How the Common Core will change state tests

The Common Core Learning Standards, adopted by 46 states, are being introduced to New York City teachers this year as a set of “instructional shifts” that call for using more nonfiction text in lessons, requiring evidence-based arguments and deepening the focus on key math concepts — all aims that educators would embrace.

But ultimately, they culminate in a test — two tests, to be exact. And with the inclusion of Common Core-aligned questions, both the English language arts and math state exams are going to be harder than last year — by a whole lot, if early examples are any guide.

Both state Commissioner John King and city Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky have been out in public managing expectations — that is, preparing people for the distinct possibility that test scores will go down sharply this year.

In an address at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education on Nov. 29, Commissioner King warned, “We will see, we expect, lower absolute achievement at the end of this year than we did last year.”

Polakow-Suransky warned a group of education researchers recently that in Kentucky, the first state to give a Common Core test, passing rates dropped by 33 to 45 percent. In New York State, he said, educators should expect “much harder” reading passages, three- or four-step math problems, and “much more difficult” open-ended questions.

Unlike Kentucky, New York State is not administering totally changed tests this year. The state is in the midst of a three-year transition to Common Core-based assessments. Tests this April will still be constructed by Pearson, the same contractor as last year. But they will include more Common Core-aligned questions. How many more the state isn’t saying.

Then in 2013–14 Common Core Learning Standards will start to appear in Regents exams. In 2014–15, the state will use totally new Common Core tests that are being developed by a multistate consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the transition will be complete.

So, how much harder? You be the judge. Here are four examples from the New York State Common Core sample questions list.

Sample Grade 4 reading question

Reading: A 500-word nonfiction passage describes Antartica.

Question: Read these two sentences from paragraph 3:

“In winter, Antarctica is on the side of the Earth tilted away from the sun. Then, the continent is always dark.”

Which of the following describes the relationship between these two sentences?

  1. The sentences contrast two events.
  2. The sentences describe two steps in the same process.
  3. The first sentence explains the reason for the second.
  4. The second sentence gives the cause of the first.


  1. The reason for the continual darkness of the Antarctic winter is that it is continually tilted away from the sun.Sample Grade 4 reading question

Sample Grade 4 math question

Question: Students from three classes at Hudson Valley Elementary School are planning a boat trip. On the trip, there will be 20 students from each class, along with 11 teachers and 13 parents.

  1. Write an equation that can be used to determine the number of boats, b, they will need on their trip if 10 people ride in each boat.
  2. How many boats will be needed for the trip?
  3. It will cost $35 to rent each boat. How much will it cost to rent all the boats needed for the trip?


  1. b = [20(3)+11+13] 10
  2. The number of boats needed is 8 + 1 = 9 boats
  3. Total cost = $35 × 9 = $315

Sample Grade 8 reading question

Reading: A passage from Helen Keller’s autobiography, which recounts how Keller, blind and deaf since an illness during her infancy, first learned that her teacher’s hand gestures represented words and that words were the names of things.

Question: Describe how the author’s attitude toward the doll symbolizes her changing attitude toward learning words throughout the story. Use two details from the passage to support your answer.

A Correct Response: …accurately describes the author’s initial connection of words with the doll (“Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed”), then how she connects her frustration with learning words to the doll (“I became impatient at her repeated attempts”) and (“seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor”), and finally her exhilaration and eagerness to learn new words (“That living word [water] awakened my soul”) and how her newfound skill causes her to have new feelings about the doll (“for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow”).

Sample Grade 8 math question

Question: A computer can do 1,000 operations in 4.5 × 10-6 seconds. How many operations can be done by this computer in one hour? Express your answer in scientific notation.

Answer: The computer works at the rate of the 1,000 operations in 4.5 × 10-6 seconds, or 2.2 × 108 multiplications per second (1,000/4.5 × 10-6). Application of the conversion of 1 hour = 3,600 seconds [(2.2 × 108) x 3,600] gives the number of operations (8 × 1011) the computer can complete in one hour.

For all the published sample questions go to New York State Common Core Sample Questions on the State Education Department website.

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