Gerri K. Songer of the Illinois Township High School, District 214, conducted a Lexile analysis of the PARCC assessment and what she found was very alarming. The reading levels embedded in the assessment are absurdly high. Many young people will fail the PARCC test because it is developmentally inappropriate for high school students.

What exactly is the point of writing a test at a level that large numbers of students are guaranteed to fail? What will be the consequences for their teachers, who will be rated ineffective based on a test that is not written for high school students? As Songer writes: “Efforts can be made by educators to raise the level of reading comprehension, yet there is not much teachers can do to change the natural development of the human brain.” If she is right in her analysis, then PARCC is not only developmentally inappropriate but is designed to fail large numbers of students who will not be able to graduate, to go to college, or to enter a career.

PARCC: A Bar Set Too High
By: Gerri K. Songer, Education Chair – Illinois Township High School District 214
The current state of education is a multi-faceted issue that tends to initiate accusations of blame rather than the generation of solutions. With the rollout of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), I find myself pondering over which category applies to education legislation. For years, the ACT has been the standardized assessment measure used in Illinois. There is much criticism regarding its validity, its effect on college entrance opportunities for students, and more recently, its effect on teacher evaluation. Many students are not able to meet the criteria established by College Readiness Standards for a variety of different reasons. This ‘presumed’ underachievement has resulted in teachers becoming the target for public animosity. I assert that the problem warrants a solution that first begins by examining the assessment.
According to GAINS Education Group, the average Lexile score, a measure used to evaluate text complexity, of text used in the ACT assessment is 1140L, which means students must read at an independent reading level of 1240L in order to comprehend the majority of text utilized in the assessment. If students cannot comprehend the text, then they cannot possibly respond with accuracy even if they are capable of demonstrating the skill being assessed. This would be the equivalent of taking a test in a foreign language. Today, there is no mandatory Lexile testing performed in schools across the country, but based on 23 years of experience working with high school students, I contend that it is very likely many students, particularly those in less affluent areas, do not read at 1240L.
If this is the case with ACT, then what is the average Lexile used by PARCC? After spending much time trying to find an answer to no avail, I analyzed the text of the ELA/Literacy sample items available on the PARCC website.
What I found was that these samples ranged in Lexile from 730-2140L. The sample passages were written at the following Lexiles: 11130L, 1220L, 1370L. To independently read the most complex of these passages, students will need to read at 1470L by April of their junior year.
The following is a list of some of the sample items analyzed:
Passage 1 Abigail Smith Adams 1744-1818_1220L (Ind Rdg 1320L)
Passage 2 Abigail Adams Braintree March 31,1776_1130L (Ind Rdg 1230L)
Passage 3 John Adams July 03, 1776_1370L (Ind Rdg 1470L)
Sample Item #1—Part A_1020L (Ind Rdg 1120L)
Sample Item #1—Part B_1540L (Ind Rdg 1640L)
Sample Item #2—Part A_730L (Ind Rdg 830L)
Sample Item #2—Part B_1920L (Ind Rdg 2020L)
Sample Item #3—Part A_2140L (Ind Rdg 2240L)
Sample Item #3—Part B_1070L (Ind Rdg 1170L)
A Lexile analyzer is available at to confirm these findings.
The Green Reading Framework provides a chart that shows what this means in terms of instruction.
The framework utilizes three sequences of instruction based on high school entrance reading levels. Please note that in Sequence 2 (Average), to score between 28-32 pts.(CRS), students need to read at an independent reading level of 1275L, yet students following the Common Core sequence would only be reading between 970-1120L. This would in no way be appropriate if the average Lexile used on the PARCC assessment far exceeds this score band with an independent reading level of 1470L.
I also have concerns regarding the developmental appropriateness of the PARCC assessment. The frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed in human beings until after age twenty. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that is concerned with reasoning, planning, parts of speech and movement (motor cortex), emotions, and problem-solving. I contend that many students are not yet developmentally able to meet the cognitive requirements necessary to perform complex, multi-step tasks at the level of sophistication in text such as that inherent in the sample items produced by PARCC. I am not at all surprised that the first round of PARCC assessment results show a significant drop in student achievement. Efforts can be made by educators to raise the level of reading comprehension, yet there is not much teachers can do to change the natural development of the human brain.
Steve Cordogan, Director of Research and Evaluation at Township High School District 214 in Illinois, feels, “There are good uses for standardized testing that would provide better validity.” For example, the ACT does not provide valid results since there are not enough questions to validate the scores generated. What can really be inferred from two points growth? He explained that this could simply mean a student answered a couple more questions correctly. The only portions of the ACT assessment that do produce “somewhat” valid results are the math and English sections. Yet, he feels that PARCC may not necessarily be the answer either since it could be testing at a level that is unrealistic for students.
Career readiness information from MetaMetrix shows the following:
Federal Tax Form 1260L
Aetna Health Care Discount Form 1360L
GM Protection Plan 1150L
Medical Insurance Benefit Package 1280L
Application for Student Loan 1270L
CD-DVD Player Instructions 1080L
Installing Child Safety Seat 1170L
Microsoft Windows User Manual 1150L
Drivers’ Manual 1220L
Labor 1000L
Service 1050L
Construction 1080L
Craftsman 1100L
Clerk 1110L
Foreman 1200L
Secretary 1250L
Sales 1270L
Supervisor 1270L
Nurse 1310L
Executive 1320L
Teacher 1340L
Accountant 1400L
Scientist 1450L
Education (11–12) 1130L
Work 1260L
Community College 1295L
University 1395L
Unless the majority of our students plan to become scientists immediately upon graduation, there is no career-related reason to support a target reading comprehension level of 1470L such as that needed to comprehend the sample passages available on the PARCC website. The sample questions would require an independent reading level as high as 2240L.
Also, note that complex text is used when companies prefer that citizens do not receive money in which they may be entitled (Aetna Health Care Discount Form 1360L), and more simplistic text is used when companies want information to be accessible to their patrons (CD-DVD Player Instructions 1080L, Installing Child Safety Seat 1170L). Therefore, it may be more socially responsible to teach students how to effectively and clearly articulate information using a vocabulary that is accessible to the vast majority of the public. Isn’t that what newspapers do?
I question if intelligence can truly be measured by how well students can weed through detailed and complex information. Wouldn’t students actually demonstrate a greater level of intellect if they could speak, read, and write in an organized manner using a vocabulary with which most people in the country can understand? Could PARCC assessment actually turn out to be the instrument used to manifest the resurrection of Babylon – a land of confusion?
In addition to my concern for students, I am very troubled regarding the potential effects this assessment may have on educators. The current teacher evaluation mandated by the state is extremely subjective. I went through the training myself, and I would find it highly unlikely that a cross-section of evaluators could possibly produce the same evaluation results.
In 2016, standardized assessment is to be included as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Teacher evaluation, when combined with PARCC assessment results, equals a potentially grim future for educators. Teachers with over 6-8 years of experience will encounter a significant financial loss if their employment is terminated. Standard practice is that credit be given to new hires for only 6-8 years experience, depending upon the district. Teachers with over 20 years of experience will find that not only their salaries will be devastated (I estimated over a $200,000 loss by the time they could retire from the district in which I am currently employed), but their pension (which may likely already be negatively impacted by current legislation) will also be reduced by over one third of what they had planned for, with very little time to make additional provision. Finally, there are currently no severance packages offered in the public sector, so teachers could find themselves in an extremely bad place within a very short span of time.
If legislators are truly interested in finding solutions for educators, my recommendation is that they more closely examine the problem and respectfully include educators in the decision-making process. Many minds united can solve enormous challenges. Yet, what I see brewing in legislation pertaining to public education today is tragically disturbing. What I am witnessing is top down authoritarian, or Machiavellian, rule through ill-planned, uninformed legislative-making bodies that are looking through the magnifying lens of meticulous detail while missing the big picture that is glaring directly at them. What made Lincoln one of the most successful leaders in the history of this country is that he made an effort to spend time out on the front line. He talked with those of lowest rank and made sure they had what they needed to be successful. He built his people up, rather than tore them down. He offered them strength, rather than left them weak.