Confused by Core tests

Kids have been field-testing new Common Core exams — and parents have been trying practice tests posted online. The verdict: The new tests are much harder — partly because of poorly worded questions.

Carol Lloyd, executive editor at GreatSchools, is a fan of the new standards, but worried about the test. She went online to try practice questions for both major common-core assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced and PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)—for her daughter’s grade.

Many of the questions were difficult but wonderful. Others were in need of a good editor.

A few, however, were flat-out wrong. One Smarter Balanced question asked students to finish an essay that began with a boy waking up and going down the hall to talk to his mother. Then, in the next paragraph, he’s suddenly jumping out of bed.

A PARCC reading-comprehension question asked students to pick a synonym for “constantly” out of five possible sentence options. I reread the sentences 10 times before I realized that no words or phrases in those sentences really meant “constantly,” but that the test-writer had confused “constantly” with “repeatedly.” Any student who really understood the language would be as confused as I was.

If these are the test questions they’re sharing with the public, “what are they doing in the privacy of my daughter’s test?” asks Lloyd.

Natalie Wexler, a writing tutor at a high-poverty D.C. high school, took the PARCC English Language Arts practice test for 10th-graders.  A number of questions were confusing, unrealistically difficult, or just plain wrong,” she writes.

Question 1 starts with a brief passage:

I was going to tell you that I thought I heard some cranes early this morning, before the sun came up. I tried to find them, but I wasn’t sure where their calls were coming from. They’re so loud and resonant, so it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Part A asked for the meaning of “resonant” as used in this passage:

A. intense B. distant C. familiar D. annoying

Looking at the context — it was hard to tell where the calls were coming from — Wexler chose “distant.”  The official correct answer was “intense.” Which is not what “resonant” means. 

Another passage described fireflies as “sketching their uncertain lines of light down close to the surface of the water.” What was implied by the phrase “uncertain lines of light.”

She chose: “The lines made by the fireflies are difficult to trace.” The correct answer? “The lines made by the fireflies are a trick played upon the eye.”

Wexler did better on a section where all the questions were based on excerpts from a majority and a dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court case about the First Amendment. “But then again, I have a law degree, and, having spent a year as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, I have a lot of experience interpreting Supreme Court opinions,” she writes.

The average D.C. 10th grader won’t be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills, Wexler fears.

. . .  if a test-taker confronts a lot of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary words, she’s unlikely to understand the text well enough to make any inferences. In just the first few paragraphs of the majority opinion, she’ll confront the words “nascent,” “undifferentiated,” and “apprehension.”

Most D.C. students “will either guess at the answers or just give up,” Wexler predicts.

About Joanne


  1. So…maybe the wrongly defined words are the point. If the test writers don’t know the true definitions and can’t use the words correctly, then, perhaps, testing how well you can figure out what a bad writer actually means *is* the goal!

  2. PhillipMarlowe says:

    Writing of Common Core, “6th graders seeking payment for taking Common Core field tests”

  3. So how much are the school systems paying for these tests that were written by the confused and ignorant?

    It’s not really new. I ran across similar stupidity in tests for required training certs. You have to learn how to play the game. The facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. Reality doesn’t matter. You learn to look for the clues to reproduce what is desired then forget everything since it has no relationship to reality. It’s hard unless you see through the system’s incompetence.

    I’m not sure how they hope to get buy in for common core when they let this type of garbage end up in the testing.

  4. The gen ed curriculum is going to have to have more content if these students are to have a chance. The resonance question is easy for a student who has taken music or science. The fireflies take some experience with either a firefly or a 4th of July sparkler. All require knowledge of precise definitions of words …. given that we have so many schools that go for a vague definition based on context instead of teaching dictionary use, advantage here goes to those whose parents taught dictionary use & actually do use it (probably students with e-readers). All this is saying is the gen ed needs to be ramped back up – the current honors program is what was gen ed in my time. Letting all the ‘I do’ wanna’ children have their way from preK on does mean they will have to guess or give up. … and the current whole class instructional situation means the rest of the class goes down with them. We need to get back to grouping in elementary by instructional need.

    • The resonance question is easy for a student who has taken music or science.

      Sorry, but I find the question not just wrong but comically so. Why? The *other* word in the phrase “loud and resonant” is a blunt description of the sound’s intensity.

      As a musician, I’ve both produced and experienced sounds that were extremely resonant but not intense in the slightest. I say experienced because truly resonant sounds have an ineffable quality (at least to my ear) that goes beyond just their sonic characteristics. There’s a purity of tone and energy that is felt as much as heard.

      In reference to the original passage, in my experience resonant sounds in certain environments can play horrible tricks with the mind’s sense of acoustic direction. I remember playing a concert in one church where the oboes, who I could see sitting one row forward and slightly to my left, sounded as if they were sitting to my right. The effect was present regardless of the volume of the sound.

      That aside, I will agree with your points about dictionary use and the lack of rigor in general ed programs. Worse, after reading through some of the ELA tests in the link, they seem to discriminate against people with a lot of precise knowledge.

      Going back to the question at issue, the one following it is far worse:

      Q: Which quotation from [the paragraph] helps clarify the meaning of resonant?

      A: They’re so loud…

      Speaking as someone with a lot of knowledge about sound, my mind can only interpret the passage “They’re so loud and resonant” as describing two more or less unrelated qualities. Had I been the test taker, I would have been stumped by this question because I knew too much about the subject described and couldn’t engage in their exercise of “figure it out by context”.

      • Hard to dial back to kid level. The answer is the closest answer from the choices given. In many cases an answer is an obvious wrong answer that fits a misleading clue or a common student error. In the case of resonant, anyone that paid attention in school music class knows the diference between a vibrant resonant sound and a weak attempt at same, which usually is thin and distant in comparison.

        • Hard to dial back to kid level. The answer is the closest answer from the choices given.

          IOW, the way to answer the question is not to think about it at a high level. Heck of a test.

        • Sorry, but this question is just plain wrong in the context of the passage. The narrator speaks of having difficulty locating the source of the sound. An intense sound is more easily located. The sounds are difficult to place because they are resonant. Vibrant or reverberating would be better choices. Intense is not a synonym for resonant.

          This is not an isolated problem with the PARCC tests. The reading tests are filled with questions that or poorly written or flat out wrong.

  5. Obi-Wandreas says:

    This goes back to the fallacy that ‘critical thinking’ is a skill that can be taught without context. In reality it is like reading comprehension: heavily dependent upon knowledge of the subject matter. As the ignorance of the test-writers demonstrates, processing what you do not comprehend creates gobbledygook.