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Practice Items for the Common Core State Standards

The next generation the Common Core State Standards assessments from PARCC and Smarter Balanced have nearly finished with their field testing. No results have been released yet, but very few – stories of crashes and bandwidth problems have been reported so far. It’s safe to assume that all systems are go for full implementation next year.

We received some valuable information from these field tests that can help us practice the testing that will be expected of students in 2015. In fact, if you’re feeling brave, you can take PARCC’s field test for yourself, in English/language arts and math from grades 3-8, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II by using this link.

If you aren’t so brave, NPR sent one of their reporters, Cory Turner, to take the test for you. He reported on his impressions, many of which were already known based on the sample items that have been available for over a year. At the time of his article, only the English tests were available, so he took the 8th grade ELA test.

What’s the difference?

The first thing people notice is that the test is computerized. No more Scantrons and bubbling answers. As we also knew, items are presented in multiple mediums. In one example Mr. Turner gives, he had to read two passages and then watch a video. The task was to compare the three in an essay. Similar items occur on the math test based on sample release questions.

Math is perhaps more of a departure from English in terms of how the tests have been structured. Let’s do a quick comparison of a test from a typical state assessment and then a sample released question from Smarter Balanced.

This is a sample test question from a statewide assessment:

“The total land area for the United States is 3,537,438 square miles. What is this value rounded to the nearest thousand square miles?” followed by four multiple-choice answers.

This is obviously basic rounding. Students are asked to perform this skill throughout elementary school. The sad part of testing this skill with multiple choice questions is that it offers no chance for the student to explain their reasoning, something the Common Core State Standards specifically requires students to do as a part of their practice in math. With this question, an unprepared child still stands a 25% chance of correctly answering the question.

When you look at the same rounding skill as applied in a Smarter Balanced sample test item, you can see a request for the student to demonstrate more depth of knowledge. First, there is an animated video of five swimmers in a race.

“Five swimmers compete in the 50-meter race. The finish time for each swimmer is shown in the video. Explain how the results of the race would change if the race used a clock that rounded to the nearest tenth.”

The question is followed by a text box. In a math test, students are asked to write. It’s the only way for students to demonstrate their way of thinking. It also shows college and career readiness, as employees also have to justify their answers to questions to a superior.

Video allows the designers to make the testing items as “real world” as possible. Using this technology, older students can fully expect to see tasks they would see at the workplace.

Where to get some practice

The question becomes how to practice for this new type of test. First, avail yourself of the opportunity to take the field tests and sample items from either or both testing consortia. Again, here’s the link for PARCC’s practice tests and here’s one for Smarter Balanced’s sample items.

Second, consider an online supplemental solution, like DreamBox, that is built around the multimedia capabilities of today’s technology and is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. You can log many more hours on DreamBox than you can on one of the practice tests and you can fill some background knowledge gaps with its intelligently adaptive curriculum.

Finally, parents and teachers, start asking students for their reasoning behind answers they give in everyday life. How do you figure out baseball batting averages? What gave them this answer for the area of a circle? It’s no longer good enough to just have the correct answer and higher order thinking skills can be practiced throughout the day, not just in the classroom.