A Walk in the PARCC – Part 2: ELA

This is the second of two posts on the move from MCAS to PARCC in Massachusetts.  This blog covers the move in ELA.

Just as we prefer the new PARCC-Math tests to the old MCAS-Math tests, we prefer the new PARCC-ELA tests to their MCAS predecessors.

Here is why:

  1. PARCC-ELA mitigates the role of luck.
  2. PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, requires students to distinguish nuances of word meaning.
  3. PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, demands that students analyze authors’ uses of literary devices.
  4. PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, tests true reading comprehension.
  5. PARCC-ELA, far more than MCAS-ELA, tests writing extensively and requires students to write in response to complex texts.

1.  PARCC-ELA mitigates the role of luck

PARCC-ELA makes guessing less profitable.  It does so in two ways.  First, it often requires students to select multiple correct answers and to complete two-step problems.  The payoff from blind guessing in problems of this sort is smaller.  Second, PARCC-ELA increases similarity among answer choices, thereby making it harder for students to rule out obviously incorrect answers.

Consider this 5th grade MCAS-ELA item that tests a student’s understanding of the main meaning of a paragraph:

Here is the paragraph in question:

A student who has failed entirely to understand the meaning of the paragraph obviously has a 25% chance of getting the question correct by simply guessing.

Moreover, a student with a modest understanding of the meaning of the paragraph might be able to rule out answers B and C (which have Shift as the narrator) simply by recognizing that the narrator of the paragraph is Puzzle.  If able to rule out answers B and C, a student then has a 50% chance of guessing correctly between answers A and D.

By contrast, consider this 5th grade PARCC-ELA item that similarly asks a student to select the best summary of a text:

Part A of the question above, like the MCAS-ELA question before it, offers a student who has completely failed to understand the underlying text a 25% chance of guessing correctly.

However, Part B is effectively immune to guessing since it requires a student to have answered Part A correctly in the first place and, further, requires a student to select two correct responses from six options (the odds of blindly selecting two correct items from a set of six choices are approximately 6%).

Moreover, in the PARCC-ELA item above, a student with only a superficial understanding of the underlying text will struggle to rule out answer choices as obviously wrong because the answer choices are all reasonable and similar.  For a student to rule out any of the answer choices, she has to read the underlying passage carefully for inference, point of view, and meaning.

2.  PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, requires students to distinguish secondary, figurative, and context-specific meanings of words

MCAS-ELA, of course, tests vocabulary.  But, as you will see, its approach to vocabulary is far less challenging than that of PARCC-ELA.

Take a look at this 5th grade MCAS-ELA vocabulary question:

The underlying passage is a poem.  The poem is essentially a fictional dialogue between a dog and a squirrel in which the dog fantasizes about catching the squirrel and in which the squirrel teases the dog.  In Line 23, the squirrel taunts the dog, “I know the precise point at which I must flee.”

The MCAS-ELA vocabulary question is asking the student to define “precise,” and the student can get the right answer in two ways.

First, a student can get the correct answer, independent of underlying passage, simply by knowing the main dictionary definition of the word “precise.”  The main definition of “precise” is “exact.”   Exact is listed as answer D, and—very importantly—answers A, B, and C are not secondary definitions of the word “precise.”  So, a student who knows that “precise” means “exact” can answer the question correctly on that basis alone.  She never has to even read the text.

Second, a student who does not know the main dictionary definition of “precise” might nevertheless get the correct answer if she understands the meaning of the words offered in the answer selections A-D, if she generally understands the underlying text, and if she substitutes the answer choices into Line 23 in place of “precise” to test for coherence.   If a student does that, she might be able to rule out answers A, B, and C as either nonsense (in the case of answer B) or as inferior (in the case of A and C).

By contrast, PARCC-ELA vocabulary items virtually always require students to read the text and rarely allow students to rule out obviously wrong answers via the fill-in-the-blank process described above.  Also, PARCC-ELA vocabulary items often test secondary and figurative meanings of words.

Consider the following PARCC-ELA item, also a test of 5th grade vocabulary:

Here is the paragraph from the underlying passage:

Notice that this PARCC-ELA question, unlike the MCAS-ELA example above, is testing for one of multiple definitions of “vocal.”  Specifically, in the passage, “vocal” is being use to mean “noisy.”   That is a not the exclusive or even primary definition of “vocal” (which is mainly defined as “of the vocal chords”).  Also, to make matters more difficult, the question lists “challenging” – a secondary definition of “vocal” but not its use in this passage – as an alluring but false answer option.

In all, to find the correct answer in the PARCC-ELA vocabulary question, a student has to read the passage for context and meaning (i.e. she has to understand, from context clues, which definition of “vocal” is being used), and she has to understand the full range of definitions for “vocal” (in order to rule our tempting but false answer options).

PARCC-ELA routinely takes this sort of approach to vocabulary.  It generally requires students to master figurative, secondary, and context-specific meanings of words.

3.  PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, demands that students analyze authors’ uses of literary devices

MCAS-ELA often requires students to identify literary devices where they occurred in texts.  For example, in this 5th grade MCAS-ELA question, students must identify figurative language:

This MCAS-ELA question is a sensible, but relatively easy, assessment of whether a student can identify figurative language.

PARCC-ELA, in testing for figurative language, increases the challenge.  Consider this 5th grade PARCC-ELA item:

First of all, notice that—without a thorough reading of the underlying passage—a student cannot answer either part of the question.  The correct answer here—one that is only apparent from considering the whole underlying text—is that the song “gives the reader information about Davy’s life” (answer B).  By contrast, on the MCAS-ELA question above, a student could answer correctly without reading the underlying passage so long as the student knew the general qualities of figurative language.

And notice again that PARCC-ELA demands that students justify their answers (see Part B).  This two-part problem structure thwarts students who might guess right on the second part of the item.  They don’t have the opportunity to earn any points on Part B unless they have answered Part A correctly.

4.  PARCC-ELA, more than MCAS-ELA, tests true reading comprehension

Here is a 4th grade MCAS-ELA question.  This question tests a student’s ability to select the main idea of a text:

This item is, at best, a modest quiz of comprehension.  The answer options are highly different from one another.  So, even a student with only a limited understanding of the underlying text will be able to rule out 1-2 clearly erroneous answer options.

Now take a look at this 4th grade PARCC-ELA question, also on main idea:

This PARCC-ELA item on main meaning is far superior to the MCAS-ELA question, for two reasons.

First, the answer options are all reasonable choices, at least on a first pass of the underlying text.  They all refer to themes or events in the passage, and none of them is obviously correct or incorrect to a student who has only a basic understanding of the underlying text.

Second, Part B requires students to identify the evidence that “best” supports the correct answer in Part A.  The answer choices, again, are all reasonable.  They vary in degree.  Some answer choices offer partial evidence for the correct answer in Part A, and some cover tangential themes.  While wrong, these answer choices are tempting.  To get the question correct, the student has to weigh all the answer choices to determine the one that “best” supports the correct answer in Part A.

5.  PARCC-ELA, far more than MCAS-ELA, tests writing extensively and requires students to write in response to texts

MCAS-ELA asks students to write a composition in grades 4, 7, and 10.  Composition is not included on MCAS-ELA in grades 3, 5, 6, and 8.

PARCC-ELA, in contrast, has three writing exercises in every grade from 3-11.    So, the first point is simple: students write far more on PARCC-ELA than they do on MCAS-ELA.

The second point is that PARCC-ELA writing tasks are almost always in response to complex texts and dependent on a student’s understanding of those texts.  As you will see below, PARCC-ELA writing assessments are more than strong tests of general writing skill. They are also enormously demanding tests of reading comprehension and textual analysis.

Here is a typical MCAS writing prompt.  This prompt is for 7th graders, and it asks the student to write a personal statement:

This writing assessment tests a student’s general writing skills.    A student can earn a top score by crafting a well-structured essay (with an opening, a body, and a conclusion) and complying with rules of grammar and syntax.

Now turn to PARCC-ELA and its approach to writing.

As mentioned, students in every grade must complete three writing exercises.  These writing tasks cover literary analysis (in which students are writing in response to fiction texts), research writing (in which students are writing in response to non-fiction texts), and narrative writing (in which students create an original narrative, often in the first person).

In all of these assignments, students must not only write well.  They must also demonstrate strong reading comprehension and text analysis.

Consider this 7th literary analysis task from PARCC-ELA:

To do well on this literary analysis task, a student must comprehend the relevant passages from The Count of Monte Cristo and Blessings, must identify themes in each book, and must reason through the choices that each author makes in developing those themes.  This difficult work of comprehension and analysis precedes the subsequent (and also difficult) task of building a well-argued, well-organized, and well-written essay.

Consider this 7th grade PARCC-ELA narrative writing task:

Here again, textual analysis and true comprehension are prerequisites for the writing assignment.  A student must understand the story in depth in order to assume the point of view of one of its characters.  Again, PARCC-ELA is testing both strong writing (in this case, narrative writing) and reading comprehension and textual analysis (in this case, a critical understanding of the characters and plot in the piece).

Finally, consider this PARCC-ELA research writing task from 7th grade.  As mentioned, PARCC-ELA’s research writing tasks require students to write critically across multiple non-fiction texts:

This writing task, again, truly requires skill in both writing and textual analysis.

Notice the depth of understanding and analysis required of students in order to even outline a response.  Students must understand and compare the way in which each author uses explanations, examples, and descriptions to accomplish a purpose.  This difficult analytic work has to be completed before the subsequent task of writing a complex critical essay can unfold.

In all, PARCC-ELA requires far more writing of students that does MCAS-ELA, and, as importantly, PARCC-ELA writing always requires complex comprehension and textual analysis as a precursor to writing.


We like the PARCC-ELA tests, just as we like the PARCC-math tests.

Compared to their MCAS analogs, PARCC-ELA tests and the related Common Core standards in ELA impress us as more rigorous and more closely aligned to the English and humanities challenges that our students will face in our high school and in college.  If PARCC stabilizes and becomes the new standard-bearer in Massachusetts, we look forward to challenging ourselves to meet its high bar in ELA.  It is the right bar, we think.

The following people gave input in writing this post: Anne Lyneis, Jamie Morrison, Kim Nicoll, Ray Schleck, Meredith Segal, Emily Stainer