Just How Hard Are Common Core Tests? See For Yourself

Wednesday, August 06, 2014 - 02:07 PM

Treyvon Blake in “Children of the Common Core,” made by Harlem Renaissance High School students, will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival Treyvon Blake, of Harlem Renaissance High School, in a film he made called “Children of the Common Core” (Tribeca Film Institute/Tribeca Film Institute)

New York State's Department of Education released about half of the questions that were used on this year's math and English tests, allowing the public to see what kinds of items were on the controversial Common Core tests. But the actual test scores won't be released until later this month.

This is the second year in a row in which New York has given elementary and middle school students tests aligned with tougher new Common Core learning standards. When the tests were given last year, the number of students deemed proficient plunged to just 31 percent statewide. Many educators thought the tests were too hard. This year, a chorus of teachers again criticized the tests for including too many tricky questions.

We have posted a few examples of the test questions below, and you can see all of the questions and answers the state has released at this link.

Some academics who looked at these questions and answers on Wednesday agreed some of them were indeed difficult. "I'm a little surprised at the kind of language, the kind of grammatical structures, the kind of vocabulary that was in many of them," said Jenny Tuten, an associate professor of literacy education at Hunter College, who reviewed the fourth grade English Language Arts exam questions.

Tuten is a supporter of the new Common Core standards, but she said a reading passage called "Lawn Boy" (some of which we posted below) required kids to draw a lot of inferences. One of the questions about this passage asked how the narrator changed from the beginning to the end, and gave four possible answers: From patient to hurried; from uncertain to confident; from curious to nervous; from determined to grateful.

"Just being able to identify a change is a kind of sophisticated thinking about a short story and then being able to determine which of those pairs of words is correct, that's hard," said Tuten. "It's a lot of thinking if you don't understand what all those adjectives mean."

April Rose, a third grade teacher at P.S. 132 in Queens, thought the math and English tests were fair overall.  But she said the questions that were released to the public on Wednesday didn't include some of the toughest ones.

"There were challenging words like chronometer," she recalled. "So that's why I do wish they had added on one or two of the harder questions."

Rose is a member of the group Educators4Excellence, which supports the standards overall but has raised questions in the past about whether teachers were given adequate preparation.

The state released more questions this year following widespread criticism in 2013, when it released only a quarter of the test questions for public scrutiny. Teachers complained that was fewer than in previous years. State Education Commissioner John King promised to release more of them this year.

"We've listened to New York State educators make the case that having more test questions available would benefit our kids so we've doubled the number and provided a thorough explanation for every student response," he said, in a statement to reporters.

Jonathan Supovitz, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, said it's typical for states not to release all of their test questions because they have invested so much in these exams. He noted that the fourth math questions appear in sync with state standards calling for students to learn fractions and place value. But "seeing individual items is just showing you little pieces of the macro structure," he cautioned, and doesn't explain how much weight will be given to them in the scoring process.


Here are some sample questions, two English and two math, from this year's fourth grade tests, with explanations of their answers and related standards. Courtesy of New York State Education Department.





Richard Yeh


Comments [8]

Luz Christina from Saugerties, New York

Did the article mention that the only questions released were some of the questions students did well on? When I want to improve what I am doing I need to see which questions were wrong, to analyze my errors. If I want to help my child on these tests I cannot see what questions my individual child performed on each question. So what exactly are we learning here? The tests need to be released in their entirety for parents and teachers to see and analyze their validity.

Aug. 08 2014 10:20 AM
Tammy from Michigan

The only way these tests prepare kids for college is by showing them that sometimes teachers give you arbitrary and vague quizzes because they are required to show in some measurable way your ability to comprehend. I had to answer similar questions for an art history class in which the answer were based on entire chapters. It was ridiculous how closely you would have to read the text and we were actively discouraged from using our own knowledge to work the questions out. Sometimes we were told a technically right answer was wrong because it wasn't what the book said.

The worst part of these sorts of tests is that they send kids mixed signals about reading. Rose's comment in which she asks why we are teaching kids to read like this is spot on. In grade school, we were encouraged to use skills such as inference and context to figure things out while we read. Yet mandatory testing meant doing the exact opposite: pore over the text with a fine comb and forget your critical thinking skills. As adults I think we forget that kids don't understand that things like these are just the result of the quirks of bureaucracy. Sending these mixed signals almost certainly encourages the kind of neurosis that will discourage a kid from reading altogether.

Aug. 07 2014 06:42 PM
Rose from Brooklyn

I was thinking more about that elephant question - something was bugging me and Daniel's question brought it into focus for me. The text says elephants may rise, eat a little and go back to sleep. The question, however, asks which answer explains WHY the elephants wake up in the night. Nothing in the text suggests they wake because they are hungry - for all the text explains, they might wake up because of a noise, and then eat in order to settle down and go back to sleep. I know they asked for the "best" answer, but none of the answers are really correct. All that to say, this focus on text at the expense of understanding really seems confusing even to the testers, and it's just not how good readers actually read.

Aug. 07 2014 12:31 PM
Daniel from Little Rock

I have taken a lot of tests. I have even saved the scores from those pesky tests taken all the way back in elementary school. My reading comprehension scores were ALWAYS lower than my math and science scores for some reason.

Looking at this common core test and more over the years, really analyzing the answers from an adult perspective, and the comments by Rose from Brooklyn have REALLY brought the problem into focus for me.

It's astonishing that a student would be forced to only consider the textual cues and not any prior or outside learning. A smart, well rounded student that doesn't understand the 'game' when it comes to the elephant question would get it WRONG, unfortunately. Their open and spongy brains would have accumulated external information that might corrupt the thought process that the test maker is intending to be used (bogus, by the way).

I can imagine an argument of the merits of the elephant answer going like this:

"Teacher, my answer was correct"
"No, Billy. You included information outside the text. The text said that elephants sometimes stirred in the night to eat."
"Yes teacher, it did. But, the test question asked why an elephant might awake from sleeping. It didn't ask why the elephant woke from sleeping in the middle of the night..."

Seriously... We shouldn't be putting kids through that hell because they're not learning what we want in the manner we specify. Kids are truly chaotic- it is probably better that we give them toys, tools, and knowledge, throw them all against the wall and see what sticks. Then develop the kids' aptitudes and passions after that.

Aug. 07 2014 10:59 AM
Katie Lapham from Brooklyn, NY

I administered the 2014 Common Core state tests to 5th grade former ELLs (English-language learners). I wrote about my experience on my blog, Here's a link to read what I wrote on DAY 3 of the test.
What this article doesn't convey is the sheer length of these tests. They were administered over the course of THREE days. Here's some data from DAY ONE of the 5th grade ELA test: "Today’s ELA test booklet was 27-pages long and contained a total of 42 multiple choice questions. There were six reading passages, divided equally between fiction and non-fiction. The reading passages were dense and the questions were highly analytical. From what I saw, neither the length nor the content of the 5th grade test was developmentally appropriate. Why was today’s test so lengthy, especially considering there are TWO more days of ELA testing? Was it because Pearson field test questions are embedded in the exams?"

Also, English-language learners are required to take these ELA tests after just ONE YEAR in NYS schools. Could you imagine moving to Moscow and taking a dense Russian-language arts exam after just 10 months of schooling there? I will close w/ a colleague's comment: "“You are asking me to be complicit in abusing kids. I abused kids today and my penalty is a rating.”

Aug. 07 2014 08:26 AM
Gil C from New York, New York

I hear teachers ask the question about "Lawn Boy" to a class of students. Then I hear them dignify each response offered on the state test. This is a standard way of teaching. If the teacher is sensitive to what the test wants, he or she will need to begin to reject some responses and motivate students to reconsider. The choices should drive the reader back to the text. This is what CC means by "close reading." Is this happening or are children getting away with a response that is "close enough"? While teaching children how to succeed on the test (i.e.: teach to it!), we might make them feel badly for selecting a response that is almost, but not exactly,correct. Is that okay to do in our public schools?

Aug. 07 2014 07:44 AM
Billy from Hudson Valley

It is difficult to judge the test content versus what is being taught on a day-to-day basis without being directly involved. How do we determine if the test material is what children should be learning?

Students in many countries rank above our children in knowledge and accomplishment. It would be interesting if our tests could be taken, in their language of course, by a sampling of foreign students. Would they also find the questiions tricky and confusing, or would they test higher?

Aug. 07 2014 07:30 AM
Rose from Brooklyn NY

These excerpted questions are better/more reasonable than the ones from the 3rd grade ELA. (I couldn't even answer some of those correctly.) The ELA questions require incredibly close reading, at the expense of meaning or thinking. This doesn't strike me as useful for developing readers, nor even a necessary skill for college/career readiness (if that's the goal). If I were prepping students for this test, I'd tell them to ignore anything they know about the subject and try not to think or be creative or draw any inferences - instead, just focus only on what the words say. Which raises the question of WHY we are asking our kids to learn to read like this?

I have an english degree and a JD - I'm all about text - but this really seems to be elevating form over function.

Aug. 06 2014 09:15 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.