PARCC Testing and Using Student Data to Improve Instruction

By Caitlin Campbell-Hahn

Caitlin Campbell-Hahn is a Senior Analyst with our Schools Investments team. Caitlin taught middle school students in Washington, DC and Boston for seven years prior to joining Education Forward DC.

Grab a pencil – here’s a math problem for you:

Jane went to the beach and brought back 36 shells. She gave them away to her friends.

  • Jane gave shells to more than 2 friends.
  • She gave each friend an equal number of shells.
  • Jane gave each friend no more than 10 shells.
  • She had 0 shells remaining.

Write an equation that could show how many shells Jane gave to each friend.

Need a hint? There’s more than one correct answer. It may surprise you, but this week, DC third graders may face a similar question on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment.

For DC public school students, April 9th marked the beginning of the testing window for the PARCC exam, which is aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals that outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade, and measures whether students are on track to be successful in college and career. Students take PARCC in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math in third through eighth grade and once in high school, usually in tenth grade.

While my own memories of state testing center around neatly-marked scantrons and freshly sharpened #2 pencils, the students I taught for the past three years in DC—since the transition from the DC-CAS to PARCC in the 2014-2015 school year—had a vastly different experience. PARCC is administered online, and it’s not a typical multiple-choice assessment. In addition to traditional multiple-choice items, questions may take various forms, including:

  • Written response,
  • Multi-select questions, which have an unknown number of correct answers,
  • Drag-and-drop questions, requiring that students assign items to the correct category or put them in the correct order,
  • Two-part questions, where students provide rationale for a previous response, and
  • Text-evidence questions, where students must highlight relevant sections of a text

Still curious? PARCC shares practice tests on its website. While the innovative question types make full use of PARCC’s online platform, they also serve a purpose: to assess students’ critical thinking skills and conceptual understanding in a way in which traditional multiple-choice assessments fall short.

Depending on grade level, students take between three and four timed PARCC “units” each year in ELA and Math, lasting from sixty to ninety minutes. When you factor in operational tasks such as reading test directions, logging in to the online platform, troubleshooting technical issues, and distributing and collecting test materials, test administration can take up to three hours per unit. Schools may make their own decisions around pacing of the units, but for many schools in DC, testing lasts two weeks, with one unit administered per day.

While the process can be grueling, PARCC data provides valuable information for families, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and city stakeholders as we collectively work to improve DC education. PARCC scores are an important element of the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework (PMF) for public charter schools, and PARCC performance will also be factored into the STAR Framework on the new DC State Report Card launching in December. As a member of Education Forward DC’s Schools Investments team, I use PARCC scores as one measure of a school’s success, and our team has set ambitious five-year goals aligned to improving PARCC proficiency of the city’s most underserved students.

Although a meaningful indicator, PARCC scores aren’t everything—they cannot, for example, capture the strength of a school’s culture or a student’s social and emotional development during the year.  Because scores are released in August, students and teachers cannot use the data in the same school year to accelerate student learning. However, teachers use other forms of data daily to assess student performance, whether through an end-of-class “exit ticket” or a unit test, and can adapt their instruction based on student needs. Take the math problem I asked you to solve: students who wrote the equation 36-36=0 would need a different mini-lesson from those who responded 36÷9=4, or those who answered 36÷3=12. (The second group of students got it right!)

At the classroom level, teachers use data to guide effective instruction, just as citywide PARCC data can help school leaders and policymakers make decisions at the school- and system-level to improve outcomes for students. This month, I’m thinking of my former students as they tackle PARCC, and I look forward to learning from the results.