Quit complaining about the PARCC

LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan

What is college readiness and how do you get it?

If we know that college readiness leads to access, then we know that readiness is what we need to prepare our students for. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is intended to help us do just that.

The PARCC is designed to tell all of us–schools, principals, teachers, parents and students–what we know and don’t know about whether students are learning, what we are doing well and what we need help with. That’s a good thing, right? So what’s all the fuss about?

We have complained for years about standardized tests not being a true measure of student ability, arguing that these tests are disconnected from the classroom and from how students learn and are traditionally assessed. We have complained that standardized tests don’t predict college persistence and success.

Now we have an assessment that is aligned to the standards that we believe in, the Common Core. This assessment that can help us tailor our instructional programs to best suit our student body and individual students as well.

Achieving standards, not compliance

I am a principal who has moved to standards-based grading. I started the conversation with my faculty by talking about what we see when we open a “grade book.” What does it tell us? Traditionally, it tells us how students are performing in categories like homework, quizzes, projects, exams. As a parent, how does this help me? It doesn’t.

What you end up finding out is that your student has a 90% in homework, a 90% in projects, 65% in quizzes and 70% in exams.  Instead, what if the categories were specific learning standards? Like: “factoring,” “solving equations”, “expressions,” “polynomials,” and “graphing”? Then you would know how well your student is doing on the standards. You could get them the specific help that they need. You would know where to focus. We can then have conversations about teaching and learning instead of compliance and habits.

This is what we hope to learn from the PARCC. We want to know how our students are performing on the standards and how our schools are preparing our students to master skills and standards.

Yes, there are issues with the exam. Schools weren’t ready for it. The exam is different from other assessments we have seen. The technology—the PARCC is administered online—is challenging. The exam is challenging; I took a few practice exams and I had to do some real thinking.

I have read many blogs and op-ed articles, and, more important, I live in Chicago. So I have been bombarded with opinions. What I know, though, is that good instructional planning starts with the exam: Design the assessment first and plan your lessons and tasks with the assessment in mind. While “we,” as principals and teachers, didn’t write the PARCC exam, now that we know how students will be assessed, we can plan accordingly.

Changing classrooms for the better

If you have a quality assessment, you can plan for quality instruction. While many school districts are behind the eight-ball, this is our chance to change what we do for children and how we will address their need to be college ready and therefore have access to college.

For PARCC success and college readiness, the way our classrooms look and function must be different.

We need classrooms where there is authentic student-to student discourse; classrooms where students know the criteria by which they will be assessed; classrooms where students are asked factual, debatable and conceptual questions; classrooms where students can make their thinking visible; classrooms where students ask each other questions; classrooms where students are allowed and encouraged to struggle with new ideas and concepts; classrooms where students think critically, act responsibly, and communicate effectively; classrooms that empower academic risk-takers, thinkers and life-long learners who demonstrate personal resilience, problem-solving skills, and an appreciation of multiple perspectives.

The PARCC exam requires students to have some staying power. It requires grit. It requires students to believe in themselves and what they know.

Coincidentally, this is what college readiness requires.

LeeAndra Khan is the principal of Bronzeville Scholastic Institute.