On the horizon: harder tests

Harder tests are coming to the Buckeye State.

Starting in the 2014-15 school year, Ohio will replace its current K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts, along with the aligned standardized tests, with the Common Core academic standards and their aligned tests. In Ohio, these exams will be the PARCC exams.

The Common Core standards will differ significantly from Ohio’s current academic standards in content, emphases, and cognitive demand.[1] These standards promise greater rigor in what students are expected to learn and how their learning is applied; therefore, we can also expect that the Common Core’s aligned assessments—again, the PARCC exams—will be more difficult.

How much harder should we expect the PARCC exams to be? Take a look for yourself.

Figure 1 shows two sample questions from Ohio’s current seventh-grade math exam. (The Ohio Department of Education provides practice tests, which are accessible via the source link below the figure.) The questions are relatively simple: the first question tests whether a student understands ratios; the second question tests whether a student understands a basic algebraic equation. Although I wouldn’t suggest that the questions are necessarily “easy” (it took me a few minutes to calculate the answers), they are straightforward—and are basically one-dimensional (testing one concept at a time).

Figure 1: Sample test questions from practice exam, Ohio’s seventh grade math test. Source: Ohio Department of Education

Figure 2 shows two prototype problems for the seventh-grade math PARCC assessment. The first question comes directly from the PARCC consortium website, and the second comes from the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin website, an organization that is supporting the implementation of the Common Core (click on the source links underneath the figure).

The PARCC math questions are more complex than Ohio’s current test questions. The first question not only requires students to know what a ratio is, but also to apply their knowledge of ratios under different scenarios with varying levels of given information. In “Batch 1,” for example, the student is given two pieces of information, and in “Batch 2” the student is given only one piece of information. To fill in the missing pieces of both “Batch 1” and “Batch 2” problems, the student has to understand ratios, while also recognizing that the ratio of garlic to onion powder is identical. In the second question, students are asked to apply both their knowledge of a ratio (Δdistance/Δ time) and their understanding of how data is presented (in table and chart form).

These questions illustrate how the PARCC exam will require students to apply their knowledge in multi-dimensional ways, under differing circumstances, and using varying forms. It’s safe to say from these samples that PARCC test questions will be harder for students, requiring higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.

Figure 2: Prototype test questions for PARCC seventh grade math test. Sources: The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and Agile Mind, Inc. and PARCC 

Why worry about this harder test? For one, Ohio’s students, as a group, are already failing the state's current exam—an exam of less difficulty than what the PARCC exam promises to be. In 2011-12Ohio’s seventh graders, on average, answered twenty-four out of fifty math questions correctly. When the PARCC exams come online in two years, we should expect that Ohio students will answer even fewer questions correctly.

While the greater difficulty of the Common Core and the PARCC exams will challenge the next generation of Buckeye State students to perform at a world-class level, we should also expect that these new standards and aligned exams will cause a short-term shock. Ohio educators, administrators, and parents should all expect major drops in Ohio’s math and ELA proficiency rates (the number of students who “pass” the standardized test) in 2014-15. Therefore, it’s incumbent on these groups to acknowledge the facts—that Ohio students don’t test well even under its current, relatively-straightforward exam—while also preparing the public for the future under PARCC. Indeed, they must warn the public about the short-term pain when the 2014-15 test scores tumble. But they must also articulate the long-term benefit of the Common Core—that these higher standards will generate a better-educated, better-prepared group of Buckeye State students, armed with the skills to succeed in the careers of the future.

[1] Andrew Porter, et al., “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum,”Educational Researcher 40 (2011): 103-114.

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