If you live in a state that has signed on to PARCC—The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, you should be interested in the chart below. It presents two types of student English/literacy assessments, aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), scheduled to roll out in PARCC states in 2014. These are game changing student assessments that have the potential to significantly change instruction in the majority of ELA/literacy classrooms because they will ask students to articulate their understandings of reading selections while using evidence from them to develop those explanations and arguments. This kind of academic writing is far different from the current multiple-choice questions on state tests that ask students to recognize and identify correct answers.
The English/literacy assessments will ask students to read multiple related selections, to analyze those readings, and to then write about the readings and their analyses in ways that have not been tested in the US before on large-scale assessments. Students may have seen something like these in very good schools on teacher-made tests, but even that is probably unlikely unless students are fortunate enough to be in college preparatory classes.
PARCC's assessment plan means to gauge whether public school students are on track for college and careers. To do this, they'll field diagnostic, mid-year, performance, and end of year assessments. Some of these tests will be innovative forced choice and short answer items to replace more traditional multiple choice questions. Others though will be performance tasks created from the blue print below. As you read the chart, notice that the two kinds of performance assessments—the research simulation task and the literature task—invite students to read multiple related selections and to write about and across those selections so that the individual tasks add up to a coherent set on a topic or big idea.
Hain, B. (2012, May) Getting ready for the new assessments. Presentation at the Institute for Learning National Conference, Baltimore, MD.
One of the first things you might notice, aside from the invitations to read and write about multiple selections, is the amount of time it will take students to complete these. My best estimate for grades 9 - 11, depending on the length and complexity of the selections, is two hours for the research simulation and another two for the literary analysis.
On the other hand, imagine students who have worked on these kinds of tasks in their on-going instruction beginning in elementary school. Imagine how good they might be at this kind of reading, writing, and thinking by the time they leave high school. I like to imagine that because it gives me a glimpse of the kinds of intellectual work that all students could become good at, if they regularly practiced it in their classrooms with all sorts of topics in nonfiction, fiction, drama, poetry, primary sources, digital media, and so on.
Add to this imagining another ingredient, another layer of intellectual work parallel to the writing. Add to it opportunities as well for students to talk amongst themselves in groups of two or three as they solve the problems posed by the tasks and support each under the attentive eyes of a skilled teacher.
Working together in such focus groups, enacting the CCSS Speaking and Listening standards, they would learn to express, discuss, and critique each other’s analyses. Imagine then that these students, both individually and with others, would be doing the same kinds of thinking in their talk that they do through their writing.
To extend this example, students in the groups could post drafts of their thinking on chart paper or smart boards, so that their thinking is displayed and visible for all to see. The entire class could then do a note-taking gallery walk to see how others thought about the problems, to learn other ways of thinking, to rub up against others’ language, and to talk then as a class with their teacher's guidance about what they learned and how they learned it.
At their best, the CCSS open doors to these kinds of game changing possibilities for teaching and learning because they invite students to articulate their understandings in talk and in writing. Their understandings grow more and more complex from grade to grade as the reading selections and tasks grow more complex. The complexity and demands on them spiral, but so does their thinking and learning through writing and speaking in response to those complexities and demands.
Currently, in response to the multiple choice tests put in place as a result of No Child Left Behind, students in schools across the country spend months drilling on test-like questions to prepare for assessments that provide little genuine work and even less data about whether or not students are actually college and career ready. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that couldn’t happen again because the kinds of tasks on the assessments are so demanding as to make it pointless? Because the assessments are so demanding as to require a completely different approach to teaching and learning grounded in students' talk and writing about their thinking with and across multiple selections?