Ditching the Test Prep Doldrums

Ditching the Test Prep Doldrums

Keeping students engaged in rigorous work


I began teaching in Washington D.C. in 2010. The year before, the city released the following question as a possible prompt that 7th graders could expect to see on their end-of-year statewide assessment:

Imagine a perfect vacation.

In a well-developed composition, describe what you consider to be a perfect vacation. Be sure to include specific details about the things you would see, hear, and feel while taking this vacation.

If you’re currently an educator in the United States, that question probably looks very different from the types of text-based, analytical writing questions that your students are required to answer today. This question doesn’t assess students’ reading comprehension. A struggling reader could succeed at this prompt simply regurgitating a semi-engaging story. It could also be very discouraging for low-income students who don’t often get to go on vacations.

What we’ve learned is that, when it’s done well, cross-textual analysis doesn’t feel like test prep. Book studies actually become more engaging when kids get a chance to read many types of texts, draw conclusions, and apply what they learned.

In 2010, the statewide assessments in D.C. became slightly more rigorous. Expository writing went away. Instead, students were asked to produce evidence-based responses. However, the majority of these evidence-based writing prompts required students to write just 1–2 paragraphs in response to a single text.

During the 2013–14 school year, D.C. raised the bar again, and this time it was raised really high. Students (even those in upper elementary school) were required to write three different types of extended essays. Below is a sample prompt for 7th graders released by PARCC:

You have read a passage from The Count of Monte Cristo and a scene from Blessings. Think about the similarities and differences in how the two authors develop the themes in each text. Write an essay in which you identify a theme for each text and analyze how each theme is developed. Be sure to include specific details from both selections.

So, just to recap, 8 years ago, 7th graders could pass their state assessment by writing a few paragraphs about meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Today, students are required to read two complex texts, identify a common theme, and write an essay clearly stating how the author developed that theme.

Magical Steamboat Willie” by JD Hancock is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The roll-out of the PARCC assessment placed incredible stress upon my school. All of the English teachers, including me, had been teaching using novel units, and quite suddenly, we learned that these units weren’t rigorous enough to help students prepare for PARCC. The problem was that our novel units asked students to grapple with a single text, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and write a response to it. This wasn’t enough. To get ready for PARCC, students need regular opportunities to analyze multiple texts across multiple genres. While my fellow teachers and I worked hard to give our students some exposure to multi-text analysis, in the end, students simply didn’t get enough practice. One of the main barriers we faced in the transition to PARCC was that it was really hard to find great texts to pair together in a meaningful way. Teaching seemed like a zero-sum game: prepare students for the test or teach with engaging texts. So, despite my team’s best efforts at the time, predictably, our students weren’t fully prepared for the PARCC exam the first year they took it.


At CommonLit, we have sought to build tools that make it easier for districts, schools, and teachers to authentically prepare their students for state assessments — and ultimately college — throughout the school year. Our goal was to create a product that would give teachers and schools the flexibility they need to build engaging units, while also provide regular opportunities for students to practice the kind of cross-text reading and writing that they’ll see on high-stakes tests. Our aim was to create a tool that would prepare students for rigorous assessments through engaging texts that could be seamlessly incorporated into any secondary ELA curriculum.

Here’s how it works: At CommonLit.org, teachers can find options for Paired Passages for every single text in our fast-growing library. CommonLit is also flexible for teachers using a whole-class novel. Using the Book Pairings feature, teachers can easily find informational and literary texts to supplement their novel study units. What we’ve learned is that, when it’s done well, cross-textual analysis doesn’t feel like test prep. Book studies actually become more engaging when kids get a chance to read many types of texts, draw conclusions, and apply what they learned. Last but not least, for teachers that are new to teaching cross-textual analysis, CommonLit plans to release Mini Units within the next few weeks. With a Mini Unit, students read multiple CommonLit texts that share a common theme or topic, make connections throughout the unit, and record their ideas on a graphic organizer. For more ideas about how to use CommonLit, I recommend listening to this episode from the Across the Hall podcast, the folks who coined our favorite new hashtag: #CommonLitCraze. It’s a great primer on all of the different ways to use CommonLit!


Over the past six months, we’ve started to take this curriculum work even further by partnering with districts around the country. As a Pennsylvania-based charter network, Propel’s students take the PSSA, a statewide assessment that compares to the rigor of PARCC. To help prepare students for the PSSA without taking away teachers’ flexibility, CommonLit is working to curate Nonfiction Text Sets and Book Pairings that seamlessly align with Propel’s existing curriculum. With these additional resources, teachers can easily find supplemental passages at a variety of grade levels that connect with the curriculum in a meaningful way. At Propel, this means that students will be doing cross-textual analysis throughout the school year using CommonLit.

I’ve said this before, but CommonLit really is the tool that I wish had been available to me when I was in the classroom. If you’re interested in learning more about school partnerships and ways that CommonLit can help customize your curriculum, feel free to reach out to me directly at rob@commonlit.org.