Politics & Policy

Test Anxiety: Common Core Exam Questions Are Made Public


If you’ve got kids in public school, especially in New York, you probably know that there’s a new, more rigorous, set of standards for English Language Arts and Math called the Common Core. You’ve also probably been unclear how those standards would be tested. On Wednesday, the New York State Education Department made public half of the grade-school test questions it administered this year. Now advocates and opponents of the standards—and the tests—can see for themselves.

In spring 2013, New York was among the first states to administer tests, created by Pearson (PSON:LN) for third graders through eighth graders, that met the Common Core standards. The test results would help determine if a student moved on to the next grade and would then affect teacher evaluations, so the stakes were high. The changes led to anxiety, frustration, protests, and yelling matches—and those were just among the parents.

Part of the problem is that teachers aren’t permitted to talk about the test questions, and parents couldn’t see many of them. So the Education Department has made more of the questions available than it did last year, when it eventually released one-quarter of them. ”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,” Education Commissioner John King said in a statement issued on August 6. The state has also lowered the stakes for teachers and students.

The tests have been criticized for being confusing, too hard, and too long. Last year, one reading passage—about a talking pineapple and a hare—was so absurd that Commissioner King decided not to count the results of questions about it. The tests—and the test prep—made comedian Louis CK’s kids cry this year.

Reading through the test questions, you might wonder if a fourth grader could unravel this math question: “In the number 344,586, how many times greater is the value represented by the 4 in the ten thousands place than the value represented by the 4 in the thousands place?”

Or how they would answer this question about a boy learning to drive a lawn mower: “In paragraph 8, when the narrator says that the mower spoke to him, he most likely meant that he suddenly: became more confident about using the mower; enjoyed the sound of the running motor of the mower; understood how the different parts of the mower work; became more interested in using the mower to make money.” Another fourth grade reading passage is about Pecos Bill. Fifth graders read about BMX racing, eighth graders about Big Foot.

State education officials predicted that only about one-third of students were likely to pass the exams last year. They were right. This year’s results will be released later in August.

Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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