PARCC assessment a step forward

The new Common Core-aligned exam tests the right things

This summer my school’s principal and teacher leadership team prioritized projects for the year. At the end of the discussion, we put preparing staff for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, a test aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, at the top of the list. PARCC is of immediate concern to students and teachers in districts that have voluntarily adopted it in lieu of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, the state’s 17-year old assessment that tested our old standards. Boston Public Schools, where I teach, has chosen to use PARCC.

The assessment has ignited plenty of debate. Many teachers worry about its computerized format, its difficulty, and its high-stakes nature; performance on PARCC may soon replace MCAS as a gatekeeper for high school graduation. Concerns like these led the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to pass a resolution this month calling for re-examination of not only the state’s commitment to the test, but also to the Common Core, the standards on which the test is based and which are new learning expectations that are more rigorous than the old Massachusetts standards. The Massachusetts Board of Education chose to pilot PARCC first; next fall, it will choose whether to formally adopt it or go back to MCAS.

Flip-flopping on PARCC would be a step backward. The exam is designed to be more challenging than MCAS for good reason. It incorporates questions based on technology, includes higher expectations in writing, and requires more open-ended test items, because competence with tasks like these is crucial for success in college and career. Replacing the test or the standards would also negate the work my school has been doing. My experience teaching Common Core leads me to believe that the standards will prepare students for success in life and on a test like PARCC.

Last year I led the second grade team at my school in improving reading instruction using the Common Core. We crafted 10 units of study, including a four-week course on something we knew would provoke a passionate reaction – bugs. One standard I chose to focus on in my class was determining unfamiliar word meaning using clues from books’ pictures, something not required for second graders in the old Massachusetts standards.

A student of mine who struggled with reading but loved insects squealed with joy and disgust one day when she analyzed a picture of a praying mantis eating another and inferred the definition of the word cannibal. “Yuck! Cannibals are gross!” she wrote on a sticky note. She then made it her personal reading quest to discover every example of insect cannibalism available in the classroom library.

It is no secret in education that what gets tested is what gets taught. This is the kind of skill that makes young readers feel confident with text and gets them hooked on nonfiction, but without PARCC testing it, teachers may not think to teach it.

The new assessment will also press students to respond to texts in writing. To do so, students will read two texts on the same topic, and then compose an essay in which they lay out their thinking on the subject matter using information from the texts. This task is much more challenging than previous MCAS test prompts required, because MCAS did not require students to compare texts. With preparation, even our youngest learners are ready for this.

Halfway through a reading unit dedicated to animal research, a righteous seven-year-old in my class approached me asking who the senators of Massachusetts are. I answered and asked why she wanted to know. She explained she had read a book about otters and a book about oil spills and wanted to encourage Elizabeth Warren to do more to protect oceans by writing a persuasive letter.

She wrote the letter unassisted.

Not only is this the kind of writing that PARCC values, it is the kind of writing that has real-world value.

Another reason to embrace the new assessment is that PARCC promises to report data before the academic year finishes. I applaud this because, as an elementary school teacher, I need to know quickly where my students stand in their development as readers, writers, and mathematicians in order to help them. MCAS finalizes data the summer after testing, making reports feel more like an autopsy of a school’s performance than a timely diagnosis of teaching and learning designed to help schools improve. My classroom experience illustrates the importance of timely test scores.

The same student who discovered her love for entomology consistently showed below-proficient reading skills on bi-weekly exams. Through data analysis, I noticed she had a specific challenge with literature. I tapped into her love for insects and related narrative structure to a life cycle. Characters, I explained, are like caterpillars. They move through a pattern the same way insects change from one stage to another.

“Got it,” she said. “Larva, chrysalis, butterfly. Character, problem, solution.”

With timely test data, teachers can see and address student needs, and schools can diagnose bigger trends and problems.

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Cipriani

Teacher, Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School
Adjustment is never easy in teaching. Students, especially young ones, depend on routines, and changing routines can be challenging. If I am apprehensive at all for PARCC, it is only because I fear we will reject it before we give it a chance to take root. What does not worry me is whether students will be ready for the test. With good instruction, I know they can be.

Jeffrey Cipriani is a second grade teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston Public Schools and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.