New PARCC Testing: Laudable, Yet Challenging

April 24, 2013

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Parcc LogoIn response to criticism that current testing covers territory “an inch deep and a mile wide,” the new PARCC tests (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) now being introduced in conjunction with newly adopted Common Core learning standards will call for higher-order thinking skills, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Claire Jackson.

“The PARCC assessment is the culmination of a multi-year project that was designed to [measure] student performance in much better ways than the ways we have been doing it for the last 10 to 20 years,” Jackson said.

“PARCC claims to address the issues of higher-order thinking skills, student engagement and complex problem-solving—and actually, when you look at some of the sample assessment strategies and examples that are online, I think that if they develop an entire series and testing that’s in this format, they will have actually been successful in terms of getting to the higher-order thinking skills. It will be an enormous change for everybody. I like to think this is not a bad thing,” Jackson continued

“MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] drove higher order thinking skills out of the culture, and we began to see a kind of MCAS-driven instruction. Certain cultural changes took place which had people focusing on ‘I’ve got to get kids ready for this test.’ This assessment goes against that: it says you can’t get ready for this test unless you can think,” Jackson emphasized.

PARCC has six priorities, which Jackson listed:

  • Determine whether students are ready for careers and/or college;
  • Assess the full range of Common Core standards;
  • Measure the full range of student performance;
  • Provide data during the academic year to inform instruction;
  • Provide data for accountability;
  • Incorporate innovative approaches.

Additionally the testing components will be “computer-delivered” and will require “adjustments to the technological infrastructure and to instruction and curriculum,” Jackson said.

“These tests are supposed to be technologically administered. That means that students will need a computer— or at least a device like an iPad with a screen of 7 to 9 inches,” Jackson explained.

“One of the things we’ve tried to begin to address is whether or not, if the PARCC assessment came to Bedford in the fall, could we even begin to be one of those school districts that could administer it. Do we have enough technology? Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the bandwidth?” Jackson asked.

English Language Arts (ELA) testing under the PARCC model will include some literary analysis and require, among other things, “close reading.” Sample math questions reflect “shifts in test design, the use of multi-step problems, conceptual questions, and go deeper rather than shallowly “covering” the material.

“We’ve been teaching skimming: how quickly can you read all this material? But this is about reading complex materials very closely,” Jackson said of the PARCC approach to ELA testing. “It has a narrative component, which is the ability to write. And, of course, the research simulation task is what they’re trying to integrate into all of the assessments, and that’s the ability to analyze and synthesize informational topics.”

“For school systems in Massachusetts that are already struggling to meet the MCAS [standards]—I guess I’m really struggling to understand how students who can’t pass MCAS now could ever possibly do this,” commented School Committee member Ann Guay.

“Higher-order thinking is not necessarily harder thinking,” responded Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills. “In some ways, it’s more natural to be a problem solver. We’ve always believed that developing kids’ thinking abilities is more authentic than memorization or all those kinds of approaches that are really difficult on kids because that’s not how we go about operating in the real world. It’s complex, though.

“If schools were immediately to go to this and be tested on this, everybody’s going to fail,” Sills continued, “because most schools have not adopted the curriculum and have not adopted the kind of instruction that engages kids in these tests.

“Now, we’ve been working on these things for a long time here in Bedford, and I think we’re actually in a pretty good position, but what we haven’t done—with the exception of a few examples here and there—[is] we haven’t systematized our own assessment, so there is a real learning curve for our kids as well,” Sills added.

“[Assistant Superintendent Jackson and I] are in full agreement that the direction this is moving in is a terrific direction. But there are two issues: One is, what’s the pace before we get to high-stakes testing so that we can help kids learn how to do this? And two, they’re doing it at the same time that they’re also changing the curriculum and moving things down to the lower grades [that were previously in the higher grade curriculums]. If we were to have done this level of thinking with the existing curriculum for a while, that would be one thing. But to combine it with Victorian poetry or ancient Roman poetry or move algebra to the 8th grade all at the same time, that’s going to be challenging.” Sills concluded.

To view sample PARCC questions for multiple grade levels, visit:

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