The room fell silent as heads bowed over test booklets.
I flipped to the first page and all the familiar anxieties flooded back. Will I have enough time? Will I second guess what I know is the right answer?
Relax, I told myself. I wasn’t in the school cafeteria sweating over a blue book, I was in a room of reporters, learning about the differences between old exams like the ones we took in middle school and a new set of exams aligned to the Common Core, which testing experts say measure a deeper level of thinking than ever before. The session was part of a conference on testing put on by the Education Writers Association, which Seattle Times reporter John Higgins and I attended this week.
We answered sample questions from a few different tests, including one from an old fourth-grade reading exam from an unidentified state, and another from the Smarter Balanced test, one of the two new tests based on Common Core learning standards. Roughly 20 states are starting to use Smarter Balanced, including Washington. (And you can do a little of the same, in the quiz at the end of this post.)
The item from the fourth-grade reading exam asked us to pick a synonym for the word “heap” from a list. Easy enough, if you knew what the word meant.
The second question was more complicated. It asked us to pick two meanings of the word “similar” based on a short story about a coyote in a bear suit looking at a beehive. Like the first question, the point was to understand the concept of a synonym. But to pick the right answers I had to work a lot harder — reading two sentences, hypothesizing why a coyote was wearing a bear suit, and remembering what a buzzing bee sounds like.
Andrew Latham, director of an assessment program at the nonprofit research group WestEd, explained that the point of the second question is to measure whether students can draw the meaning of a word out of a reading passage.
Several other questions broke the traditional multiple-choice mold. Instead of picking one answer from a group, we were asked to select several correct answers. That makes the tests less susceptible to guessing, Latham said.
Latham said the questions on these new tests are closer to what students will be asked to do on the job one day. That’s similar to how the Common Core standards are supposed to take students from rote memorization to, hopefully, deeper understanding.
In the end, the test was fun. I even stayed hunkered down at my seat after class was dismissed to solve a math problem.
Try your hand at the sample questions below — some from the new tests and some from the old. Let us know what you think in the comments. Is the difference between the two noticeable to you?
Old vs. new standardized tests
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Try your hand at some traditional standardized test questions juxtaposed with sample test questions from the Smarter Balanced and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams. These two new tests are based on Common Core standards.
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Question 1 of 4
Fourth-grade reading question (old)
Which two words are synonyms for heap?CorrectIncorrect
Question 2 of 4
Fourth-grade reading question (Smarter Balanced)
Read the sentences from the passage.
As he neared the hollow tree he heard a growing hum. He made a similar noise and he saw one or two bees land on his bear suit.
What does the use of the word similar suggest? Pick two choices.CorrectIncorrect
Question 3 of 4
Seventh-grade math question (old)
Which graph best represents these prices?CorrectIncorrect
Question 4 of 4
Seventh-grade math question (PARCC)CorrectIncorrect