Yesterday I received an email from a reporter from the New York Daily News asking for my reaction to a bootleg copy of the Pearson-made fifth-grade exam for English Language Arts. This is part of the first tests of the Common Core in the state, administered in recent weeks to students in 3rd through 8th grades. Students spent about 90 minutes per day for three days on the ELA tests and repeated the process the next week in math.
I read the passages and the questions based on them. 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.
If this test is indicative of what is in store, It reinforces my concern that the Common Core will widen the achievement gaps. Struggling students will fail.
And by the way, read the smug, arrogant editorial in the Daily News. The editors think it is just great that many kids will fail. They are sure that the tests will reveal the poor quality of education in the city’s schools. They forget that every student in the city has been educated under mayoral control, for which this editorial board has been a consistent cheerleader. Do they understand the contradiction? Not likely.