion but poor performance on quizzes) with their children. They also did not typically access the features of the portal that could have helped them retrieve more detailed information about their child’s progress. For example, upon viewing their child’s overall class average for “Grade 6 Math,” parents could click on that data point to see a full assignment list complete with their child’s grades for each assignment in that class. Having access to such detailed information, such as “Dividing Fractions Quiz: 60/100,” could then lead to both parent–child and parent–teacher discussions as well as remediation around specific topics within learning areas. This “detailed look” was a facet of the portal not clear to all parents. In fact, results revealed that some parents did not know how to access data beyond their child’s current class average.

Does use of a parent portal help to offset the traditional decline in parental involvement as children move through middle school? Parents reported that portal use might help them maintain their involvement as their child progresses through school. Results suggested that use of the portal made parents feel more engaged with their child’s schooling. Feeling more engaged, as previous research suggested, may help to keep parents involved, particularly at a time, such as the shift to middle school, when involvement typically declines.2 However, parents reported that they needed more training on how to use the portal and understand all of its features. Such training may keep them involved by showing them how to put the portal to best use and may lead to more meaningful, learning-centered involvement.


School systems should recognize the potential of portals to motivate parents to sustain their involvement in their child’s learning. Most importantly, schools need to help parents understand that portals are more than just sources of student data to be monitored—that they are, instead, a tool that parents can use in meaningful ways to understand and support their child’s learning. 

In order for this to happen, it is paramount that schools invest in training in portal use. Schools should hold tutorials for parents, either in person or in video form, to ensure that those who access a portal are aware of its full range of capabilities in helping them support their child’s learning and growth. Simply providing online access to student grades does not necessarily lead to parent–child (or parent–teacher) discussions about learning. For example, most online portals offer the ability to click directly from a student’s class average into a teacher’s grade book to view each assignment’s name and individual grade. A parent new to portals may not be aware of this level of access and/or may not understand the full value of accessing a grade book rather than just viewing the child’s class average. Schools that invest in SIS parent portals must also help parents know how to communicate concerns to teachers or seek remedial help for their child when necessary. 

The Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) Parent Link, used in the New York City Schools, offers insight into the benefits of training parents on portal data use.  Employing support staff,  such as parent liaisons, to help families better interpret data, or simply having teachers provide appropriate and prescriptive study aids and support materials related to the data posted on parent portals, may also help portal users address student learning needs in a more meaningful way than if such guidance were not available to parents.


Internet-based SIS parent portals offer a means of bridging the well-documented communication gap between the home and the school. They allow schools to provide parents with a range of meaningful data about their child’s progress on an ongoing basis. Data sharing in this capacity offers much promise as a vehicle to potentially increase and sustain parent involvement and to improve learning. With further research, as well as with the commitment of time, training, and resources, portals can help educators and families build a strong home-school alliance around learning.

Barbara Starkie
Assistant Principal
Dr. Robert G. O’Donnell Middle School
211 Cushing St.
Stoughton, MA 02072


Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. (2012). What schools want
parents to know., The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. Retrieved on April 12, 2012, from

Data Quality Campaign. (2011). Data for action 2011: All states could empower education stakeholders with data but they haven’t yet. The Data Quality Campaign. Retrieved on May 10, 2012, from

Ellis, A.K. (2008). Teachers’ perceptions on the impact of student academic achievement and
parental involvement through the PowerSchool™  program in a Catholic school diocese (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3437334)

Koch, C.S. (2010). The function of electronic communication devices in assisting parental
involvement in middle schools (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3420561)

Mathern, M.S. (2009).The relationship of electronic grade book access to student achievement,
student attendance, and parent–teacher communication (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3431768)

Shayne, P.A. (2008). Home-school communication with parents of middle school students: A
study on the effects of technology (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3324218)

Tucker, B. (2010). Five design principles for smarter data systems.
Education Sector. Independent Analysis, Innovative Ideas. Retrieved on May 10, 2012, from


1This research digest is a summary of Starkie, B. (2012). Data sharing through parent portals: An exploration of parental motivation, data use, and the promise of prolonged parent involvement (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3525795)

2The decline of parental involvement as students progress through the middle and high school years has been cited as one of the greatest challenges public schools face (Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, 2012).

This resource is part of the April 2013 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 archive of past issues, please visit

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