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.

Common Core tests may not pass

The two Common Core testing groups — Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — made big promises when they bid for $350 million in federal funding, notes Education Week. The vision has “collided with reality.” Due to “political, technical, and financial constraints,” some ambitious plans have been scaled back.

. . . most students will take the exams on computers, rather than use bubble sheets, for instance. The Smarter Balanced assessment will adapt in difficulty to each student’s skill level, potentially providing better information about strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, students taking the PARCC test will write essays drawing on multiple reading sources. And to a level not seen since the 1990s, students taking both exams will be engaged in “performance” items that ask them to analyze and apply knowledge, explain their mathematical reasoning, or conduct research.

Performance-based assessment requires “longer, more expensive exams,” reports Ed Week. That’s a tough sell. Both exams have reduced the length or complexity of some test elements.

Both groups will continue to use some multiple-choice or machine-scored questions, but many of those items have been enhanced — allowing students to select multiple answers, for instance, or to drag and drop text from reading passages to cite evidence.

Both exams will hire teachers to score written answers after deciding that robot scorers aren’t yet up to the job.

Both consortia promised to develop tools and supports for teachers, but help for teachers has “lagged,” reports Ed Week.

Why Common Core is doomed to fail

Common Core standards are doomed, writes Jay P. Greene. The political backlash “will undo or neuter Common Core.”

With the U.S. Education Department, D.C.-based reform groups and state school chiefs on board, Common Core supporters thought they’d won a “clear and total victory.” (He compares it to the early victories by opponents of gay marriage.)

(They) failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react.  For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board. Otherwise Common Core, like most past standards, will just be a bunch of empty words in a document.

It’s too late for supporters to convince the public and to “love” the core, Greene writes. Reforms like the Common Core have a fatal flaw.

Trying to change the content and practice of the entire nation’s school system requires a top-down, direct, and definitive victory to get adopted.  If input and deliberation are sought, or decisions are truly decentralized, then it is too easy to block standards reforms, like Common Core.  

But the brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized and democratic country impossible.

Common Core didn’t need to start as national standards. It’s a shame the feds got involved instead of letting the standards truly be voluntary. I think some states will drop the core, weaken the standards or fudge the tests. But if half-a-dozen states implement the standards  and tests well, that will be educational.

The Federalist Debate features Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Heartland’s Joy Pullman discussing  the Common Core standards – without getting nasty.

Getting started with core standards

Fordham’s Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers examines how school leaders and teachers are implementing new standards “in a high-performing suburb, a trailblazer, an urban bellwether, and a creative implementer.”

“In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own, the report finds.

Delivering quality CCSS-aligned professional development also is “crucial” and “patchy.”

Core-aligned tests aren’t ready either. 

Seventy-three percent of teachers in Common Core states say they’re enthusiastic about the new standards, but think implementation will be challenging, according to a survey by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation.

Many teachers say they need more training and resources, especially for low-achieving students.

Fifty-seven percent of teachers believe the new standards will be positive for most students; only 8 percent predict a negative impact.

Why do Asian students rank high?

Asian students outscore Americans on international exams — and it matters, says Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, in a New York Times interview. He’s now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

We live in a world in which our children aren’t competing for jobs against people in the next town — they’re competing for jobs against people in other countries. It’s critical that we understand how our students compare to those students. . . . We now live in an information economy in which what matters are brains and knowledge. So those tests are critically important.

Asian countries ace the exams because they “start earlier,” Levine says. “They work longer. They work better.”

Kids are capable of learning about mathematics much earlier than we thought. Yes, we can begin earlier, but we also need to spend more time on those subjects, and make them more comprehensible to students. We don’t do well in that. We have much to learn from those countries about when to teach math and science, how long to teach it, and the best ways to teach it.

Finland, which also ranks high, limits the number of people who can enter teaching programs, says Levine. Only the top candidates are accepted. The U.S. sets low requirements, then turns out too many elementary school teachers and too few STEM teachers.

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: “A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

On tougher test, NY scores plunge

Reading and math scores dropped sharply in New York because the new Common Core-aligned tests are much harder.

In New York City, 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the state exams in English, and 30 percent passed in math, reports the New York Times. On last year’s easier test, 47 percent of city students passed in English, and 60 percent in math.

Statewide, 31 percent of students passed the exams in reading and math. Last year, 55 percent passed in reading, and 65 percent in math.

Achievement gaps are large: 16 percent of black students and 18 percent of Hispanic students passed English exams, compared with 40 percent of white students and 50 percent of Asians.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said higher standards will prepare students for college and the work force. “Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities,” Mr. Duncan said. “Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.”

It’s a conspiracy to make teachers look bad and sell more stuff, writes Carol Burris, an award-winning high school principal, on Answer Sheet.

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include “cuneiform,” “sarcophagus,” and “ziggurat.” . . .

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

“There will be tremendous pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cut out all of the enrichment that can make young children smile with anticipation on Monday mornings,” Burris concludes.

New York State Stops Lying to Kids, and That’s a Good Thing, headlines RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Cheating is a valuable workplace skill

Homeschool your kids so they learn to cheat, writes Penelope Trunk on her homeschooling blog. What schools call cheating — getting the right answer from others — is “effective workplace behavior” and a valuable skill, she argues.

Some 85 percent of students admit to cheating, Trunk writes.

. . . Stuyvesant, a New York City magnet school that’s harder to get into than Harvard, had an incredibly organized cheating system that rivals best practices for productivity types in Fortune 500 organizations.

. . . What made Stuyvesant’s cheating system so effective was that everybody had a certain topic that they would be expert on, and everyone else knew how to get the answers from that person.

That’s a great workplace skill, and you do kids a disservice by training them to think that it’s improper behavior.

Compared to their elders, Generation Y is “incredibly productive because they’re great collaborators.”

In the age of information, sharing information rules the day, and there’s no longer a place for a Lone Ranger at the office who works independently of everyone else. Today’s business world is too complicated and too networked for people to work so independently as to not be getting information from other people.

Teachers have been pushing collaborative work on projects and peer tutoring for many years now. Collaborative work on tests is another matter.

Does Trunk have a point?

Tougher tests spur anxiety, opt-outs

New York’s new Common Core-aligned tests are bringing “protests and tears,” reports the New York  Times.

Complaints were plentiful: the tests were too long; students were demoralized to the point of tears; teachers were not adequately prepared. Some parents, long skeptical of the emphasis on standardized testing, forbade their children from participating.

“All the kids were, like, open-mouthed, crazy-shocked and very upset,” said.Maya Velasquez, 14, an eighth grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.

Education officials are predicting test scores will nosedive in the first year.

 Across the city on Thursday, teachers and principals reported that the test required more stamina and concentration than students were used to.

Students said they struggled with questions that asked them to discuss how a writer constructed a story rather than about the content of the passage itself. One question, for instance, asked students to analyze how an author built suspense in describing a girl whose rope snapped while in a cave.

At the Computer School on the Upper West Side, students said teachers had warned them that the test would be the most challenging they had taken. “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder,” said Ron Yogev, a sixth grader.

That was the point. David Coleman, president of the College Board and an architect of the Common Core standards, told critics to chill. “When the alternative is shallower passages and shallower questions, what are we debating here?” he said.

Some parents, especially in affluent areas, are opting out of testing, notes Dana Goldstein in a blog post on Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core.

The new tests were “rolled out” before many schools and teachers received new curriculum materials and training.

. . .  the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down.

It takes “fortitude” to stick with rigorous tests when many students do badly — especially if they’re middle-class students — Goldstein concludes.