The PARCC Assessments, The Common Core State Standards, and Comprehension

Posted on June 15th, 2012 by Vivian Mihalakis and Anthony Petrosky

We recently posted a blog in which Anthony Petrosky shared the blueprint for the PARCC Performance-Based Assessments in ELA/Literacy. Since then, we’ve been asked to elaborate on several aspects of that blueprint.

One request that keeps coming up over and over again is to talk about what reading comprehension is, according to the CCSS and PARCC, and what that means for instruction.

If you look at the PARCC blueprint below, you’ll see that students will be asked to answer several reading comprehension questions on literary and informational texts.

Blue Print

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

The questions that arise for people who see this blueprint are: What is reading comprehension according to PARCC and the CCSS? and What does that mean for how I teach reading comprehension?

As we know, reading comprehension means different things to different people. Some think about it as our understanding of individual words. Others believe it has to do with getting the gist of a reading passage. Still others believe it entails everything one does to understand a text.

Understanding what reading comprehension is, according to the CCSS and PARCC, requires turning our eye to the CCSS reading standards since the PARCC reading comprehension items will assess students’ proficiency with these standards.

Take a look at the following 9-10 Reading Literature standards.

You'll notice that the word "analyze" appears in each of the Reading Literature standards listed. We've included only 5 standards, but take our word for it, "analyze" or "analysis" shows up in all but one of remaining standards. The same applies for the Reading Informational Text standards.

Reading comprehension, then, according to the CCSS and in the PARCC performance assessments involves students in expressing their analyses of complex texts. Unlike previous standardized texts, reading comprehension a la the CCSS and PARCC is not identification or recognition. Comprehension is analysis.

So what does this mean for teaching? Does this mean that teachers should jump right into fairly sophisticated analytic work immediately following students' reading of a text?

We would argue that even though the CCSS calls for analytic work and the PARCC assessment will test analytic work, that's not the place to begin students’ initial reading, writing, and discussion about a text.

Before students can engage in analytic work, they first need to have a basic and shared understanding of the gist of the text. By that we mean that students need to have large-grained common understandings of things like the basic plot, the characters and their simple relationships to each other, and the setting in a narrative text. For an argument, those large-grained common understandings would include such things as the author's claims and counterclaims.

Without an understanding of the basic gist of the text, students' analyses are liable to be based on inaccurate readings or misunderstandings of the texts. In other words, if students haven't grasped the basic plot or the author's claims, then how successful can they possibly be at analyzing how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it, and manipulate time creates such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise (RL.9-10.5).

This basic gist work—although not called for by the CCSS—is a crucial scaffold to more sophisticated work including analysis. It's the first rung in a series of steps, and it can't be discarded because the CCSS doesn't call for it and PARCC won't assess it.

Teachers will have to resist pressures to dive right into the analytic work because that's what the standards call for and what the assessments will test. It's here in this space that teachers’ approaches to texts have to fill in the gaps of the standards for instruction.