Educators sweating the state’s shift from old to new learning standards have received their first clues to what new tests will look like.
Teachers across the state opened their email inboxes Tuesday to an announcement from State Education Commissioner John King: Sample test items are now available.
Educators across the state have known for more than a year that next year’s elementary and middle school reading and math tests would be aligned to the new standards, known as the Common Core. But they hadn’t yet gotten detailed information about the assessments to help them revamp their instruction.
“It’s true that this is going to be a change in terms of the topics that are taught and the number of topics,” Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said this spring. “Planning for that is difficult given that we don’t know all the information at this stage.”
In his letter to teachers, King quoted an upstate official who told him, “The items are ambitious, but not unattainable.”
“We must be ambitious,” King added.
The Common Core shifts the focus of English lessons from narrative fiction to expository and argumentative writing. In math, it emphasizes word problems and problem-solving. And across all subjects, it favors assignments that deal with authentic, real-world questions.
The sample items reflect those preferences. Literary passages are pulled straight from classic literature, including works by Leo Tolstoy for third-graders and Jack London for seventh-graders, and informational texts that are actually in use, such as passage published by the Federal Trade Commission about the dangers of identity theft. In math, students are asked to consider the amount of water professional football players consume and the size of a school locker.
The state’s note for teachers points out that the locker question is asking fifth grade students to apply formulas in a real-world context, rather than simply calculating the volume of a rectangular prism. The state’s explanations also emphasize that the sample items are only meant to demonstrate the level of complexity of the coming questions, not the actual content next year’s tests will contain.
Molly Elverson, a seventh-grade math teacher, said the state’s disclaimer put her at ease that the new assessments would encourage a deeper, more rigorous treatment of the curriculum.
“It makes it seem like they will be expecting the students to actually understand, use and apply the topics they are taught,” she said in an email.
The questions looked “fair,” she added, but would pose new challenges to her students.
“I think the questions will push teachers to teach at a higher level,” she said, because many of the questions address multiple subjects at once. “In the past, topics were taught in a vacuum and questions only tested one standard at a time.”
Next year, state officials will not only have to make sure the new tests are aligned to the Core, but also that the tests are free of the quality-control errors that have plagued the most recent crop of tests. Those errors have raised larger questions about the overall quality of the tests, particularly after one heavily rewritten literary passage about a sedentary pineapple appeared on this year’s eighth-grade reading tests.
State officials have vowed to only use authentic passages that have been published elsewhere from now on. But critics and education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, says the tests need to become dramatically more rigorous, with questions and answers that make sense.
At a policy breakfast last month, Tisch said she warned Pearson officials that their mistakes have eroded public confidence in the tests just as they are poised to change dramatically.
“I would suggest to Pearson that they take this very seriously, because next year we are moving to the Common Core standards and those tests are going to be harder still,” she said. “What happens here as a result of these mistakes is that it makes the public at large question the efficacy of the state testing system.”
State officials have already posted curriculum guides and lesson plans on their website, EngageNY, and they have directed educators to an electronic library of resources, called the Common Core Library, being produced by New York City teachers. Teachers tasked with reviewing and building out the library have cautioned that not all of those materials are perfectly aligned to the Common Core, and still need to be refined to help teachers prepare for the new state exams.