Preparing Students for the PARCC Assessments: Or What Is Good ELA/Literacy Curriculum?

Posted on August 8th, 2012 by Vivian Mihalakis and Anthony Petrosky

A lot of people are writing about the new PARCC performance assessments in ELA/literacy. Much of the writing seems to be anxiety driven. At the IFL, we receive a steady flow of emails requesting information about the assessments. We refer everyone to the PARCC assessment blueprint that appears below.

We've written about the blueprint and its implications for instruction in a number of our blogs (The PARCC Assessments, The Common Core State Standards, and Comprehension; What Does The PARCC Assessment Blue Print Signal for Teaching and Learning?; Another Perspective on Close Reading, the English/Literacy Common Core State Standards, and Evidence-Based Explanations), so for this entry, we'll stick to one big idea that's embedded in the blueprint. It is this: Students at all grades will be expected to respond to a range of questions focused on a coherent set of reading selections.

They'll be asked to respond to innovative selected response comprehension and vocabulary questions and to write about single and multiple literary or informational texts, but what’s most important is that the texts that students read and the questions they’re asked to respond to all cohere around a central topic or concept. In other words, the focus of the assessment is not on questions for single texts or passages from texts. It is on questions on coherent sets of texts.

If you study the blueprint, you'll see that for all grades, students will be asked to respond to reading comprehension questions and to write summaries and analytic essays that incorporate evidence from multiple texts, and, for the literary analysis task, to write narratives that use a piece of literature as a stimulus. Many state tests have asked students to do each of these tasks, but none has asked students to do all of these tasks around a coherent set of complex texts.

Blue Print

Hain, B. (2012, May) Getting ready for the new assessments. Presentation at the Institute for Learning National Conference, Baltimore, MD.

So what does this mean for teaching? How can students be best prepared for the CCSS and the PARCC assessments?

It’s probably obvious that the usual test preparation a month before the exam isn't going to work. The habits of reading, thinking, and writing (and talking) emphasized by the CCSS and the PARCC assessments can’t be learned a month before the exam. They are best learned from a steady diet of classroom teaching and learning that focuses students on work with coherent sets of complex reading selections.

Unfortunately, there's ample evidence that such curricula, or units of study, are still rare in the ELA/literacy world. ELA/literacy curriculum is just beginning to get the attention it needs. So much of what happens in classrooms has been dominated by less than adequate textbooks that focus teachers and students on individual texts with low level questions.

The PARCC assessments, built on the back of the CCSS, can be best prepared for by creating coherent English/literacy curricula that includes complex texts that cohere around big questions or concepts and tasks that ask students to explore those questions/concepts in writing and speaking with individual texts and across texts. These units begin with repertoires of comprehension work designed to support students to do the kinds of things pointed to by the standards—write and talk about plot, characters and their relationships, the unfolding of chronologies and other text structures, author’s point of view, contextualized vocabulary, and so on---before moving on to engage students in analytic or interpretive work for single texts and across multiple texts.

So what does good ELA/literacy curriculum look like?

A good curriculum provides opportunities for students to demonstrate the kinds of writing and talk that we see in both the PARCC Research Simulation and the Literary Analysis tasks. Each of these tasks involves students in analytic work across multiple texts. The Research Simulation tasks focus on texts on the same topic, so there's substantial material for their complex analytic and interpretive writing.

First, a good curriculum would be built around multiple complex texts and one or two overarching questions focused on big ideas that reach across all the texts. The texts would be sequenced for some purposeful reason—perhaps in order of difficulty or in order of language closest to farthest from students or because the first text frames the others in some way. Students would begin their work on each by first engaging in a repertoire of comprehension tasks. They might, for instance, write individual responses to questions about the unfolding of events in a narrative or key ideas or claims in an informational or argumentative text. Then they could share those responses with their peers in groups of two or three. The groups could chart and post their responses before engaging in a whole group discussion to ensure that all students understand the basic gist of the text.

Once the comprehension studies indicate that students get the gist of the text, they would delve deeper into it to engage in analytic and interpretive tasks, tasks that would ask students to use evidence from across the text for various purposes.

After multiple readings, writings, and discussions of the first text, students would turn to the overarching unit questions to consider what they can say in response to them before they move on to study the second text. After their studies with the second text, they would again turn to the overarching unit questions and consider how their ideas have changed now that they’ve read a second text on the same topic or theme. Then they could turn to a study of the third text following the same pattern.

Such a curriculum—with purposefully sequenced texts and patterns of study tied to the CCSS—culminates in assignments on the unit's overarching questions. Those overarching questions, as you can see in the Argument & Methods unit overview below, have been designed to engage students in studies of the texts' big ideas or themes that evolve with each new text that they read.

Here is the Argument & Methods unit outline that graphically presents a model of such sequential work with and across multiple speeches on racial equality. We designed this unit with a small grant for the CCSS, so it's available to anyone who wishes to study or use it. All of the tasks align to specific CCSS, and each task in the unit has multiple teaching approaches. The CCSS alignment is spelled out in the full unit document in the link above. The tasks are numbered in the outline simply for reference convenience—these numbers do not correspond to standards.

How do three different leaders across time imagine solutions to reach racial equality?

What methods do these speakers use to build and support their arguments?

Text 1
"I Have a Dream"
Martin Luther King, Jr.
August 28, 1963

Text 2
"Remarks to the Convocation of the Church of God in Christ"
William J. Clinton
November 13, 1993

Text 3
“Ending Racial Inequality”
George W. Bush
NAACP Annual Convention
July 10, 2000

1.1 Prior Knowledge & Build Background: Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.? What do you know about him?

1.2 Comprehension: What is King’s argument? Who is his audience and what does he want them to do?

1.3 Structure: How does King organize his speech? How does each section advance his argument?

1.4 Author’s Methods: Metaphor: Identify the metaphors that you find most compelling to King's argument. Explain each metaphor and what you find most compelling about it given King's argument, purpose, and audience.

1.5 Author’s Methods: Allusion: King makes several allusions in this speech. Research one and explain its role in his argument.

1.6 Author’s Methods: Repetition: Study King's use of repetition. What does he repeat and for what purposes? How does his use of repetition link to and advance his argument?

Prior Knowledge: Who is William J. Clinton? What do you know about him?

2.1 Comprehension: Write a summary of Clinton’s speech. Include his argument, the specific claims and counterclaims he makes, and who his audience is.

2.2 Relationship Among Ideas: Identify and explain the claims you find most significant to Clinton's argument. How does he support each claim? What is the relationship among the claims and between the claims and counterclaims?

2.3 Author's Methods: What methods does Clinton use to build and support his argument? How does each advance his argument?

2.4 Drawing an Inference: What do you see as the main goal of Clinton's speech? Write an argument using claims and counterclaims that are grounded in evidence from the speech to support what you see as the main goal.

Prior Knowledge: Who is George W. Bush? What do you know about him? What is the NAACP?

3.1 Comprehension: Write a summary of Bush’s speech. Include the specific claims and counterclaims he makes, who his audience is, and what he wants them to do.

3.2 Structure: How does Bush organize his speech? How does each section advance his argument?

3.3 Author's Methods: Compare two methods that Bush and another speaker use. Explain how each uses these methods and argue for which you find more effective given the speaker’s argument, purpose, and audience.

3.4 Language: Reread paragraph 5. What is Bush saying and doing in this paragraph? Imitate Bush's writing by writing a paragraph like this one using your own ideas.

4.1 Comparing Texts: Speaking almost 40 years after King, Bush says, "Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms." Compare the inequities or forms of discrimination that each of the three speakers is speaking about. What evidence and methods does each speaker use to convince his audience of these inequities?

4.2 Comparing Texts: King, Clinton, and Bush all argue for ending racial inequality. Compare their solutions and the reasoning, evidence, and evidence they use for those solutions.

As you read this outline, notice how the tasks in the vertical rows are designed to progressively engage students in evolving, challenging work with a single speech. Notice, too, how the tasks across speeches are designed to give students multiple opportunities with each to engage in key questions aligned to the CCSS. Finally, notice how the tasks within and across speeches are designed to prepare students for the culminating comparison at the bottom of the chart. These comparisons could also be treated as assessments that are aligned to the PARCC blueprint, since they ask students to write about central ideas that reach across all three texts and prompt students to write from evidence.

From our experiences working with our partner districts to design such curricula, our observations of students, studies of student work samples, and interviews with teachers, we are encouraged that all students can do this challenging work when they are presented with structured and scaffolded opportunities to engage with multiple texts. That is what it will take for them to do well on the new assessments.