Common Core

Common Core Tests: So Difficult, Bureaucrats Had to Implement a Curve Under Which Kids Can Guess Randomly and Still Pass

One gets the impression that public education bureaucrats don't have their new system totally figured out.


Frances Benjamin Johnston / Library of Congress

What happens when bureaucrats make eighth and ninth graders take standardized exams that test them in accordance with trendy, horridly implemented standards? Almost all of them fail, of course.

Knowing that this is precisely what would happen when New York students took their Common Core–aligned math and English tests, administrators introduced an incredibly generous curve so that three-qurters of students would pass, regardless of their actual scores.

In practice, this meant that students could score 5 out of 24 on the multiple choice portion of the reading comprehension section and still pass the exam. That's about the score you would expect to get from randomly filling in bubbles, write New York educators Carol Burris and John Murphy in The Washington Post:

After a poem by Langston Hughes, which is followed by five questions, the student encounters a difficult passage from Carl Sagan's Broca's Brain. The piece is abstract and esoteric, asking the reader to shrink into a crystalline world of a microgram of salt in order to see "rank upon rank of an ordered array." This may be an interesting piece on an AP exam, or an SAT II in reading or science, but on a timed test that determines high school graduation it is over the top.   English Language Learners' and weak readers' eyes will glaze over before encountering the 10 questions.

So what do the Common Core English Regents cut scores look like?  Like the Common Core Algebra exam, the state wanted the passing rate to stay the same (about 77 percent). The writing section was weighed so heavily on this new exam, that the first three readings and their 24 multiple choice questions were moot, at least for passing. If a student earns a 4 out 6 on the written argument, and a 2 out of 4 on the short responses, a student passes the exam if she answers a mere 5 out of 24 questions correctly. Five out of 24 is in the realm of pure chance. On the January Regents —  the one that is being phased out — if a student earned the same scores on the writing portion, they needed to answer 20 out of 24 multiple-choice questions correctly in order to receive a passing grade.  A more reasonable test can have higher expectations for student performance.

Burris and Murphy were also critical of the math test, which utilizes confusing phrasing to create the illusion of rigor, they argue:

Here is one example. Question 12 asks students to identify an equation, written as a function, given two roots.  In the past, the question would have been phrased:  "Given the roots -6 and 5, which of the following would be the correct equation?" Students are then given four choices.

Here is the Common Core phrasing: "Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith's function?"

This is but one example of a question that was made unnecessarily complicated and wordy in order to give the illusion of a 'real world' problem that requires deep thinking. And then there are the questions designed to give a window into the student's problem solving skills, such as question 34, which includes, "Describe how your equation models the situation."  The "situation" refers to dimensions of a garden.  How does an English language learner, with good math skills, begin to understand what that question is asking?

Standardized testing, if used at all, should offer evidence that a given set of educational standards is worthwhile. With the curve in place, the test is pointless.

Of course, if the curve were removed, then thousands of students would simply fail and be judged unfit for the next grade level or employment (the point of Common Core–aligned testing is to render a verdict of "college and career ready").

One gets the impression that public education bureaucrats don't have their new system totally figured out, which is a shame for the kids bearing the brunt of their experimentation.

NEXT: Thad Cochran, the GOP Establishment, and the Scourge of Red-State Socialism

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  1. OT: did this get covered earlier this week. Journalists sentenced to prison terms for reporting “false new”:…

  2. At this point, literally anything that comes out of the federal government is utterly and completely broken. Whether it’s the ACA, or Common Core, or the TSA, or whatever, the federal government is such a mass of utterly incompetent scum who are also influenced by endless special interests, lobbyists, cronies, and the like, that nothing they do ends up as anything but Swiss cheese. At this point, the government is truly a parasite and nothing else. It does nothing but consume and steal, and what it “gives back”, implements, or mandates, just makes everything that much harder.

    This is the point where people start disengaging from it entirely (to the extent that they can), because it does nothing but make your life worse in every conceivable way.

    1. In generations past, this would be the sign for armed revolution. We would see rebellion in the streets, and a beckoning call for the coming conflict would be wafting through the streets. These days, people just watch SportsCenter and wonder why they can’t afford to pay their bills every month.

      1. We have been so prosperous that even the government stealing over half of what we earn hasn’t measurably lessened our quality of life. That’s where you’ll see people getting up in arms; when their quality of life starts to tank. Until then, the parasite will keep taking more and more. It’s insatiable.

        1. Yes – if history teaches us one thing, it’s that things have to get really, really, insultingly bad and stay that way for a good long time before people get riled up enough to get up off their asses and change anything.

          1. And when that happens, history teaches us the change they generally want is twice as much of the same shit that made them miserable in the first place.

            1. What we need is a SECOND Pope!

              1. THREE branches of government!

          2. And for the most part the result of such a revolution is just as bad as the previous situation, if not worse. The American Revolution is kind of unique in being reasonably successful and creating something that worked pretty well.

        2. Yep. The idea that people will revolt just on principle does not coincide with reality very well. People really have to feel like their lives and their families are truly threatened before we’ll see armed revolution.

          1. It’s not principle anymore. People are seeing their bottom lines getting smashed by the incessant meddling from “above.” However, between intentional obfuscation and a million “bread and circus” options, there’s not enough people aware of the thievery to do anything about it.

            1. And there is a significant number of people who enthusiastically support the thievery. Mustn’t forget about that when you fantasize about revolution. Even if a lot of people were ready to revolt, half of them would probably be fighting for increased thievery.

              1. Yeah, but that half won’t touch a gun, so I’m not too worried.

                R C Dean

    2. The first reading section is from Sherlock Holmes, a popular novel with mass-market readership in the late 19th Century. People with just a few years of education could read and understand it. If a high-school student cannot understand this passage adequately to answer all questions, he is borderline illiterate or just plain illiterate.

      Math question #12 is peculiar in that it is idiotically expressed as a so-called “word problem”.

      1. We have the romantic notion of educating everyone now, whereas people in the 19th century weren’t so stupid. An “educated” person in the 19th century was part of a small elite.

        1. Yeah, most people’s reading back then consisted of the Bible, farmer’s almanacs, and maybe a few dime novels (which, to be fair, were far more literary than the dreck that passes for popular lit these days). But if you read letters from the period, even farmers possessed vocabularies that would embarrass the average PhD today.

          It’s funny that as literature has become more accessible, the complexity of language has deteriorated.

  3. How can you be college AND career ready?

    The whole fucking point of going to college is because you AREN’T career-ready.

    Spare me the trope about how college is for you to expand your intellect, 98% of the enrollees are there for the purpose I stated.

    (Perhaps I should have stated it as a function.)

    1. the idea of college and career ready comes from a time where college was for advanced learning. You were equipped with the skills to make it in a decent career, or to go to college and specialize in an advanced career.

      In these days of gender apologetics and Iranian lesbian performance art history degrees, the concept no longer applies.

      1. My dad is an electrical engineer who also teaches engineering level college courses on the side and he says that most of the subject matter doesn’t apply to what he’s done in his 30 year career.

        1. This is always the case. However, I have often encountered new problems that drew upon stuff I learned decades ago and only now find an application.

        2. Is one of his courses “The Patriarchy: Why women can’t get STEM jobs 210?”

          1. That’s news to me… all the women that I knew got spotted half a GPA point when being selected for interviews and positions!

        3. My experience in computer engineering is slightly different (we took 2.5 years of electrical engineering courses before branching off into our own study plan). The material we learned isn’t directly applicable to what I do on a daily basis. I haven’t touched a breadboard since college. I haven’t programmed a microcontroller in that long either. However, the fundamentals that were taught in those courses are highly applicable in the more complex systems that I work today. No, I couldn’t calculate a fourier transform for the life of me, I’m rusty as hell at calculus, and it would take me forever to design an adder in VHDL, but I can write some mean software, and I have insights into software design that only comes from understanding the hardware and kernel beneath.

          All that to say that EE subject matter isn’t a complete career preparation, but it lays a foundation.

    2. 98% of the enrollees are there for the purpose I stated.

      I think you are underestimating the number of people who are there just because it seems like the thing to do after high school.

      Also, nothing about “college and career ready” says that you would be in the same career with or without college. Before I went to college, I was ready for several careers that I could have pursued. After college I was ready for a few more.

      1. I work in a job now (military contracting) that doesn’t require a college degree to get hired or succeed. The guy who runs our team doesn’t have his degree. The only thing the degree provides you is a bit more in earnings and a little more in job security because it helps your employer when bidding for new work if you have a degree.

        That said, I am seeing a trend in our field (which is experiencing a lot of layoffs) where a degree is a factor in whether or not you get laid off or whether you get offered a decent salary.

    3. About 98% of the 98% are in college for alcohol, drugs and sex.

      (Better than a liberal arts degree?)

  4. What happens when bureaucrats make eighth and ninth graders take standardized exams that test them in accordance with trendy, horridly implemented standards?

    Which is amusing, since the bureaucrats picked the implementations.

    And it’s the implementations that are the problem, if there is one – the Core Standards are completely anodyne and innocuous, especially in the English skills department.

    I think the real problem is that the preceding grades had done so completely poorly on teaching the kids to READ

    1. ^ This.

      My sister-in-law works at one of the think tanks that developed the new standards, and when she told us about them, it sounded great.

      We’ve now realized, she told me, that different people do math different ways, and nevertheless are capable of producing the correct answer.

      Therefore, it was bad to just pick one way of doing a particular kind of problem and force everybody to learn it that way, since one person might easily do it one way, but not so easily another way.

      Enter the State. Now every child has to learn every conceivable way, whether anyone actually uses them or not, and fail if they find any of the ways difficult.

      How did I know that was going to happen?

      1. I had a great math teacher in school who declared “if it works, do it”. Whatever method you use, if you can get the right answer and explain how you got there, is good.

      2. Being forced to do a few problems in a different way won’t kill you. It might even expose you to different methods.

        Also, people upset at badly worded questions, do you think there were none before common core?

        1. Being forced to do a few problems in a different way won’t kill you. It might even expose you to different methods.

          Yes, when the child has a grasp of the base concept in the first place. Teaching kids a mish-mash of different methods to add and subtract before they can fully comprehend addition and subtraction is a recipe for failure.

          1. Teaching kids a mish-mash of different methods to add and subtract before they can fully comprehend addition and subtraction is a recipe for failure.

            Bingo. Common Core misses the whole fucking point that the students who develop mathematical skills will naturally figure out all the different shortcuts and tricks that they’re trying to instill from the beginning. But if they don’t understand the basics, they sure as hell aren’t going to understand the shortcuts.

            In 8th grade I had a math teacher who was like the Vince Lombardi of algebra–she had a way of explaining all the various functions and methods in very simple terms. I’ve never been great at math, but I got almost all As that year because of her teaching methods.

    2. Reading standards are a joke. I remember when I was in 6th grade (and that’s well over 20 years ago now) I took some sort of reading proficiency test and was scored as being at a “post high school” level of reading. Now, I’m sure I was ahead of the average 12 year old at the time, but I certainly didn’t have the level of reading comprehension to read dense college level texts really effectively at that age.

      1. The level of reading was measured for literature, not educational non-fiction.

  5. “Describe how your equation models the situation.”

    Holy fuck, Paul Krugman is writing tests for 12-year-olds now.

    1. I always hated the asinine wordiness of math exams like this. It takes away from the numbers aspect and turns into abstract reading comprehension.

  6. “Five out of 24 is in the realm of pure chance.”

    This is where we are. BEST CASE scenario, you have learned nothing and your answers are completely random, please proceed to graduation. From there you descend into having remembered the incorrect things you have been taught.

  7. Those are actually the first criticism’s of the actual common core curriculum that I’ve agreed with, the questions are just horribly worded to be overly complex and misleading. Normally the criticism’s I’ve seen have ammounted to “that isn’t the way I did it in school so it must be wrong”

    The real problem with common core however it as usual the attempt to centralize and standardize something which is inherently individualistic

    1. usual the attempt to centralize and standardize something which is inherently individualistic

      This. Bureaucrats and education “professionals” should be spending their time trying to find the most efficient ways to further individualize learning. But then, they’re not know for their IQs.

      1. Individuality is expensive and fraught with liability.

        1. Individuality also makes it hard to manage a population.

          Same with the ability to think critically, and understand economics, and dream big (as one might be tempted to do if one reads great literature).

          Modern schooling is designed to slow learning, stunt intellectual growth, and raise a population that can’t think for itself.

      2. It looks like everybody is above average.

    2. the questions are just horribly worded to be overly complex and misleading.

      Its almost like they were drafted by committee.

      R C Dean

  8. “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

    I don’t know. What could be the editor’s damage?

    1. I’m going to go with “the person editing this has no knowledge of algebra beyond its simplest applications”. I mean, it’s the fucking government. Would you be more surprised if they hired a math expert to write the question, or if they hired someone who had no idea what they were doing? Serious question.

      1. I have no doubt that the editor has a long list of education credentials.

      2. It’s a pretty trivial question. A student finishing basic algebra ought to know what zeroes and poles are.

        1. But it’s in absolutely terrible fucking English. What could be my problem with that?

          1. I don’t see that at all. It reads fine to me.

            And it gives smart asses like I was the chance to answer, “Keith’s function is to sit quietly for 12 years and get indoctrinated,” and end up with my test posted on one of the clickbait sites on Facebook.

        2. How about…

          Which of the following functions has zeros of -6 and 5?

          Simplifies the question to just contain information about the relative mathematical knowledge and is FAR easier to parse when you are in a hurry.

          1. Yeah. What the fuck does Kieth have to do with anything?

            1. He makes the question “personable” and “friendly.” It’s obviously more fun to solve Keith’s problem than your own.

              1. It’s like they heard of the concept of a word problem, but have no idea why it is a useful type of problem to test people on.

      3. I’d be surprised if they hired a math expert. What do they need mathematicians for when they have credentialed TOP MEN with doctoral degrees in Education?

      4. I would be far more surprised if they hired a math expert.

        1. Exactly. So would I.

    2. Ate a brain tumor for breakfast?

    3. What could be Keith’s function?”

      Taking standardized tests in an adolescent holding pen?

      Breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, pissing, shitting, and fucking?

  9. “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

    f(x) = { -6 if x < 0, 5 if x =0 }

    1. Hmm, why doesn’t the ascii code for “greater than” work?

      1. They scrub the comments of any “non-conforming” HTML tags by removing the gt bracket.

  10. A camel is a horse designed by committee.

    1. No, a giraffe is a horse designed by committee.

      Camels are actually useful animals, something a committee would never come up with.

      1. Unintelligent Design?

  11. I’m completely against the creeping nationalization of our schools, but I find it somewhat bewildering that the author repeatedly points out how hard these tests are for “English language learners” (which I’m guessing is a euphemism for immigrants) as if it is some kind of argument against the tests. Would the tests be any better if the language was dumbed down to an elementary school reading level…?

  12. If they raise the passing bar on the two exams as promised for the Class of 2022, the graduation rate will plummet.

    Government sees this as a win-win.

    A failing graduation rate statewide will mean the state will get shitloads more federal dollars and that will go to union teachers and union administrators. They’ll insist on smaller class sizes and there will be even more teachers and more administrators.

  13. Badly worded questions existed before common core.

    And the point of problems where they force you to answer in a certain way is to show you that different methods or ways to imagine the problem exist. Like making a kid solve a math question on a graph helps explain how graphs work. Yes, you could just plug numbers into the equation, but it helps to get a feel for other methods.

    Finally, writing answers for math are designed to get the kids to “explain” the theory. This helps kids who intuitively get the answers to more fully work through why the answers work. Its also good writing practice, too.

    I am more worried about centralization, but every complaint seems to be about math problems and changing jargon, as if these didn’t exist before common core.

    Half the word questions my kid gets are ambiguous and annoying. This is nothing new.

    1. “Badly worded questions existed before common core.”

      True, but they weren’t imposed on you by a central authority. You could get the math teacher to change, or you could vote with your feet and go to a better school.

  14. What could be Keith’s function?”

    Why are any of us here? I mean, when you get down to it, it’s all so meaningless, isn’t it? I mean what do any of us want…

  15. Glad someone is noticing this. Common Core will cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as it expects everyone to be above average.

  16. Its awesome.. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out

  17. I need a clarification. Does Common Core just set the standards or do they also write the tests? I was under the impression they just set the standards and it’s up to the schools to formulate the class and tests to adhere to the standards. Can somebody clarify this please?

    1. My understanding is that there is essentially no relationship between the people who devised the standards and the people who are implementing them.

      The more incompetent your local educational unit, the more incompetent the implementation of Common Core is likely to be.

      In my District, it’s like something out of Kafka – children are taught to memorize non-sense phrases in response to incoherent questions.

      1. So, career planning for White House journalists, then.

  18. So, I looked at question #12, and it is incredibly easy (especially with a graphing calculator). What’s the big deal?

    Also, why must you be supplied a graphing calculator for Algebra 1? We didn’t start using a graphing calculator until Pre-calc so you were forced to learn the math concepts not just use a calculator to solve equations.

    For the record, I opposed common core and federal involvement in education at all levels.

  19. “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

    Who knows? Keith has been trapped in government schools all his life – we’d be better off determining roots with a blindfold and a dartboard.

  20. The overly wordy math problem reminds me of a similar situation I encountered in 2nd grade. Up until then, arithetic Qs were simple & I did very well with them. Suddenly they switched to requiring the answers to be written in the form, “Keith bought 3 apples, 6 oranges, and 4 doughnuts from the store on the corner of 6th Ave. & Main St.” That alone didn’t make it difficult, but they imposed a stringent time limit and I was (still am) a physically slow writer, so suddenly I stunk at “math”. Fortunately that fad was short-lived.

    1. It’s like evaluators, just to justify their jobs & fuck with students, periodically alter the forms of evalu’n to be about something different from th criteria they’re ostensibly evaluating. I flunked Pediatrics because of oral case present’ns in which I had all the facts right, but they criticized the style in which I presented them. Actually in that case I really think they were deliberately fucking with me personally.

      Usually, though, one hears of such fuzzing of course material & evalu’ns to increase the scores of the weaker students, by crediting them for skills that are actually only tangential at best to the course material?you know, like points for making a pretty cover on your report, or carrying towels for a varsity or JV team.

  21. “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

    If Keith is in high school, his function is likely to be the nerd that the jocks beat up and make fun of.

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