Gearing up for the PARCC Test: Some practice work

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On Tuesday, my sixth graders will file into the large testing room our middle school has set up, and begin three days of ELA testing for the PARCC.  The last few weeks have included a steady diet of preparation for this endeavor – the unglamorous, but necessary work of making sure my kids understand the layout and substance of the tasks they will encounter; and how to take a standardized test online (a first for us).  We’ve also spent time trying to figure out how to decode the sometimes clunky PARCC-speak questions, and how to synthesize multiple sources, including videos,  in order to write cogently.  Here, for instance is a sample 6th. grade question:

Writing Prompt You have read a website entry and an article, and viewed a video describing Amelia Earhart. All three include information that supports the claim that Earhart was a brave, courageous person.

The three titles are: • “The Biography of Amelia Earhart”

  • “Earhart’s Final Resting Place Believed Found”
  • “Amelia Earhart’s Life and Disappearance” (video)

Consider the argument each author uses to demonstrate Earhart’s bravery. Write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments related to Earhart’s bravery in at least two of the three supporting materials. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.

In designing practice exercises for my students, I found it helpful to key on these standards, as outlined on the PARCC site:

6A5: Comparing a print text to a multimedia version of that text RL 1, 2, 3, 7

6B6: Use of illustrations and other visuals. RST 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

6B10: Relationship of ideas. RI 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9

Although my sixth graders are pretty adept at reading and making meaning of nonfiction texts by this stage, doing the same with video prompts presented some challenges.  How to take notes? How to “read” visual cues? How to identify the main ideas without getting lost in extraneous “stuff”?  And, although I am pretty adept at creating video and texts sets for writing purposes, fashioning them to fit in with the way prompts and tasks are written about in PARCC sample tests proved to be quite tricky.  Above all, I have wanted to create practice exercises that are also meaningful learning opportunities, tasks that have a greater relevance than merely test prep.

Here are four  practice activities that were assigned via Googledocs for homework over the course of the last four weeks.  Each practice exercise built on the one before, with many on going opportunities to clarify strategies and confusions in class:

PARCC Prep: Assignment 1 (Practicing  watching videos as though we were reading nonfiction texts to gather information from which we could answer multiple choice questions AND essays.)

  • What does the word commissary mean as it was used in the video?
  • What does the word keepers mean as it was used in the video?
  • What does the word forage mean as it was used in the video?

Name three ways in which the diet experts at the National Zoo decide what to feed an animal?

How was Nicky the spectacle bear used as an example of proper diet practices at the National Zoo?

How does the quotation contribute to the development of ideas in the video? “Animals eat all the time, and our main mission is to provide those diets every day of the year.”

PARCC Prep: Assignment 2 (Practicing viewing a video to answer questions, reading a text to answer questions, and then writing an essay to make a claim about an idea common to both.)

Based on what you learned in the video, why is enrichment important for zoo animals?

How was Francois the sloth bear used as an example of the benefit of enrichment for animals  at the National Zoo? What was the central idea of this video? The central idea of this video is that the  animals at the National Zoo do the enrichment so they get to express their natural behavior.

Based on what you learned through reading the text:

  • What is the meaning of the word eclipsed as it is used in the reading?
  • What is the meaning of the word hefty as it is used in the text?

What was the central idea of this text?

Should animals have access to art and computer games? Based on what you learned from the video and text, write an essay supporting this idea.

PARCC Assignment #3 (Practicing using three sources to answer text based questions and write an essay)

Article: Gehrig legacy one of irony:

What does the word endurance mean as it is used in the text?

What details in the article support Lou Gehrig’s nickname: The Iron Horse?


What does the word handsome mean as it is used in the video?

What details in the video support the idea that Lou Gehrig was “The Iron Horse”.

What supports the commentator’s statement that Lou Gehrig’s life was “the greatest baseball story”?

Article: Dad Was With Me

What is the central idea of this video and article?

What is the theme of this video and article?

You have read two articles and watched two videos focused on baseball in the lives of a famous athlete and an ordinary family.  Consider how the two main characters in these sources faces difficult circumstances.  Write an essay in which you analyze how each character’s actions reveal aspects of his personality.Be sure to include evidence to support your analysis and understanding.

PARCC Assignment #4 (Practicing using a video source to make a claim)

What is the meaning of the word sustain as it is used in the video?

What is an example from the video of how the Smithsonian  is able to sustain wildlife at the National Zoo?

What is the mission of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute as described in the video?

What 3 things does the National Zoo hope to teach its visitors?

As stated in the video, what is the purpose of the research being done at the National Zoo?

What are two examples of successful conservation work described in the video?

“The Smithsonian is really taking the lead and responsibility to help a lot of the species survive in the long term for future generations.”  Do you agree with this statement? Write an essay using examples and information from the video to explain your thinking.

So, what have I learned from my kids over the past four weeks? More importantly, what have they learned about themselves as readers and writers?  To begin with, understanding how to synthesize information and create a cogent written response in a timed setting is no easy task for the average sixth grader.  All the work that we’ve done with close reading (thank you Falling in Love With Close Reading!) has helped us figure out how to find a lens (in this case, the questions) through which to read efficiently.   I’ve also found Gravity Goldberg’s blog to be so helpful in providing resources and insight into the test prep process.  Some other things we learned to do that also proved helpful are:

  • Read the essay prompt first to identify the essay focus.

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  • Jot notes as you read/view each text source so  that  you don’t have to scroll back constantly when you are writing the essay.

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  • Notice the action as well as the what the announcer is saying in the video – often, the vocabulary meaning is buried in there.
  • Use the close caption option on the videos to make sure you have the correct spelling.

By this time next week, the PARCC will be out of the way, and we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming.  I’d like to believe that our test prep has played a role in the real mission of our sixth grade year: growing readers and writers.