ACT vs. PARCC: A Side-By-Side Comparison

UPDATE (May 16, 2014):  The blog below was post by Diane Ravitch, who was appointed to public office by both Presidents George H.W. Bush (From 1991 to 1993, Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander) and Bill Clinton (Ravitch was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1997 and reappointed by him in 2001).  Secretary of Education, Richard Riley appointed her to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervised the National Assessment of Education Progress. __________________________________________________________________


What is the difference between the ACT and PARCC?  My conclusion from the onset of my career in education twenty-three years ago is that ACT is a dreadful attempt to assess student learning.  Now that PARCC has hit the scene, ACT is beginning to look significantly better!  But please, don’t take my word for it!  Compare these assessments for yourself.


Has PARCC gone to far?

ACT Practice Test 59F
(Administration Time:  35 Minutes)

After analyzing a retired ACT Practice test, I found the reading passages were written at the following levels of complexity:

Passage I:  Prose Fiction – 940L (Independent Reading Level –
Passage II:  Social Science – 1420L  (Independent Reading Level –
Passage III:  Humanities – 770L (Independent Reading Level –
Passage IV:  Natural Science – 1370L (Independent Reading Level –

Test questions pertained to one reading passage at a time, and they addressed the college readiness skills of:  main idea; supporting details; sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationshipsmeaning of words; and generalizations and conclusions.

The problem with the ACT is that most students are not able to read text written as high in complexity as 1370L and 1420L.  So, even if they master comprehension skills within their Lexile score band, they will not demonstrate mastery of these skills when assessed using text beyond their frustration level, which is 200L above their current Lexile score.

During a workshop I attended provided by MetaMetrics, their representative explained that after analyzing the text complexity of materials used at the following levels of education, they determined the corresponding Lexile scores to be:

Education (11–12) -1130L
Work – 1260L
Community College – 1295L
University – 1395L

In order to read text independently at 1130L, students need a score of 1230L since they comprehend only 75% of material at their current Lexile score.  I have not found information available regarding the average Lexile score of students in their junior year of high school, but my judgment after 23 years of teaching would be that most students do not read at 1230L.  Special education students, ELL students, and low-income students suffer a significant disadvantage.  Even if most students can read at 1230L, two passages (half of the material) in the Reading section of ACT require an independent reading level well above this Lexile score, 1470L and 1520L.  Clearly, the ACT uses text that is inaccessible to most high school students in their junior year.

If the ACT is inappropriate, PARCC is far worse.

PARCC Sample Passages
(Total Administration Time:  120 Minutes – 3x per School Year)

Sample Passage #1:  Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) –
1220L (Independent Reading Level – 1320L)
Sample Passage #2:  Abigail Adams Braintree, March 31, 1776 –
1130L  (Independent Reading Level – 1230L)
Sample Passage #3:  To Abigail Adams John Adams, July 03, 1776 –
1370L  (Independent Reading Level – 1470L)

Students are required to perform the following mental manipulation of text:

TASK (Grades 6-11) Literary Analysis

  1. Read an anchor text that introduces topic.
  2. Gather key details about passage to support understanding.
  3. Read two additional sources and answer questions about each text to learn more about topic.
  4. Write final essay to show reading comprehension.
  5. Synthesize understandings into a writing that uses textual evidence from multiple sources.

The text utilized in PARCC is far beyond what is appropriate for students in their junior year of high school.  Two of the three sample passages are written well above the frustration level of most students, 1330L, assuming most students juniors read independently at 1130L.  (I am using the Lexile needed for students to read independently since, as previously mentioned, Lexile scores reflect only 75% comprehension.  Students should independently comprehend 100% of text in order to accurately respond to assessment questions.)  Also, the text utilized by PARCC employs archaic language, language with which most students are unfamiliar.

The complexity of text students must read independently is equivalent to that used in the Declaration of Independence (1450L), the first sentence of which is diagrammed as follows:

Declaration of Independence


Albert Einstein once said, ““Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Making things simple is true genius.  Einstein’s first job was that of a patent clerk.  He analyzed the ideas of others and simplified them, communicating them in a way most could understand.  “Anyone can complicate things. But it takes patience, probing questions and creative thinking to simplify. Whatever problem you are facing it’s probably not as complicated as you think – but we often make it so. If you want to solve more problems, simplify them. The real genius is turning complexity into simplicity.”

As much as our test makers seem to love using archaic language from primary sources written by our founding fathers at the birth of our American nation, somehow they must have overlooked Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, “IN the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.”

Let me break that down for our test makers, “I’m going to make this plain and simple, using the mental faculty of common sense:  Keep an open mind and listen to what I have to say!”

Perhaps Arne Duncan would benefit from taking a look at Henry David Thoreau‘s Civil Disobedience, “HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

In case you didn’t get that, Arne, let me help you, “Keep your nose out of public education – you obviously know nothing about it, and educators clearly do.”

Students are not developmentally able to complete the multi-step, finitely detailed, mental manipulation of text needed to process information at the level of sophistication used by PARCC.  The frontal lobe of the human brain is not fully developed until after age 20.  The frontal lobe is concerned with reasoning, planning, problem-solving, parts of speech, executive functions (organization), judgment, emotions, and behavioral control.  It allows for abstract thinking, an understanding of humor (subtle witticisms and word plays), sarcasm, irony, deception, and the mental processes of others.  Other functions include: memory, sequencing of events, flexibility in thinking processes, attentiveness of focus.

High school students are at varying stages of their cognitive development, yet both ACT and PARCC require they perform intellectually at the graduate level (1395L), or at the level of an accountant (1400L) or scientist (1450L).  This is an unfair, unrealistic, and inappropriate expectation that assessments such as ACT and PARCC has placed on students.  Educators MUST stop bending to legislative controls and demands upon education.  Studies show that standardized testing is not the best predictor of college success.

“Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it,” says William Hiss. Hiss is the former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine — one of the nation’s first test-optional schools. “My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores,” Hiss says. “And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

“The nonsubmitters [of Standardized Testing Scores] are doing fine in terms of their graduation rates and GPAs, and significantly outperforming their standardized testing.” In other words, those students actually performed better in college than their SAT and ACT scores might lead an admissions officer to expect. For both those students who submitted their test results to their colleges and those who did not, high school grades were the best predictor of a student’s success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores, but good high school grades, did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.

Educators MUST remember the original intent of standardized testing: “A big test, the theory went, would allow more ‘diamond in the rough’ students to be found and accepted to top schools, regardless of family connections or money.”  Today, standardized testing is used to filter students and to attack teachers, school districts, and public education as a whole.  It is used as a means for capitalists to exploit children, dedicated professionals, and democracy to gain control of what they perceive as a new, untapped, money-making entity, public education.  If the American public has any difficulty figuring out what this will look like, read Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.  This novel portrays the impact American greed has on the weak, the innocent, and the underprivileged.  The Jungle is the novel that brought about attention to our need for unions and federal protection over its American workforce.

I urge educators to call for an indefinite moratorium on the implementation of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to assess Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  I also advocate eliminating standardized testing all together, and replacing it with the use of GPA and class placement as an indicator of college and career success.


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5 thoughts on “ACT vs. PARCC: A Side-By-Side Comparison

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  2. Reblogged this on Science Magic Parties and commented:
    Please try the PARCC questions.

    This exam is going to bankrupt State Governments across the country. It is NOT going to assess student learning. It will assess the quality of the wi-fi, the quality of the computers, the ability of students to sit still and click on stuff….

    Your best teachers will be unfairly judged using this monstrosity and some will be fired. Others will just quit and find jobs either in private industry, or in schools which are exempted from this test. Bill Gates wins, because you had to purchase his computers… Students lose.

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