Another PARCC Acronym: The PCR or Prose Constructed Response…the essay

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Another acronym!?! Just when you think you’ve begun to master educational jargon, another alphabetic abbreviation appears. As a teacher or administrator, you chose a profession that requires you keep educating yourself: KEY! That’s why you read books. That’s why you read blogs. That’s why you take grad classes. Our jobs require that we keep up on the latest information in our industry and in the world. Several weeks ago, I blogged on two of PARCC’s testing acronyms: the EBSR (Evidence-based Selected-response) and TECR (Technology-Enhanced Constructed-Response). This week…the PCR or Prose Constructed Response is this blog focus.

The prose constructed response is closely related to a common assessment practice among educators: the essay. However, PARCC has chosen not to use the term “essay” or “composition” or even “extended response,” three seemingly interchangeable terms in educational assessment. Rather than move ahead with the familiar, PARCC has introduced a new term for new generation assessment. Okay, I don’t work for PARCC so I cannot really explain why and maybe you aren’t wondering anyway. But I find it interesting that PARCC has chosen three words to replace one word. Why have they not kept the language simple? Why do they insist on introducing new terms to the already burgeoning educational lexicon? Perhaps it has to do with the influence words have upon the human brain. The fact is, language or words color our lives; they tone how we think.

Origins of the “Essay”

Etymologically, the term essay is derived from the Latin to weigh, to test, to do. Merriam Webster defines essay as “an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited often personal point of view” as well as “something resembling or suggesting such a composition especially in its presentation of an extended analytic, interpretative, or critical view of something” ( In testing, the essay is often found looming as the final portion of an assessment page, black font on the ghost-like white paper waiting to be colored with chicken scratches of thought.

Historically, the essay has long been understood as a piece of text written from one’s perspective or lens. Let me here offer one of my favorite essays, Sir Frances Bacon’s “Of Studies” written in the early 17th Century. Within the brief confines of this perfectly constructed essay, Bacon weighs the meaning of the study: its definition, its uses, and its abuses through a thoughtful albeit personal lens.

In conventional classroom assessment, teachers ask students to write essays that are typically one of two writing types: summaries of study or personal reflections on what they have learned. Rather than truly reflect on content through their own lens, students are retelling or regurgitating (as educators often nominalize) the course of study. These content summaries, usually scored less for writing quality than recollection accuracy, become influential in evaluating a student’s overall performance. But what teachers have typically NOT done is ask students to write carefully about text in a way that calls on their knowledge of the content, the text, and writing conventions in concert.

PARCC’s Performance-Based Assessment and the Prose Constructed Response (PCR)

The Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy along with PARCC’s assessment of those standards work to move teachers into a new generation of thinking, one that expects college and career  ready students, i.e., high school graduates, to not only read but also to write about that reading. PARCC’s Performance-Based Assessment (PBA), the first of the two-part summative assessment and occurring in early spring, incorporates the Prose Constructed Response (PCR) in each of three assessment tasks: the literacy analysis task, the narrative task, and the research simulation task.  There will be no PCR included within PARCC’s End-of-Year (EOY) assessment. That assessment (taking place at 90% through the year) will be entirely constructed of evidence-based selected-responses (EBSR) and/or technology-enhanced constructed-responses (TECR).

In each of the three performance-based tasks of the spring assessment, students will be asked to read cold text, novel text previously unfamiliar to them, answer several EBSR and/or TECRs and then write a prose constructed response (PCR) to address a well-developed scenario. Regardless of the task (literary, narrative, or research), the scenario will be clearly stated at the outset of the task, in other words, before the student even begins to read the first text. For example, in setting the purpose for reading and writing in the Research Simulation Task, PARCC provides a frame for prompt writers: “Today you will research [fill in topic].  You will read [fill in type of texts].  Then you will read/view [additional sources].  As you review these sources, you will gather information and answer questions about [topic], so you can write a [fill in genre]” ( (PARCC Item Guidelines for ELA/Literacy PARCC Summative Assessment, October 2013, p. 19). Other prompt frames are quite similar although appropriate to their content and evidence standards assessed.

The PCR differs from typical classroom assessment essays in several ways. First and foremost, the text base that students will be addressing in their writing is novel or new so students will not base their written text on recollection of lecture or experience. Secondly, unlike most combination multiple choice and essay assessments given in class, the multiple choice questions preceding the PCR will be leading the student to think about the text because these two-part questions will be correlated to the PCR prompt. PARCC’s guidelines are clear on this matter:

“Each task on the Mid-Year Assessment and Performance-Based Assessment must present an engaging scenario at the beginning of the task that sets a clear and authentic purpose for reading and writing.  This scenario expands the ‘task focus’ for a given task model to structure the response to items such that the order of the items and student activities within the task mirror instructional opportunities for literary analysis, research, and/or narrative writing to the largest extent possible. In presenting authentic purposes for reading and writing (scenarios), rather than passage sets, PARCC MYA and PBA tasks will afford students the opportunity to demonstrate application of literacy skills in authentic contexts.  These scenarios are purpose-setting statements for the task.” (PARCC Item Guidelines for ELA/Literacy PARCC Summative Assessment, October 2013, p. 19).

Writing Forms: What Genres will Students be Expected to Write

Additionally, the tasks that students will find themselves engaged in writing to and about will be authentic in nature, in other words, students will have to be considerate of audience and purpose in writing the constructed response to a specific genre. What kinds of scenarios might students be constructing their prose response to address? What types of genres may they be writing to? PARCC’s one-page document,  “Writing Forms for PCR Items” provides a listing of possible scenarios  ranging from story endings for the narrative task, to Encyclopedia or Wiki entries for the research task, to reviews and essays for the literary analysis task. The document also acknowledges the work of Suzanne Williams in the development of the list. Although not exhaustive, this list is important for teachers and students. Within this document are suggestions about what kinds of writing genres with which students should be familiar, not only as a source of reading but also as a product of their writing. In yet another nuanced way,  PARCC is building bridges between the literacies of reading and writing, bridges that until now have not been crossed in formal assessment. Indeed, teachers may have had students play the role of writers in generating a news story or magazine feature article, but typically not as the result of reading prescribed text nor as a means of assessing reading comprehension. PARCC explains that the prose constructed response goes beyond the simple extended response to a quotation or conventional scenario in order to assess student ability to use text as a support for their thinking (Common Core Reading Anchor #1):

“Many writing prompts (an item that has been designed to elicit evidence[s] aligned to multiple Writing Standards) typically used on large-scale assessments have required students to respond to a quote or brief passage disconnected from reading grade-appropriate complex text(s). The Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy, particularly Writing Standards 8 and 9, require students to demonstrate their ability to write using and analyzing texts. Consequently, PARCC desires innovative writing prompts that clearly demonstrate that students can use what they have read to compose, whether they are composing narrative or analytic writings.” (PARCC Item Guidelines for ELA/Literacy PARCC Summative Assessment, October 2013, p. 18).

The new generation of literacy expectations and assessments are pushing all up the ladder of learning towards heightened levels of performance. The standards ask teachers to move beyond conventional school writing assignments and assessments as mere ruminations on events, people, philosophies, lectures, and so forth. PARCC’s PCR asks students to thoughtfully construct an audience-appropriate response supported by text evidence rather than draft a response fictionalizing examples or demanding the reader to fill the voids of evidence. The fact is…ladders are never a comfortable or an easy means by which to move but they lead to new heights. The Common Core Standards and PARCC assessment though more challenging will eventually be more rewarding not only for today’s learning but also in tomorrow’s attainment.

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