Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 12.09.44 PMThis year’s state English language arts exams required more “close-reading” than ever before, in keeping with the priorities of the Common Core learning standards.

Back in April, when the exams were administered to students in third through eighth grades, educators said the length of the reading passages and what students were asked to do with them made the tests too onerous for the time allowed. This week, the state released scores showing that only 31 percent of students met the state’s proficiency standards, including just 26.4 percent in New York City.

We asked three English teachers to apply the same reading strategies that they teach their students to questions that appeared on the state’s reading exams. (Breaking from recent past practice, the state released about a quarter of the test questions that students saw. We highlighted math questions on Wednesday.)

Zeroing in on the “Earth and Water and Sky” passage on the seventh-grade exam, the educators — Victoria Dedaj, Mark Anderson, and Jen Murtha — said some questions required more than literacy skills, used complex language, and sometimes had no clear answer.

Dedaj and Anderson — whom you might remember from our Common Core literacy event last fall — teach at M.S. 228 in the Bronx, where Murtha was a Teaching Matters’ consultant before becoming the nonprofit’s director of educational services. Here’s the passage and what they said about it:

Anderson wrote:

There are a couple of questions that I think neatly demonstrate that literacy is not just a test of “ELA” and that furthermore literacy tests are not solely tests of “skills,” such as finding the main idea or using context clues to determine word meaning.

He used the following test question as one example:

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In the answer key, the state says students who choose C as the correct answer “show an understanding of the implication of the shock wave resulting from the meteorite’s impact, and how this impact is the most effective description of the meteor’s power. The student who selects this response has correctly understood how the details in sequence contribute to the impact of an event, and how these details convey a sense of power as it relates to the impact of the meteorite.”

That explanation leaves one big question unanswered, Anderson said:

What is a shock wave? It is assumed that students will have the necessary background knowledge to answer this.

What’s more, Murtha said, is that students could reasonably make an argument for any of the answers:

This question is extremely challenging for students because all of the answer choices are somewhat correct. In pushing students to think about which answer is “best,” the question attempts to assess students’ ability to determine importance of some details over others. Answering the question correctly requires the students to not only have a deep understanding of the text but an ability to weigh and value some details over others. In this case, it requires students to make the inference that hearing and seeing something powerful is less important to a person than feeling the physical impact of the meteorite hitting Earth. Many students struggle with these types of questions because there are no clear “wrong” answers.

Despite the lack of wrong answers, Murtha said she thought the question was fair:

While I agree students who had background knowledge on meteorites are at an advantage in answering the questions, I do think that students should be able to read a text closely and learn new information from that text. The questions asked on that passage do not require students to have knowledge outside of what was offered in the text but does require them to infer meaning from what the text says explicitly.

Anderson then pointed to another question from the “Earth and Water and Sky” passage as requiring background knowledge:

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In the answer key, the state says that students who choose C as the correct answer “show an understanding that observation, taking notes, and asking questions are elements of the scientific method that a scientist uses.”

Anderson said:

So this question not only requires a student to go back and find evidence, but to furthermore use their knowledge of the scientific method.

He added,

It is a common fallacy that to be a good reader, a student must simply be able to apply skills and strategies to a text. But the reality is that a student must possess the requisite knowledge to fully and deeply comprehend a complex text. I wish test makers and Common Core advocates in general would make this more explicit, and broadcast the pool of texts that they might select for a test a year in advance.

Next, Dedaj weighed in, saying that she found nothing outrageous or unfair about the seventh-grade ELA sample questions. But, she said, the “way questions are being asked and phased in this test this year can be really vague for a student, especially in comparison to past year’s tests.”

She pointed to this question from the “Earth and Water and Sky” passage to illustrate her point:

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Dedaj said:

It isn’t clear that they’re really just asking for a student to “pick a sentence that supports David’s thinking at the end of the story” as it says in the section about what question measures. This question needs to be broken down while a student is reading it — the complexity of the language and phrasing in the questions is difficult, especially for a student with special needs or our [English Language Learners]. If a student didn’t know what the word “characterization” meant, then they were definitely not going to understand what this question was asking.

Murtha also pointed to a different passage and question on the eighth-grade ELA exam that she thought could be difficult for ELLs.

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Murtha said:

This question puts ELL students at a disadvantage. Students are required to understand the meaning of the phrase “whether or not it is sound” and that the word “sound” is being used differently than the most common meaning. Therefore, many ELL students will get the question wrong potentially because they don’t understand the question and not necessarily because they do not understand the text. The question assesses language as much as reading comprehension.

Dedaj ended by saying her favorite question on the seventh-grade reading test was this student’s response:

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The student received 0 out of 4 possible points because of a “lack of comprehension of the task,” “little understanding of the texts,” “no evidence of organization,” and the use of “imprecise language.” (That would be the YOLO!)

Dedaj said:

The amount of time these 12-year-olds had to interpret and respond to all of this was absurd. I think that is a big part of the outrageousness of this test — are we being realistic about how much we can actually expect a 12-year-old to answer?”