PARCC test is ‘stupid, impossible’ and ‘weird’

As a big supporter of Common Core standards, literacy consultant Rebecca Steinitz asked her seventh-grade daughter to take a practice test released by the PARCC consortium. It’s a “stupid, impossible test” filled with “weird questions” that “make no sense,” reported Eva.

Eva aced Massachusetts’ old exams, her mother writes on the Huffington Post. (It’s an open letter to President Obama, whose private-schooled daughters won’t take core-aligned exams, but that’s just a gimmick.) Next year, Eva will take a PARCC-designed exam in school.

Here’s one of the “crazy” questions on the practice test:

You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, “Energy Story” and “Conducting Solutions,” and viewing a video clip titled “Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.” In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source.

Seventh graders “know how to compare and contrast, and they know how to provide evidence,” writes Steinitz. But “unpacking this prompt, let alone accomplishing it,” would feel “impossible” to most as it did for Eva.

Eva missed 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions scoring in the C range. That means most of her classmates would fail.

Steinitz, who earned a PhD in English, has trained and coached high school English teachers. She missed seven of 36 questions on the 11th-grade practice test.

She thinks ninth graders aren’t ready to read a passage from Bleak House and third graders would be stumped by the abstraction in this essay prompt:

Old Mother West Wind and the Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Steinitz believes Common Core standards could help bring a rigorous, challenging, engaging curriculum to every classroom. “But the standards won’t succeed if the tests used to assess them are confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and so hard that even good students can’t do well on them.”

Teaching question: Can teachers prepare students to tackle questions like these?

Political question: If the parents of good students see them earning C’s on new tests, will support for Common Core collapse?

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    1) The Common Core is meant to be more rigorous and more challenging than present state standards.

    2) Rebecca Steinitz says that some tests released by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the closest thing there is to an official developer of Common Core tests, are too hard and are age-inappropriate.

    Is that because they are inaccurate representations of the difficulty and age-appropriateness of Common Core? Or because they are accurate?

    Or, perhaps, are the standards fuzzy enough that the question is meaningless?

  2. dangermom says:

    My kids took the PARCC last week. They both complained that the math was on the incomprehensible side. The logistics were nightmarish–I always wonder if the admin people who think online testing for an entire state would be a great idea even know any actual IT people. My dad does IT for some local schools and he said that even when everything worked perfectly at the schools, Sacramento wasn’t set up for the volume of traffic!

  3. The new tests are much harder than the old tests. They are supposed to be. Many more kids will fail than usual. They are supposed to. This all rolls out the same year that teachers start getting evaluated on the basis of kids’ test scores. Many more teachers will be rated “ineffective” than usual. They are supposed to be.

    Who benefits from all this? It’s not parents, kids, or teachers, but someone surely does.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Who benefits? Possibly the concept of a high objective standard benefits, really information about the performance of American students.

  4. Miller Smith says:

    I took both sample tests and found them just fabulous! This is the kind of testing that will diagnose if a child understands what they have been taught. The tests are harder and actually make you have to think about what you are doing instead of just giving quick multiple choice answers.

    …and not only will most of my students fail it badly, so will the teachers in my school.

  5. I don’t think the prompts are unreasonable for writing assignments, but I do think that they’re probably too much for a timed test for those grades. Given time, kids would possibly be able to do it, but at those ages they’d probably need to make a chart to figure out what to write about and return to the passages several times. I’m not sure that the average kid (especially in 3rd grade) reads and writes quickly enough for this to be a good testing situation unless they have a lot of time to do it.

    • The important factor is to emphasize game show education. Quick, name 3 things…. Certainly don’t want to stress real learning that only comes with thought. For some that thought takes more than some “educators” determined time frame.

      “Thinking leads man to knowledge. He may see and hear, and read and learn whatever he pleases, and as much as he pleases; he will never know anything of it, except that which he has thought over, that which by thinking he has made the property of his own mind. Is it then saying too much if I say that man, by thinking only, becomes truly man? Take away thought from man’s life, and what remains?”
      – Johann Pestalozzi

      • I have experience teaching students going into medical fields, so I have no problem with the concept of timed tests. There are places where being able to quickly recall information is the only way that it can actually be used. Those kinds of essays, though, take time to develop. Some kids may do fine, but others will have more problems with their inability to do it quickly than their inability to do it at all. By the time most people have to quickly compare and contrast information from 3 different sources, they’re hopefully working in an area in which they have some basic knowledge (unlike kids with excerpts).

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      Are these essay questions typed by the student? That seems an impossible thing to ask young kids to do. It also would mean that the few kids who were really good at typing have a huge advantage.

  6. If you’re trying to learn about electricity, go get a old fashioned book which explains it in plain english. Using gobblygook concepts to explain how electricity works, the concept of resistance, what circuit breakers or fuses do, etc is bound to lead to trouble in comprehension of facts needed to make progress in the future.


    • Stacy in NJ says:

      The point of the exercise isn’t to learn how electricity works; its to understand how different sources on the same topic present the information and how that information coordinates, overlaps, compliments.

      • Sharon R. says:

        And the problem with that (that the point isn’t how electricity works) is that the kids will have been reading and listening for “how electricity works” and trying to process and synthesize all this new information, only to be asked compare and contrast questions – which are very nearly pointless. If you want kids to be able to compare and contrast, you can’t also try to teach new information. You need to have 3 sources on something they would already be really familiar with, so they aren’t distracted by the content from the point of the exercise. If you give new information, then the point should be to see how much they learn *about the new information* not about the presentation styles of the new information. It’s all back to the religion of reading strategies, where the teaching is all about learning the strategies instead of learning to read. In this case, the test is about picking apart strategies instead of picking apart information. Tests written by people who have had too much ed school and not enough non-ed working life. (But who else is going to write tests?)