I recently spent a week in Orlando, but I didn’t hobnob with cartoon animals or traverse any kingdoms, magical or otherwise. In fact, the only mouse ears I saw were in the airport gift shop.  Instead, I spent five days with educators from across the country — including fellow Tennesseans — reviewing test items for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment.

While that may not sound like the ideal getaway, item review is among my most important responsibilities. Next school year, Tennessee’s state tests in math and English language arts (ELA) for 3rd- through 11th-graders will be replaced by Common Core-aligned PARCC exams. You can read more about PARCC and learn some fascinating facts about the testing consortium, but I want to focus on the personal side of PARCC: what test development looks like for those involved in creating this bold, innovative assessment system.

During item review, educators from PARCC states (including state and district specialists, teachers, and professors) sit at secure laptops in grade level rooms, sequestered from the outside world — cell phones and outside interruptions are banned. We live for the afternoon cookie break.

Reviewing draft test items (like multiple-choice questions and essay prompts), we decide which to reject, accept, or polish into shape. Each one is poked, prodded, and pored over from every possible angle. We make a tweak here, add a clarifying word there.

Ultimately, items must pass a gold standard for quality. Those that survive the gauntlet and are cleared for testing must be aligned to the standards, clearly written, rigorous, and substantive — the questions should be worth asking and worth thinking about.

In fact, one of the key principles driving PARCC development is work worthy of instruction: essentially, what students do on a test should be good enough to do in a classroom. For many years educators, students, and parents have lamented the artificial divide between best-practice instruction — the quality teaching and learning opportunities that should be the focus of every school day—and test prep. In an ideal world, teachers would no longer feel torn between the two. A test that features authentic performance tasks (like writing in a variety of modes for different purposes and audiences) and thoughtfully worded reading questions would reflect the type of class work that fosters deep engagement with texts and critical thinking skills. This is what we hope to accomplish with PARCC.

To give one example, consider this 7th grade PARCC sample item:

PARCC sample

The item is engaging, rigorous, and authentic. It is technology-enhanced, taking advantage of PARCC’s online testing platform to engage students with real-world skills like highlighting text on screen. It requires students to not only read and comprehend a complex informational text but to think at a higher level: they must infer a claim from the text, and then see which of the answer choices captures that idea. Finally, part B—a unique innovation to the PARCC model — requires students to support their response with textual evidence, a skill that is the hallmark of college- and career-level writing. A student might get part A right by guessing. But to get full credit, students need to back up their knowledge, proving they really grasped the text’s meaning.

As a member of the PARCC ELA arts leadership group, I have the privilege of following items like this one and hundreds of others through the development process, watching them grow from nascent ideas and nurturing them into full-fledged, mature test items. We take pride in these items, not just because of the amazing collaboration that goes into creating them, but because we want the best tests possible for Tennessee students. One day soon, those kids will sit down at computers and encounter these very items, eager to prove what they know.