PARCC Prep: Failure Can Help Us Focus

Author-consultant Sarah Tantillo writes frequently for MiddleWeb about ELA instruction and assessment. Some of the supplemental resources in this post link back her Literacy Cookbook blog.

SarahT-headshot-130By Sarah Tantillo

One of the schools I work with had a HUGE breakthrough not long ago, and as odd as it might sound, it came as a result of what might have looked like a colossal failure.

We’d designed some practice PARCC literary analysis tasks (complete with PARCC-aligned questions and writing prompts) and allocated time for students to take them during their tutorial sessions. We’d done some preparation and wanted to see how much more would be needed.

tutoring-SarahT-400This particular school has a large tutor corps, and students receive two hours of tutoring per day (1 hour of ELA, 1 hour of math). The plan was for a Teaching Assistant to send me three sample student essays from each grade after school so I could prepare a workshop on holistic scoring for the next morning. Then tutors would go over the essays with students in tutorial later that day.

But when I looked at the essays, it was clear to me that we could not even begin to talk about holistic scoring. Although a few students had written something reasonably coherent, it appeared that most were not even sure what question(s) to answer.

We needed to go back to Square One.

Some ELA triage was called for

I met with the tutors and teachers at 7 a.m. and asked tutors what they had observed while students were working on their assessments (We had given tutors this PARCC Practice Checklist for that purpose.) As I’d suspected, most students did not turn their prompt into a question, did not take notes, and did not know how to organize their ideas.

In some cases, they did not know how to infer theme, so they were stumped. One tutor summed it up: “My kids just stared at me. They didn’t know what to do, how to start the writing….”

So, instead of spending our workshop time modeling holistic scoring, we discussed the steps that would set students up to write something worth scoring. Tutors then implemented a new plan for the day, focusing on these key items:

1) Give students practice in turning the writing prompts into QUESTIONS.   If students don’t do this step, they will not ANSWER the question, and they could waste a lot of time and effort writing an essay that gets a low score (See this post for details).

notepad-Qs-2002) Explain the importance of TAKING NOTES BASED ON THE QUESTION(S), and walk through what that should look like.  Taking notes actually SAVES TIME and HELPS YOU ORGANIZE YOUR ESSAY.  NOTE: If the question requires students to figure out the theme, review the “How to Infer Theme” organizer (See this post for details).

3) Review how the whole essay should be organized: with three body paragraphs/buckets ordered as CONTRAST, CONTRAST, COMPARE (See this post for details).

4) Have students reflect on these questions:
What part of this process is most challenging for them and why?
What did they do well? What would they do differently if they could write their essay from scratch?

Failure can help us focus

Ultimately, I think having students experience this dramatic failure was actually a good thing, because everyone’s sense of urgency is much higher as a result, and students received IMMEDIATE feedback and USEFUL TOOLS. They can now see how using the tools will make a difference.

The feeling at this school is not one of panic or dread about the PARCC tests, but more like this:

We are practicing for a big game, and we will be ready. We’re not afraid of this challenge. We want to see how we will stack up against the competition.”


literacy-and-the-common-core-110Sarah Tantillo writes frequently for MiddleWeb about literacy and the Common Core. She is the author of Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action and The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction. Sarah consults with schools on literacy instruction, curriculum development, data-driven instruction, and school culture-building. Sarah has taught secondary English and Humanities in both suburban and urban public schools, including the high-performing North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Visit her website.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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