So what’s it like taking a PARCC test? Does it really require the analytical and critical thinking skills said to be hallmarks of the Common Core and overall Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) system?

Here’s what third-graders face. First, they need significant computer skills: reading detailed instructions, scrolling forwards and backwards and up and down, activating mouse-overs, dragging-and-dropping, highlighting text, typing, clicking on radio buttons, toggling between skills and deleting prior choices.

PARCC units covering math and English Language Arts range from 75 to 90 minutes each for a total of seven sessions. The test is not for the easily distracted. In the online English practice test, the first set of questions is based on a 31-paragraph excerpt of a children’s story akin to an Aesop’s fable, heavy on symbolism and metaphor. Just reading the story takes time, and then the questions begin:

- Select a sentence that best describes what’s happening in a picture.
- Complete a chart by dropping and dragging boxed phrases that answer a question.
- Select the phrase that contains the main idea of the story or article.
- Identify a word’s meaning as it is used in a specific paragraph.
- Select from given phrases the one that provides details supporting the selection in the prior question.
- Write an essay that explains how a character’s actions and words are important to a plot.

My personal favorite question on this third grade ELA exam was reading two articles addressing similar but different subjects, then selecting sentences and dropping them into a Venn diagram to indicate which sentences applied to both articles (where the circles overlapped) and which applied to only one article.

On to the math test … It may be computerized but this is no simple “fill in the bubble” exercise. The interface requires multiple ways of interacting, often in a sequence of tasks that build upon each other:

- Pointing and clicking on a number line.
- Typing in a number or an explanation.
- Selecting one or more correct answers from statements or from models such as geometric shapes.
- Selecting boxes in a grid to create an array and then quantify the array.
- Selecting from a drop-down menu to correctly complete an equation, along the way choosing the appropriate math symbols, e.g., +, -, X, \.

A sample question asked students to explain why “Daniel” is not correct in this statement: “Daniel says the number with the greatest value he can make with the digits 5, 7, and 6 using the digits only once is 657 because the 7 is in the place with the greatest value.” Students are then asked to devise the number with the greatest value using each digit only once, and then explain why this number has the greatest value.

In another question, the student is asked to look at a drawing of a wall divided into six equal vertical panels, four of which are painted. From there, the student is asked to describe in fractions how much of the wall is and is not painted. A separate exercise asks the student to write a fraction between 3/2 and 5/6 and explain how they know this.

The tests are clever and sophisticated, and students are asked to do more than regurgitate memorized information. The emphasis is on problem solving and understanding the concepts—they have to cite evidence supporting their answer or explanation.