Parity measurements on qubits can generate the entanglement resource necessary for scalable quantum computation. Here we describe a method for fast optical parity measurements on electron spin qubits within coupled quantum dots. The measurement scheme, which can be realized with existing technology, consists of the optical excitation of excitonic states followed by monitored relaxation. Conditional on the observation of a photon, the system is projected into the odd/even-parity subspaces. Our model incorporates all the primary sources of error, including detector inefficiency, effects of spatial separation and nonresonance of the dots, and also unwanted excitations. Through an analytical treatment we establish that the scheme is robust to such effects. Two applications are presented: a realization of a controlled-NOT gate, and a technique for growing large scale graph states.