A review of the PARCC ELA content frameworks

A few weeks ago, the two groups charged with creating assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) released content specifications/frameworks (guidelines that can helpful inform curriculum) for public review and feedback.

These frameworks are the first real glimpse we've had into how each consortium will be assessing the CCSS. As part of my role at the Fordham I've submitted feedback directly to both assessment consortia. We decided it would be good to bring the public into this insider conversation. This post is a little longer than usual but Gadfly readers are a smart bunch and we figured you wanted the full monty.

Below is an overview of the feedback I provided to PARCC framework. A second post will cover the feedback I provided to SBAC. We would love to get your thoughts after reading the post, so please take time to add your comments below.

Purpose of the Frameworks (Hint: It's Not to Take Over the World)

The PARCC and SBAC frameworks are written for different purposes. SBAC has released a document that is clearly designed to communicate assessment priorities and to give specific information about how they will test key standards. By contrast, PARCC has created a document that is meant to inform curriculum planning. It lists content priorities, but does not provide information about how those priorities will be assessed.

Of course, it's no secret that there are plenty of CCSS critics who fear that the adoption of the Common Core standards was the first step towards mandating a de facto nationalized curriculum. The fact that this initial PARCC document is focused on curriculum planning, rather than assessment development, has no doubt worried critics and supporters alike. After all, by focusing on curriculum, PARCC surely must be overstepping its bounds and inching dangerously close to de facto curriculum mandates.

Hardly. Anyone who's read PARCC's content frameworks must realize how far they are from an actual curriculum. [pullquote]Anyone who's read PARCC's content frameworks must realize how far they are from an actual curriculum.[/pullquote]Yes, they are designed ?to help teachers understand how to implement the standards. And yes, even PARCC admits that, because they are designed to help demystify the standards, they will have relevance for curriculum planning. But publishing documents that are ?relevant? to curriculum planning and publishing a curriculum are two wildly different animals. And for an assessment provider to provide any less information than PARCC has provided would make it nearly impossible for teachers in PARCC states to begin to figure out how to align their instruction with the PARCC assessment priorities. I would argue that PARCC should go at least a step further in providing even more specific and instructionally useful information to teachers, particularly in ELA.

PARCC Strengths: Thinking Big

Perhaps the biggest strength of the PARCC frameworks is their fidelity to the "big ideas" of the standards themselves. To that end, the frameworks identify five priority areas: 1) close reading, 2) writing about texts, 3) research, 4) narrative writing, and 5) reading and writing. While there is some overlap between these areas for instance, there is too much repetition between the "close reading" and "writing about texts"and the last reading and writing priority these priorities clearly put the emphasis on using grade-appropriate reading and writing to drive classroom instruction.

In addition, the grade-specific frameworks provide a summary of the standards and help paint a picture of what students should know and be able to do by the end of the year. The third grade summary is particularly useful and it would be helpful if the summaries for the later grades more specifically flagged for teachers the kinds of extra practice struggling students might need to access grade-level texts.

At each grade level, the frameworks also provide a helpful writing progressions chart that specifically delineates the writing standards students should have mastered the year before, and that highlights the new content and skills that students will be expected to learn this year.

The standards also include some specific information about how teachers should prioritize their time throughout the school year. To that end, the model content framework and the ?glossary? for each grade level list the number of short texts and full-length books that students should read at each grade level, specifically noting that teachers should spend equal time on literature and informational texts/literary nonfiction. They also specify how much time teachers should spend on each full-length book and group of short texts within a module. This guidance is helpful because it makes it clear that the focus of the standards is not on the quantity of texts read, but rather the quality of analysis and writing.

Similarly, the frameworks give clear guidance about the percentage of writing time that should be spent on analytic versus narrative writing. Fourth graders are, for example, encouraged to spend 65 percent of their time writing analytical pieces (30 percent opinions and 35 percent to explain/inform) and 35 percent of their writing time on narrative writing. By contrast, the ninth grade frameworks specify that 80 percent of student writing should be analytical (40 percent argument and 40 percent to explain/inform) and 20 percent of student writing should be narrative ?with a mix of on-demand and review-and-revision writing assignments (building student competence and confidence with technology should be part of instruction). Such guidance helpfully indicates that analytic writing becomes increasingly important in middle and high school, and helps teachers at each grade level build the skills and stamina they'll need to do advanced analysis and research in high school and beyond.

PARCC Weaknesses: Leaving Teachers Wanting More

One of the biggest drawbacks of these content frameworks is that the authors seem to have been so afraid of prescribing content that they have failed to give much in the way of instructionally useful guidance for teachers. For instance, while the frameworks do give specific information about amount of reading and writing students should do in particular genres, they don't draw upon the suggested list of texts provided by the Common Core standards to show an example of how a teacher might group texts within and across modules. Nor do they provide exemplar lessons that might demonstrate how a teacher might plan a lesson or unit focused on one of the five priority areas. PARCC could have, for example, provided a full exemplar module that could help guide teachers in their own planning and instruction.

What's more, while the frameworks do identify the five priority areas of the standards, they only describe each of these priorities in exceedingly broad and general terms. Under close reading of texts in third grade, for example, teachers are encouraged only to allow students to draw evidence from the text and present their analyses in writing as well as through speaking. That does not clarify what, specifically, teachers should be asking of their students or how a unit or class discussion might be organized. It would be far more useful for the frameworks to give teachers examples of the kinds of text-dependent questions that they should use to drive class discussion. Without these kinds of examples, the frameworks give teachers very little instructionally useful guidance.

Furthermore, given how few specifics the frameworks include, the document is also excessively long, and often confusing and repetitive. It begins, for example, with a dense, 11-page introduction that tries to help the reader understand the information that is presented in the 90 pages that follow. Unfortunately, this introduction is as confusing as it is repetitive. With careful editing, it could easily be cut in half without losing the most salient points, and the result would undoubtedly be a clearer, more succinct and far more helpful introduction to the frameworks.

Adding confusion to the document, the authors have included a Module Content Framework Chart, which is meant to offer a visual model of how the standards for a particular grade level could be organized into an easy-to-understand structure to aid states and districts in developing instructional tools. Regrettably, the chart is far from easy to understand. It is visually confusing and repeated almost verbatim at every grade level.

The glossary and writing sections are also unnecessarily repetitive. For instance, in the glossary section a paragraph describing an in-depth study of one extended text such as a novel, a play, longer literary nonfiction, or informational text? is repeated verbatim at every grade level. It would be far more helpful for the authors to select an exemplar text from the standards and include some specific guidance about what close reading of the text? might look like, highlighting examples of the kinds of rigorous, text-dependent questions that teachers might use to drive a high-quality book discussion.

Finally, some of the weaknesses of the standards themselves are repeated in the frameworks. (See The State of State Standards and the Common Core in 2010.) For instance, a third grade standard indicates that with guidance and support from adults, [students should] produce writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task and purpose. The frameworks could have seized on this opportunity to expand upon the expectation and help teachers understand more specifically what students should be expected to master independently, and what is an emerging skill for which they may need additional support.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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