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Questions about the questions on new Common Core tests

New York state students in several grades recently took new high-stakes accountability tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards (even though there is not yet a Core curriculum in New York schools), and a number of educators who saw the test reported problems with some of the questions.

Some questions, they said, appeared to have more than one correct answer and no single obviously correct one; others were considered so time-consuming to answer that many students couldn’t finish. Some literacy experts said that versions of the English Language Arts 5th grade reading test had some multiple-choice questions that did not really lend themselves to the multiple-choice format.

I have a copy of the 2013 Common Core English Language Arts Test Book 1, Form C, for fifth grade. Because of copyright issues, I can’t publish the whole thing, but I can include a few questions. (The New York Daily News received the test earlier and published some questions, here.)

Look at this question and tell me if you can be sure of the right answer:

Students are asked to read a poem titled “Aloneness,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and answer questions related to it. One question deals with these lines:

“You make presents to yourself,
Presents of clouds and sunshine”


Q) The poet’s reference to ‘presents’ in lines 26 and 27 suggests that when you are alone you

A) prefer to be outside

B) feel in control of your life

C) are free from everyday concerns

D) can appreciate your environment

Another question features a passage about wind tunnels, with these lines:

“NASA also works with others that need to use wind tunnels. That way, companies that are building new airplanes can test how the planes will fly.”

A question says:

22. The statement that “NASA also works with others that need to use wind tunnels” most strongly suggests that:
A) Many different groups are developing space shuttles
B) NASA hopes to buy vehicles made by other agencies
C) NASA has the largest wind tunnels in existence
D) Many companies do not have their own wind tunnels

By all accounts, including that of state Education Department officials, the tests are harder than previous assessments tests by design — part of an effort to raise standards in public schools so as to drive deeper student learning. Critics say, though, that New York state (like other states) has rushed the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments.

The New York Daily News reported that Aaron Pallas, a testing expert at Columbia University, determined through a computer analysis that the new reading test mentioned above is really at the level of the “middle of sixth grade.” Education historian Diane Ravitch, wrote on her blog that she had reviewed a copy of the test too, and this is part of what she said:

… My reaction was that the difficulty level of the passages and the questions was not age-appropriate. Based on test questions I had reviewed for seven years when I was a member of the NAEP board, it seemed to me that the test was pitched at an eighth grade level. The passages were very long, about twice as long as a typical passage on NAEP for eighth grade. The questions involved interpretation, inference, and required re-reading of the passage for each question.

I suppose that is what the test-makers think of as critical thinking, and it may be, but there are also issues of what is appropriate for fifth-graders, as well as recognition that this is a timed test.

When the article appeared, I was not quoted but others agreed that the exam was above fifth-grade level. Aaron Pallas at Teachers College said the vocabulary was sixth grade. But it was not the vocabulary that was disturbing to me: it was the cognitive load, the expectation that fifth-graders could read and interpret long passages on a timed test. It would be interesting to put this test alongside released items from eighth grade NAEP. I tried doing that yesterday afternoon, and to my eye, most of the questions would be rated as “medium” or “hard” for eighth graders.

Very high-performing students may find the exam easy. I suspect it was beyond the comprehension of average fifth grade students, and extremely hard for students in the bottom half.

After the New York Daily News ran its news story on the test, it also ran an editorial, under the headline “The Test Passes The Test,” that says in part:

Daily News reporters got a first look at questions asked on the standardized exams that made some children weep and some grownups wail. We smile and say, again, suck it up, people. The News obtained a healthy portion of the English exam administered to fifth graders. Focused on reading comprehension, the material required students to pore over six text passages and answer 42 multiple-choice questions.

The texts included nonfiction and poetry, all of which required concentration but seemed age-appropriate. The questions demanded thought, analysis and interpretation in order to zero in on the right choice.

That’s all to the good, and it’s also damning because there is general agreement that most of the state’s children are ill prepared for this level of exam. The reason? They’ve never been asked to perform at this level, and they have not yet been fully supported with a curriculum that can help them raise their games….

Hmm. Nobody has explained exactly how students benefit by being forced to take a test for which they have not been prepared.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · May 3, 2013

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