March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

PARCC and You | Consider the Source

StudentsTesting_Thinkstock78617342The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) tests are coming to 10 states this spring. If you work in a school or public library, how can you help colleagues, parents, and students to prepare? How can you be a key part of the team getting ready for the new assessments?

I teach in the MLIS program at Rutgers University and have been involved with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) effort for many years. I’ve been taking a close look at the publically available PARCC information. I hope you find these thoughts and suggestions useful.

  • Go to and review the tests. I encourage you to do this to get your own sense of the exams. Once you have explored these practice tests, share this site. Loud voices have expressed criticism of the exams, suspicion of Pearson, and have urged parents not to allow their students to be tested. These may be significant debates, but they are fruitless if based on rumor not knowledge.Your role in a library is to facilitate and to help colleagues and students. The best way to do that is to spend time with the practice tests.
  • No matter what ages or grades you work with, take a look at the sequence of tests that begin in 3rd and run through the 11th grade. As you do you will see a clear pattern emerge.
  • These tests are very different from the previous New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) tests given in my home state. In fact, they are most similar to what might take place in a classroom as a teacher and class work together to read carefully and slowly through a text. I’ll spell that out in a moment—but this means that the more practice students have in a) reading carefully and slowly through a text and b) the specific format of the PARCC tests, the better they will perform on the exams.
  • The test begins with a selection—fiction, poetry, a historical document, a nonfiction article. While this is not made as clear as it should be, students should begin by reading the entire selection. Often there will be two selections that will ultimately need to be compared and contrasted. But first they should read the entire selection. Indeed, students who read the entire selection more than once are likely to do better answering questions. This takes stamina and discipline—it’s frustrating to have to reread something under test pressure, but building reading stamina is important.
  • In general, the first question isolates an unfamiliar word, or word used in a novel way, and asks the student to select a definition for it, and to choose from one of four pieces of textual evidence to support their interpretation. The word may be anywhere, even in the last paragraph of the selection. The next sequence of questions again directs the students to dive ahead to one paragraph or another to identify a theme. A student who jumps to the named paragraph will see the term or theme out of context. These questions can help a student to explore the selection in greater depth, but only if he or she uses them to mine the whole, not as isolated and discrete bits to pluck out. Advise students to use the sequence of questions that direct them to one paragraph or another to help build a sense of the selection as a whole. They are pathways into the text, not isolated quizzes.
  • PARCC often asks two questions: identify something, show evidence. If you get the first part wrong, the second part cannot be right. Students may want to begin with the second question—which pieces of evidence have they been given to consider? If none of the choices seem to support what they had planned to select in the first part, they should reconsider their answer. They can go back and change their answers as long as they are working on questions related to one selection. Making a tentative answer and then reviewing it as they come to know the selection better may be a good strategy.
  • The tests match what the CCSS emphasize—for any claim a student makes about a text, he or she needs to be able to find evidence in the text to support the claim. A great way to practice for this is some kind of Show Me event, contest, or display, in which students need to state where in a book, article, database, or primary source they find evidence to support a contention.The more accustomed they are to this process the more comfortable they will be on the tests.
  • As you surely know, the tests are primarily given digitally and require basic keyboarding and simple skills such as highlighting, dragging, and dropping.To get a sense of the computer skills students in your grades will need, look at the practice tests.
  • Year after year, the tests follow a similar pattern: define a term, show evidence; find a theme, show evidence; define the structure of the piece, show evidence; establish the author’s point of view, show evidence; this same sequence may then be repeated for a second selection that has some similarity of subject, theme, or approach to the first. Students will (on the March assessment) have to write an essay that compares the two.The sequence is clear—from specific to general, always based on evidence. Once a student knows this sequence, he or she will see how to use the specific questions to help build an understanding of the whole. This will be especially true once students have taken years of PARCC tests. Current high school students coming to PARCC with no prior experience may find the tests daunting.The practice tests are a good way to give them fair warning.
  • Remember—we are all learning.The assessments themselves are constantly being evaluated and examined. Please share with me, with the departments of education, and with PARCC, what you see in working with students on these tests.


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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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