As educators in New Jersey, we have devoted most of our attention to the PARCC assessments. One of the most striking differences between PARCC and New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment, in our opinion, is the vagueness of the performance task writing prompts. For example:
- Write an essay analyzing the arguments of X. Base the analysis on the specifics and arguments and principles put forth in the three sources. Consider at least two of the sources.
- You have studied three sources on X. Write an essay in which you explore X. Consider how the different authors present/represent X.
- Write an essay that contrasts the primary arguments in each text about X. Think about how each author supported his/her claim with reasoning and/or evidence.
- Write an essay comparing the information presented in each text. Use evidence.
The writing prompts in the Smarter Balanced sample performance tasks at least give students a particular purpose and audience for their writing.
Sample 11th Grade Smarter Balanced Performance Task:
After completing your research, you share your findings with your teacher, who suggests that you write an argumentative essay about financial literacy courses for the upcoming school board meeting.
Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph argumentative essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counterarguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details or facts directly from the sources.In both cases, however, this is where the tried-and-true graphic organizer, the T-chart, becomes a very valuable tool. In the weeks leading up to the assessments, giving your students opportunities to use T-charts with two or three columns to analyze multiple related texts is a great way to support your students’ success, and you can do so with content related to what you’re already teaching. Don’t forget to include a video or audio clip as one of the texts you use, so your students can practice their listening comprehension skills, which they will need to use on the research simulation task. (See our suggestions on how to use video in conjunction with written informational texts.)
Our friend Sarah Tantillo, author of The Literacy Cookbook and Literacy and the Common Core, offers a step-by-step lesson plan, as well as other helpful tips, for giving students this kind of practice. She also suggests how students can then use the PARCC assessment tool’s highlighting functionality to organize their thinking during the test itself.
While we do want to show our students what will be asked of them on the assessments ahead of time, that doesn’t mean we have to limit our instruction to what’s on the tests.
Despite our concerns about the assessments’ writing prompts, we have wholeheartedly welcomed the motivation the assessments have created to look for more opportunities to put great texts into dialogue with each other. So far, both PARCC and Smarter Balanced seem to ask students to put informational texts into dialogue only with other informational texts, and great things can come of doing so, but putting literary and informational texts into dialogue with each other can be immensely rewarding as well.
When we are working on units that use informational text to open up aspects of a literary work, one of our favorite tasks is creating discussion and writing prompts that really push our students' thinking and require them to make meaningful connections between the texts. Check out our model for doing so in the units we’ve developed for To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, and Lord of the Flies; then check out our resources that will help you get started in doing this exciting work with any text you might be teaching.
Your efforts will support your students’ success on the assessments and give them so much more!