How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC Writing, Part 1

How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC Writing, Part 1


Megan Hyland

This year, our students in grades 5-8 will take the PARCC exams in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.  This assessment is a significant shift away from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which our school has historically taken each year.

The ELA PARCC assessments—the PBA, specifically—asks students to read multiple texts, and synthesize meaning from each to answer a prompt in the form of a Prose Constructed Response (PCR), which oftentimes has several layers to it.  For example, a sample released 8th grade ELA exam has the following as a literary analysis prompt:

In “Confetti Girl” and “Tortilla Sun,” the narrators have points of view different from those of their parents.  Write an essay analyzing how these differences in points of view create tension in both stories. Remember to use details from both texts to support your idea.

Reading the PARCC released literary analysis task can feel daunting for both students and teachers.  However, once we broke down the prompt and thought deeply about what it was asking students to produce, we saw that it promoted deep, critical thinking that is not only focused on the content of the texts themselves, but also on the authors’ craft.  Without even digging through the texts, it is clear that student who answers this fully will have to:

  • Read and understand each text
  • Identify the point of view and the significance of the point of view in each text
  • Recognize the events in the texts that lead to tension
  • Understand HOW the points of view in each story create tension
  • Use quotes and specific examples to support their claims

To make this assessment even more challenging, this task is only one of three writing assignments that students will have to complete on PARCC.  Challenging? Yes.  Impossible? No.

First Bite: Familiarizing Staff with PARCC

During a PD day in September, my colleague, Darren Burris and I put together a workshop to help teachers become familiar with the PARCC exam.  We started the morning as a full staff. Every teacher sat a table in grade level teams. Darren and I gave an overview of the assessment (part 1 was given earlier in the year, part 2), shared the rationale for the test, and highlighted some of the key shifts that were happening across all grade levels.  After this initial overview, mathematics split off to look at the PARCC evidence tables (second half of document), while  ELA, History, Science, and Art studied the writing tasks as grade level teams.  The rest of what follows is what happened in the workshop on Literacy.

Second Bite: Review of Resources

Then, each teacher was given a binder with grade-level specific materials.  Among the contents were (some files are hyperlinked and multiple files are embedded, either way just click!):

  1. Condensed grade level specific task generation models: 
  2. Sample Questions Stems for Specific Grade Level (see file with “PARCC ELA Question Stems” in title): 
  3. PARCC Scoring Overview for Prose Constructed Responses
  4. Rubric for Scoring of Research Simulation Task, Literary Analysis Task, and Narrative Task
  5. Texts from Sample Released PARCC PBA: 
  6. List of Text Exemplars from CCSS Appendix
  7. Literacy Design Collaborative Template Tasks

Third Bite: Focusing on Task Models

After walking trough the contents in each binder, teachers were asked to focus on the task generation models and the specific foci for writing PARCC has identified, the question formats, as well as the sample texts.  They were given time to digest this information and were then charged to discuss the following questions:

  • As a grade level, what are we currently doing in our curriculum to prepare our students for these types of writing tasks?
  • Where are there gaps? In which classes can they be addressed?
  • Which task foci, specifically, can you “own?”

Fourth Bite: Taking Action

Grade level leaders captured their next steps on this chart (before file, after file):

Reflecting on the Workshop

As a whole, we met the outcomes of this PD, which were:

  • To gain a deeper understanding of what is being assessed, and how content is being assessed on the PARCC PBA and EOY assessments
  • To determine where and when it is appropriate to incorporate PARCC task models into unit plan(s).

However, teachers left wanting more time to process all of this information, and, even more pressingly, more time to plan and collaborate with their colleagues. Given the significant shifts and the level of rigor in these writing tasks, this was not surprising. These critical thinking skills cannot, and should not be taught in isolation.

As a result, we decided to hold “mini-retreats” where grade level teams could come together to work specifically on how to tweak their writing tasks to align more closely with what the students will be asked to do on PARCC.  My next blog will focus specifically on the 8th grade ELA retreat and the new literary analysis task that came out of it.

We are taking it one bite at a time.


4 responses to “How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC Writing, Part 1

  1. Pingback: How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC...·

  2. Pingback: Preparing for Common Core Writing Assessments -...·

  3. Pingback: How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC Writing, Part 2 | Transitioning to the Common Core·

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