Enabling Student Performance on PARCC
The key word in the title of this blog post is “performance.” Throughout the entire year, teachers have worked tirelessly to align their curriculum to the Common Core. Students, in turn, have embarked on a rigorous journey of learning, grappling with and moving towards mastery of both English Language Arts and Mathematical standards. PARCC is an exam that measures students’ mastery of the Common Core standards, and so it is logical to assume that students will demonstrate their knowledge of the standards through this venue. I have seen the practice tests, as have my middle school teachers, and we all agree it is a fair assessment of student mastery. And it is an exam that I believe will show an accurate depiction of students’ grade level abilities.
But again, the key word here is “performance.” Our students have worked on the skills needed to be successful on this exam all year long. What follows is a close exploration of the English Language Arts skills we believe our students have practiced sufficiently, but also a look at the specific instruction teachers are giving in order to support students in transferring those skills onto the PARCC state exam.
Enabling English Language Arts Performance: Skills Transfer
There are three key Common Core elements that teachers have focused on throughout the entire year: citing and analyzing relevant evidence, analyzing authors’ development of key literary elements, and comparing and contrasting themes and ideas across multiple texts and mediums. Teachers have led students through mini-lessons on each of these elements throughout all units. Evidence is wrapped into all classroom activities and the word “author” has become second nature in both written and oral work. On the assessment side, students have written formal essays, debated evidence in performance tasks such as mock trials, and have participated in in-depth research papers on topics of their choice in order to compare and contrast articles. Because of this continued work and dedication to standards, students should be able to perform to the highest percentile on the PARCC exam.
However, there are specific styles of questions on PARCC that students need practice with in order to translate their standard mastery into the avenues assessed on the exam. Students will be measured on their use of evidence through Evidence Based Selective Response questions. This type of multiple choice question will first ask students a question such as “What is the main idea,” but will then follow up with a second question that will ask “what following piece of evidence best supports the main idea?”. Students need practice transferring their polished skills of selecting evidence into this type of questioning, which is why teachers have begun to write and institute this style of question into their lessons. Whether as do nows, exit tickets, or built into texts students are reading, students need practice in demonstrating their mastery of evidence selection in this medium. Kathleen Stern, our 7th grade Reading Teacher, made this transfer of knowledge explicit for her students. See below:
The same is true of authors’ development of literary elements. While discussions around an author’s use of tone, or an author’s specific building of a character have been widely used, the avenue in which students will be assessed on this standard may be an extended written response on “cold” texts. Students need practice independently reading an unknown text, and reading strategically with the author in mind. This is a skill that teachers have had students practice in order to make sure the transfer of skills is there. One tool that our 7th grade Writing Teacher, Samantha Wuu, has used is intended to help students focus on what a specific writing prompt is asking in the actual task. Called a “RTT,” students are being taught to read the prompt first, create a task chart, and then read with this chart beside them in order to fill in a table with notes that is directed towards the question that is being asked. See below:
Both of these tactics by teachers is a way to help students perform to their ability level on the PARCC exam. They have the skills, they simply need practice in the transfer of these skills to the avenue in which they will be assessed. But skill transfer is not the only important piece to prepare students for the roll-out of the new exam. Students also need to be aware of the exam’s structure and implementation specifics.
Enabling Mathematical Performance: Exam Logistics
Students have worked diligently to master the mathematical grade level Common Core standards. Teachers have developed curriculum that takes into account all standards and skills, building units upon one another in the vertical alignment needed to have success in mathematics. Seventh grade students have brushed up on number sense, and applied it to ratios and proportions, expressions and equations, statistics and probability, and geometry. Eighth grade students have expanded their knowledge of seventh grade standards to include more rigorous curriculum and tackle the new skill of functions. And our advanced eighth graders have tackled the Algebra standards, working on seeing structures, creating equations, and working on the reasoning behind inequalities. Students have tackled all of these units, and teachers have made sure student students are entrenched in procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, real-world application. One specific performance assessment given by our 7th grade Accelerated Math Teacher, Chris Devlin, truly demonstrates the real world application piece of proportional relationships, shown below.
While Chris’s task asks students to span all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and demonstrate clear mastery of standards covering proportional relationships, it is not formatted the same way as the PARCC exam. In order for students to transfer their knowledge of proportions and demonstrate mastery, they need practice with the specific logistics of the exam. One hurdle students need to jump over is in the correct representation of their answers. On the PARCC exam, students need to bubble in not only negatives, but also decimal points in a way in which they have not yet experienced. See below:
In order for students to be successful on this logistical difference, they need practice! Chris will be cycling in this visual into his classroom, as well as asking students to answer proportional relationship questions in this fashion to help students transfer their mastery of the skill.
The other major avenue of skill transfer students need practice with is in multi-select questions. While students have practiced answering questions in various forms, and have translated answers into fractions, decimals, and various representations, being asked in a multiple choice question and faced with a plethora of possible correct answers is new. Our mathematics teachers are currently working on how to cycle in the style of questions like the one below:
The PARCC exam is a fair assessment of Common Core standards. In order to prepare our students to perform the way we know they can, we need to teach how to explicitly transfer skills as well as engage specific exam logistics. This two pronged approach will allow students to become acquainted with the exam as well as enable them to adequately demonstrate their knowledge.