Teacher In Student’s Shoes: Trying The Common Core Exam

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Standardized testing week at the middle school where I was a teacher from 2008 – 2010, was a big deal. Signs went up in the hallways, “Eat a good breakfast!” and a hushed silence fell over the normally chaotic hallways.

I also remember flipping through the test itself… and crossing my fingers that my students found the long passages about pioneers and the eating habits of exotic birds exciting enough to hold their focus for hours at a time. I had prepared my students for the tests and shown them sample questions, but it was hard to make these lessons exciting.

Soon, standardized tests will look completely different for many students, with the rollout of Common Core state standards — recently adopted by 45 states. Teachers have been slowly integrating the Common Core standards into their curriculum, but tests won’t be administered until 2014.

If you’re curious about the test like I was, it’s available online for anyone to try.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) developed pilot versions of Common Core standardized tests, and released them on the Internet. You can pick from a range of grade levels and subjects.

I tried my luck at the 8th grade English Language Arts multiple choice test — the subject I used to teach. After spending about an hour and a half on the test, these are my impressions.

First, just sitting in front of a computer screen freaked me out. It reminded me of the GRE (computerized test to apply for graduate school), or the PRAXIS (computerized test to get your teaching credential). The majority of the questions for 8th grade English focused on identifying the main idea of a passage, and finding details that support it. But the new format forces test-takers to do this in multiple ways.

– It’s not just reading! It’s listening. 
After a number of reading comprehension questions, an audio player appeared — with animated pictures that accompanied the audio. The test-taker is supposed to answer the following multiple choice questions based on what they heard. Let me tell you — this was not easy! I stopped and played back the audio probably ten times to answer three questions. This is an exciting multi-media element… but a very new skill to teach. (Did I ever use audio tape in my classroom?)

 Select all that apply
Certain questions ask test-takers to select ALL the answers that are correct, instead of just one. These questions take twice as long, because while you might immediately eliminate some answers, you need to confirm that multiple answers fit the criteria. Questions like this are very similar to the GRE — and they test your patience.

 Short-answer, typed responses
The days of bubbling in a pretty pattern on your test scantron are over. That’s not even possible on this test. Interspersed between the multiple choice answers, are questions with a text box that require the test-taker to type a response. The test won’t allow you to move on to the next page if you don’t type a response. There are also sections that ask the test-taker to revise a poorly written paragraph, using facts provided. These interruptions in the multiple choice format forced me to engage with the text more.

– Cool features
One question asked me to identify six sentences in the passage that supported the claim that elephants might be the smartest animals on the planet. I ran my cursor over the passage and each sentence lit up. I easily highlighted the sentences that proved my point. Fun!

There is also a sweet notepad feature at the bottom corner of each question that allows you to type notes or thoughts about a certain question. That was a relief, after feeling lost without my pencil and scratch paper.

– Too easy to click?
When I took standardized tests, I made sure I was confident in each answer, because erasing pencil lead thoroughly was a pain in the butt. That obstacle is eliminated on the new test.

Speaking of erasing… erasure marks led several school districts to identify cheating on standardized tests. This makes me wonder if other safety measures are built into this test, to combat cheating.

– Typing is an asset
It occurred to me halfway through the test that I was thankful that I could type quickly. I’ve noticed that many high school students today don’t get any formalized typing training in school. With the computerized assessments, typing skills will be a huge asset… or deficit.

– Computer mentality
While typed answers eliminate the problem of scribbly handwriting, there are no spell-check or capitalization features in the writing sections of the test. These are tools young people rely on nowadays… maybe to a dangerous extent. Will the tests subtract points for grammar / capitalization in the comprehension section of the test? And will teachers need to focus on correcting “text-speak” so that when it counts, students can type?

While taking this test, I was aware of how differently I would have taught my class if THIS were the end goal. Sure, some things are the same. Questions are still worded in confusing ways (for example, “Using details from the text, explain how this sentence affects the reader’s understanding of Samual Peppard.”) Ultimately, this test offers many opportunities for educators to get creative in teaching these skills — focusing on auditory processing, responding quickly with short answers and highlighting pieces of text. But if my hour and a half experiment is any indication, the transition will be rough.

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