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.