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Curmudgucation: Sampling the PARCC

Today, I'm trying something new. I've gotten myself onto the PARCC sample item site and am going to look at the ELA sample items for high school. This set was updated in March of 2014, so, you know, it's entirely possible they are not fully representative, given that the folks at Pearson are reportedly working tirelessly to improve testing so that new generations of Even Very Betterer Tests can be released into the wild, like so many majestic lion-maned dolphins.

So I'm just going to live blog this in real-ish time, because we know that one important part of measuring reading skill is that it should not involve any time for reflection and thoughtful revisiting of the work being read. No, the Real Readers of this world are all Wham Bam Thank You Madam Librarian, so that's how we'll do this. There appear to be twenty-three sample items, and I have two hours to do this, so this could take a while. You've been warned.


Right off the bat I can see that taking the test on computer will be a massive pain in the ass. Do you remember frames, the website formatting that was universally loathed and rapidly abandoned? This reminds me of that. The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I'm looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

The selection is about using DNA testing for crops, so fascinating stuff. Part A (what a normal person might call "question 1" asks us to select three out of seven terms used in the selection, picking those that "help clarify" the meaning of the term "DNA fingerprint," so here we are already ignoring the reader's role in reading. If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don't understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I'm back to scrolling in the little window and I rapidly want to punch the test designers in the face. I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use "genetics" in the answer; I will answer this question based on guesswork and trying to second guess the writer.

Part B is a nonsense question, asking me to come up with an answer based on my first answer.


Still the same selection. Not getting any better at this scrolling-- whether my mouse roller scrolls the whole page or the selection window depends on where my cursor is sitting.

Part A is, well... hmm. If I asked you, "Explain how a bicycle is like a fish," I would expect an answer from you that mentioned both the bicycle and a fish. But PARCC asks how "solving crop crimes is like solving high-profile murder cases." But all four answers mention only the "crop crime" side of the comparison, and the selection itself says nothing about how high-profile murder cases are solved. So are students supposed to already know how high-profile murder cases are are solved? Should they assume that things they've seen on CSI or Law and Order are accurate? To answer this we'll be reduced to figuring out which answer is an accurate summary of the crop crime techniques mentioned in the selection.

This is one of those types of questions that we have to test prep our students for-- how to "reduce" a seemingly complex question to the simpler question. This question pretends to be complex; it is actually asking, "Which one of these four items is actually mentioned in the selection?" It boils down to picky gotcha baloney-- one answer is going to be wrong because it says that crop detectives use computers "at crime scenes"

Part B.The old "which detail best supports" question. If you blew Part A, these answers will be bizarrely random.


Still on this same damn selection. I now hate crops and their DNA.

Part A wants to know what the word "search" means in the heading for the final graph. I believe it means that the article was poorly edited, but that selection is not available. The distractor in this set is absolutely true; it requires test-taking skills to eliminate it, not reading skills.

Part B "based on information from the text" is our cue (if we've been properly test prepped) to go look for the answer in the text, which would take a lot less time if not for this furshlugginer set up. The test writers have called for two correct answers, allowing them to pretend that a simple search-and-match question is actually complex.


Ah, yes. A test question that assesses literally nothing useful whatsoever. At the top of the page is our selection in a full-screen width window instead of the narrow cramped one. At the bottom of the page is a list of statements, two of which are actual advantages of understanding crop DNA. Above them are click-and-drag details from the article. You are going to find the two advantages, then drag the supporting detail for each into the box next to it. Once you've done all this, you will have completed a task that does not mirror any real task done by real human beings anywhere in the world ever.

This is so stupid I am not even going to pretend to look for the "correct" answer. But I will remember this page clearly the next time somebody tries to unload the absolute baloney talking point that the PARCC does not require test prep. No students have ever seen questions like this unless a teacher showed them such a thing, and no teacher ever used such a thing in class unless she was trying to get her students ready for a cockamamie standardized test.

Oh, and when you drag the "answers," they often don't fit in the box and just spill past the edges, looking like you've made a mistake.


Here are the steps listed in the article. Drop and drag them into the same order as in the article. Again, the only thing that makes this remotely difficult is wrestling with the damn windows. This is a matching exercise, proving pretty much nothing.


By now my lower-level students have stopped paying any attention to the selection and are just trying to get past it to whatever blessed page of the test will show them something else.

Part A asks us to figure out which question is answered by the selection. This is one of the better questions I've seen so far. Part B asks which quote "best" supports the answer for A. I hate these "best" questions, because they reinforce the notion that there is only one immutable approach for any given piece of text. It's the very Colemanian idea that every text represents only a single destination and there is only one road by which to get there. That's simply wrong, and reinforcing it through testing is also wrong. Not only wrong, but a cramped, tiny, sad version of the richness of human understanding and experience.


Here comes the literature. First we get 110 lines of Ovid re: Daedelus and Icarus (in a little scrolling window). Part A asks which one of four readings is the correct one for lines 9 and 10 (because reading, interpreting and experiencing the richness of literature is all about selecting the one correct reading). None of the answers are great, particularly if you look at the lines in context, but only one really makes sense. But then Part B asks which other lines support your Part A answer and the answer here is "None of them," though there is one answer for B that would support one of the wrong answers for A, so now I'm wondering if the writers and I are on a different page here.


Two more questions focusing on a particular quote, asking for an interpretation and a quote to back it up. You know, when I say it like that, it seems like a perfectly legitimate reading assessment. But when you turn that assessment task into a multiple choice question, you break the whole business. "Find a nice person, get married and settle down," seems like decent-ish life advice, but if you turn it into "Select one of these four people, get married in one of these four ceremonies, and buy one of these four houses" suddenly it's something else.

And we haven't twisted this reading task for the benefit of anybody except the people who sell, administer, score and play with data from these tests.


The test is still telling me that I'm going to read two selections but only showing me one. If I were not already fully prepped for this type of test and test question, I might wonder if something were wrong with my screen. So, more test prep required.

Part A asks what certain lines "most" suggest about Daedelus, as if that is an absolute objective thing. Then you get to choose what exact quotes (two, because that makes it more complex) back you up. This is not constructing and interpretation of a piece of literature. Every one of these questions makes me angrier as a teacher of literature and reading.


Here's our second poem-- "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come To Triumph." The two questions are completely bogus-- Sexton has chosen the word "tunneling" which is a great choice in both its complexity and duality of meaning, a great image for the moment she's describing. But of course in test land the word choice only "reveals" one thing, and only one other piece of the poem keys that single meaning. I would call this poetry being explained by a mechanic, but that's disrespectful to mechanics.


Determine the central idea of Sexton's poem, as well as specific details that develop the idea over the course of the poem. From the list of Possible Central Ideas, drag the best Central Idea into the Central Idea box.

Good God! This at least avoids making explicit what is implied here-- "Determine the central idea, then look for it on our list. If it's not there, you're wrong." Three of the four choices are okay-ish, two are arguable, and none would impress me if they came in as part of a student paper.

I'm also supposed to drag-and-drop three quotes that help develop the One Right Idea. So, more test prep required.


Now my text window has tabs to toggle back and forth between the two works. I'm supposed to come up with a "key" difference between the two works (from their list of four, of course) and two quotes to back up my answer. Your answer will depend on what you think "key" means to the test writers. Hope your teacher did good test prep with you.


In this tiny text box that will let you view about six lines of your essay at a time, write an essay "that provides and analysis of how Sexton transforms Daedelus and Icarus." Use evidence from both texts. No kidding-- this text box is tiny. And no, you can't cut and paste quotes directly from the texts.

But the big question here-- who is going to assess this, and on what basis? Somehow I don't think it's going to be a big room full of people who know both their mythology and their Sexton.


So now we're on to biography. It's a selection from the National Women's History Museum, so you know it is going to be a vibrant and exciting text. I suppose it could be worse--we could be reading from an encyclopedia.

The questions want to know what "advocate for women" means, and to pick an example of Adams being an advocate. In other words, the kinds of questions that my students would immediately id as questions that don't require them to actually read the selection.


This page wants to know which question goes unanswered by the selection, and then for Part B asks to select a statement that is true about the biography but which supports the answer for A. Not hopelessly twisty.


Connect the two central ideas of this selection. So, figure out what the writers believe are the two main ideas, and then try figure out what they think the writers see as a connection. Like most of these questions, these will be handled backwards. I'm not going to do a close reading of the selection-- I'm going to close read the questions and answers and then use the selection just as a set of clues about which answer to pick. And this is how answering multiple choice questions about a short selection is a task not much like authentic reading or pretty much any other task in the world.


Now we're going to read the Adams family mail. This is one of her letters agitating for the rights of women; our questions will focus on her use of "tyrant" based entirely on context, because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.


Same letter. Now I'm supposed to decide what the second graph most contributes to the text as a whole. Maybe I'm just a Below basic kind of guy, but I am pretty sure that the correct answer is not among the four choices. That just makes it harder to decide which other two paragraphs expand on the idea of graph #2.


Now we'll decide what her main point about Boston is in the letter. This is a pretty straightforward and literal reading for details kind of question. Maybe the PARCC folks are trying to boost some morale on the home stretch here.

Oh hell. I have a message telling me I have less than five minutes left.


Now we have to pick the paraphrase of a quote from Adams that the test writers think is the berries. Another set of questions that do not require me to actually read the selection, so thank goodness for small favors.


Again, interpretation and support. Because making sense out of colonial letter-writing English is just like current reading. I mean, we've tested me on a boring general science piece, classical poetry, modern poetry, and a pair of colonial letters. Does it seem like that sampling should tell us everything there is to know about the full width and breadth of student reading ability?


Again, in one page, we have two sets of scrollers, tabs for toggling between works, and drag and drop boxes for the answers. Does it really not occur to these people that there are students in this country who rarely-if-ever lay hands on a computer?

This is a multitask page. We're asking for a claim made by the writer and a detail to back up that claim, but we're doing both letters on the same page and we're selecting ideas and support only form the options provided by the test. This is not complex. It does not involve any special Depth of Knowledge. It's just a confusing mess.


Contrast the Adams' views of freedom and independence. Support your response with details from the three sources (yes, we've got three tabs now). Write it in this tiny text box.

Do you suppose that somebody's previous knowledge of John and Abigail and the American Revolution might be part of what we're inadvertently testing here? Do you suppose that the readers who grade these essays will themselves be history scholars and writing instructors? What, if anything, will this essay tell us about the student's reading skills?


Man. I have put this off for a long time because I knew it would give me a rage headache, and I was not wrong. How anybody can claim that the results from a test like this would give us a clear, nuanced picture of student reading skills is beyond my comprehension. Unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students, this is everything one could want in an inauthentic assessment that provides those of us in the classroom with little or no actual useful data about our students.

If this test came as part of a packaged bunch of materials for my classroom, it would go in the Big Circular File of publishers materials that I never, ever use because they are crap. What a bunch of junk. If you have stuck it out with me here, God bless you. I don't recommend that you give yourself the full PARCC sample treatment, but I heartily recommend it to every person who declares that these are wonderful tests that will help revolutionize education. Good luck to them as well.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...