PARCC exams are relatively new and not particularly widespread, which means that finding reliable information on what they are and what they mean can be tough. In this guide, I’ll go over everything you need to know about these exams, including where they’re administered, what they test, and how to prepare.
What's the PARCC Test?
If you're researching PARCC tests, you're probably a bit familiar with state exams and how they work. State exams are tests that are written and managed at the state level - they're administered, often on a yearly basis, at public schools within that state to monitor student progress. They also set expectations for what students should know at each grade level. Performance is considered at a large scale (e.g. state education departments may look into school districts with particularly low scores) and at an individual level (e.g. a school may provide extra resources to an individual student who isn't at grade level).
PARCC (or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) is a group of several states that work together to develop and administer state exams. Each state that participates in PARCC uses these tests to monitor student progress in lieu of individual state tests - the ultimate goal is to standardize Common Core expectations across states. These tests are designed to better replacements for old versions of state tests because (as PARCC claims) they provide better information about students' skills and development to teachers and parents.
In a nutshell, these examinations are meant to evaluate college and career readiness starting at a young age. By evaluating readiness early and often (i.e. on a yearly basis), teachers and parents should be better able to help children prepare for the future. For example, teachers may use information about exam performance to identify where students may need extra help.
One of PARCC’s advisory committees is dedicated to working with college and universities to accept test results as an “indicator of readiness” for first-time freshmen, so it looks like they’re also making moves to replace the SAT and ACT. There’s no indication that any colleges accept PARCC results in lieu of SAT/ACT scores, however, so this isn’t something you have to worry about at the moment.
There are actually many tests and assessments that are administered through PARCC.
- Annual Year-end Tests - English/language arts and math tests are administered every year in grades 3-11. I'll be focusing primarily on these exams for the rest of the article.
- Instructional Tools and Tasks - These may be used throughout the school year, and are meant mostly for teachers.
Like other state tests, the PARCC exam is supposed to align with what students are actually learning in the classroom for each grade level. As such, the actual content and the level of difficulty of the exams will vary depending on students’ grade level. I’ll go into more detail shortly.
What States Require the PARCC Test?
In 2010, 24 states (plus Washington DC) belonged to PARCC, but the number of states participating in the program has dropped significantly since then. As of 2015-2016 school year, there are 11 states fully active in administering the PARCC tests:
- Washington DC
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
What's on the PARCC Test?
These examinations are relatively new - they’ve been updated quite often over the past several years, and will surely be updated in the future. That being said, a few important things have remained consistent:
- The two core content areas tested are English/language arts and math.
- The tests strive to be modern assessments of competency in higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The exams don't just test content - they test the development of skills that (presumably) help students succeed.
When you’re trying to gauge whether students are developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills - things that are essential for doing well in college and in the workplace - the way that questions are asked on the exam will be just as important as test content. I’ll address both of these important factors here.
Tests are a lot less intimdating when you know what's going to be on them.
PARCC test content aligns most closely with what students learn based on Common Core standards. These standards may vary slightly, but remember that the PARCC exams will be standardized across all participating states - as such, you can expect the exams to test content that’s shared by all those states.
Content will also depend on grade level, of course. There are a couple of ways you can figure out what you can expect to see on the test:
- Check out Common Core standards by state.
- Talk with your teacher (or your child’s teacher) about the content he/she plans on covering for the year, and what he/she expects to see on the year-end PARCC exam.
- Check out PARCC practice tests.
The PARCC website does provide some very basic information about what’s expected of both elementary and middle school students in both English and Math:
- English expectations for all grade levels (3-11): Students read one or more texts (and sometimes watch a video), write about what they read and/or viewed, and provide evidence drawn from the reading.
- English expectations for middle school and high school: Students are expected to read several passages and integrate ideas from all of them into their written responses.
- Math expectations for all grade levels (3-11): Students must reason mathematically, make sense of quantities and their relationships to solve real-world problems, and show their understanding.
- Math expectations for middle school and high school: Students are expected to develop procedural skills, conceptual understanding, and modeling and application skills with a focus on broadening number sense into ratios, rational numbers, and proportions while transitioning to algebraic skills (including working with expressions, equations, and graphs).
This is where the PARCC tests really claim to stand out when compared to other, older state exams. Testing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills is tougher than testing just straight-up content knowledge - this modern test format reflects these efforts.
Here are a couple of examples from the PARCC site to show you what I mean:
The old English test item asks students to simply write a persuasive essay. The new test item asks students to consider the perspectives of multiple authors before responding (using textual evidence) with their own argument.
ELA/Literacy example questions: old test items versus PARCC test items
The old math test item is a word problem - students have to use basic reading comprehension skills to work through the question - but it essentially is asking students to count days on a calendar. The new math test item requires students to utilize more sophisticated data analysis skills - namely they'll have to interpret information instead of just performing mathematical calculations. PARCC exams also asks students to explain their reasoning.
Math example questions: old test items vs. PARCC test items
Preparing for the PARCC
Much of the work that you’ll need to do to prepare for the PARCC happens in school. State tests are used to assess instructor, school, district, and state performance, so the pressure to do well isn’t really on the student - it’s on everyone who’s responsible for preparing the student for his or her future.
With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to prepare for the test! Students should want to perform to the best of their ability because that will best inform teachers about their needs. If nothing else, preparing for a PARCC exam is good practice for other future standardized tests.
There isn’t a ton of official prep material out there, but PARCC has released official practice tests for each grade level. You should approach PARCC practice in the same way you’d approach ACT/SAT prep: by starting off with a full diagnostic test and then carefully analyzing your mistakes. If you find that you have any weak areas, you can use class notes and/or assistance from your teacher to close up any content gaps.
What Your Scores Mean for You
Students aren’t penalized or rewarded based on how they perform on PARCC exams. Their results are used to inform teachers, parents, and administrators whether they’re learning everything they’re supposed to be learning - particularly low or high scores should help teachers customize instruction for individual students.
What these scores are:
- A measure of how familiar you are with the test content.
- To some degree, a measure of how familiar you are with the test format and general test-taking strategy.
- PERHAPS a measure of whether you’re on track for college and a career. The tests are still very new - we don’t have any hard evidence to suggest that high scores on the test in any way predict success in college and beyond (although there is ongoing research on this question).
What these score are not:
- A measure of your intelligence.
- A measure of how successful you’ll be in the future.
Now that you have a better idea of what your PARCC scores actually mean, we can talk in more detail about the test scoring system.
How the PARCC Scoring System Works
The tests’ scoring system is based on what they call “performance levels.” These different levels are:
- Level 1: Did not yet meet expectations
- Level 2: Partially met expectations
- Level 3: Approached expectations
- Level 4: Met expectations
- Level 5: Exceeded expectations
If you are at level 4 or 5, you’re good to go. Level 3 indicates that you’re almost there - you might just need a little extra help. Levels 1-2 indicate that more significant help from instructors might be necessary to bring scores up to grade level standards.
As with other state tests, you’ll receive a score report with your raw score and corresponding performance level after the exam. Here’s an example of what that might look like:
An example of a PARCC score report
At the bottom of the report, you can see that you’re given a bit more context for your scores - you have access to the school, district, state, and overall score average.
If you'd like to learn more, PARCC has set up a site where parents can access information about score results and improving performance.
To wrap up, PARCC exams shouldn’t be a source of stress for students or parents. Like most other state tests, these exams are check-in assessments that help instructors (and schools, and school districts) understand whether students are on the right track for college or for a career.
Unlike other outdated tests, PARCC exams are moving towards assessing higher-level cognitive skills rather than just straight-up content. High school students might recognize that the questions they see on these tests are similar to the ones they might see on the ACT or SAT. It’s unclear whether PARCC tests truly measure college-readiness, but they’re certainly similar to other college entrance exams. Perhaps these year-end tests will help prepare students (starting in 3rd grade!) for future exams where more is at stake.
PARCC content is based on Common Core standards. If you want to do well on a PARCC exam, you may want to read more about the Common Core and why it matters.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.