Traditional wisdom dictates that you can learn a lot about a person’s outlook on life by asking her to describe a glass that is occupied equally by liquid and space. In other words: is the glass half full or half empty? This cliché has always troubled me because I find myself just yearning to drink whatever is in the glass — experiencing something new as a result. And that is exactly how I view the new tests that Illinois has adopted to assess student mastery of the new Common Core state learning standards. They’re known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). It’s not about whether the test is half full or half empty, but rather what I as a high school English teacher can learn from the test that will improve my teaching.
We are at a pivotal time in education; the standards, while laced with political controversy as they’re being implemented across the country, do set forth for students a higher expectation of learning. Educators have to decide if they are going to embrace the challenge of examining and changing their instructional practice or hide behind the claim, “I already do that.”
In an effort to drink the PARCC glass given to me and challenge my own instructional practices, I studied a practice test (students will take them for the first time next spring in Illinois and many other states) and had two major take-aways:
* Teachers must immerse students in wide range of texts. Students need exposure to poetry, literature, non-fiction, images, and more, and they should be working to synthesize these texts into some sort of original thought. Past standards and tests used less challenging texts, asked students to explore only one text at a time and were not as specific on text usage.
* To have the full range of writing experiences that the new test dictates, students must do more writing for real-world purposes in classes like science and social studies; likewise, English teachers must find ways to revise their writing assignments so students are exposed to a broader range of writing tasks.
I will be honest; I have been teaching for over 10 years, working in rather high-achieving schools, but these two realizations, as a result of analyzing PARCC, have already produced wonderful (and long overdue), challenging shifts in my classroom. We recently completed a unit on “Of Mice and Men,” and in past years this unit would have been a focused, in-depth study of the novella which might have asked students to locate a piece of literary criticism to bolster their understandings. However, as a result of working with the PARCC and Common Core standards, this unit now asks students to closely read not only the novella but also to analyze two articles, two poems, and two paintings that relate to the theme of race and a similar collection of materials related to gender. These shifts challenge students in ways that my previous units could not. They force students to think across the many readings to search for commonalities and differences both in content and author’s craft with the aim of making a strong argument.
I would be foolish not to acknowledge the issues with PARCC. Will it reduce valuable instructional time that teachers have with students? Yes. Is it a test that requires Internet access for each student that many schools don’t have? Yes. Is it largely unvetted and, as so many standardized tests are, driven by big business? Yes.
The fact that I’ve been given a glass of PARCC is out of my control, driven by politics and politicians; however, what I make out of it is not. So I will continue to drink from my glass with a focus on gleaning whatever insights I can that will help me improve my students’ learning.
Christopher Bronke is chair of the English and communications department at Downers Grove North High School.