August 8, 2013
The release of student test data from 2013 has educators, administrators, politicians, and parents abuzz in New York. These are the first state exams aligned to the Common Core standards, and as widely predicted, proficiency rates have plummeted, leaving everyone scrambling to explain what has happened.
The most common explanation offered is that these new tests are substantially more rigorous than the old ones, so lower student performance is to be expected. I was curious about the claim that the new tests are more rigorous, and while the state does not release the exams to the public, they do publish a small number of questions from each grade level.
The new tests were administered in grades 3-8. As a high school teacher, I am not well versed in elementary school tests, but I have spent a substantial amount of time scrutinizing New York state math Regents exams, so I thought I’d look at the eighth-grade math questions that were released to the public. I was quite surprised by what I saw.
The “representative sample” of eighth-grade math questions does not seem more rigorous to me. They do not seem to emphasize “deep analysis” or “creative problem solving over short answers and memorization,” which is often how the new standards are characterized. I can’t say I was surprised to discover this.
What did surprise me, however, was how many of these eighth-grade math questions were virtually identical to questions that have recently appeared on high school math Regents exams.
Here is the first example from the set of eighth-grade math questions released to the public:
This problem is essentially the same as #4 from the January, 2013 Integrated Algebra exam:
The second example from the set of eighth-grade math questions released to the public:
is quite similar to #4 from the January 2013 Geometry exam:
And the fourth example from the set of eighth-grade math questions released to the public:
is essentially the same as #9 from the January 2013 Integrated Algebra exam:
This surprising discovery left me with a lot of questions.
First, why are eighth-graders facing the same kinds of questions on this state exam that ninth-, 10th-, 11th-, and even 12th-graders faced this year? Were teachers and students prepared to see this kind of content on the eighth-grade exam?
Second, how can it be argued that this new test is more rigorous if it is comprised of the same kinds of questions that appear on the old tests? Simply moving a question from a 10th-grade test to an eighth-grade test doesn’t transform the question into one that requires deep analysis or creative problem solving. More rigorous questions would ask students to construct mathematical objects, explore concepts from different perspectives, and demonstrate mathematical reasoning. None of the above questions do this: They are not especially challenging, deep, or novel. In short, they are typical standardized test fare.
And perhaps the most important question is this: If these are the hand-picked exemplar questions released to the public, what must the rest of the test look like? Only by releasing the entire test to the public can we truly assess what we are assessing.
Patrick Honner teaches math at Brooklyn Technical High School. This piece was cross-posted on his personal website, MrHonner.com.