Common Core Assessments: A Parents’ Guide

To take or not to take the test?

That is the question, according to some parents concerned about the new Common Core-aligned assessments. The standardized tests, which are designed to measure students’ progress toward mastery of the Common Core State Standards, have become a flashpoint for Common Core controversy. Some parents are opting out of the tests (refusing to allow their children to take them) because they believe the tests are unnecessary and stressful for both kids and educators. Proponents of the tests believe the assessments will provide educators with important feedback regarding student progress; this progress, they say, will be used to tweak instruction to better meet students’ needs.

Take away the controversy and rhetoric, though, and some basic facts remain:

  • Schools have long relied on standardized testing to assess student learning.
  • The Common Core-aligned assessments have been designed to assess students’ mastery of the Common Core State Standards.
  • Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, most students will take Common Core-aligned assessments instead of state curriculum-based assessments.

Core-aligned assessments, explained

The U.S. Department of Education charged two consortia, or groups, with the task of developing assessments to measure Common Core mastery. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (often called Smarter Balanced) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC, pronounced, “park”) have both worked with states to develop tests that schools and states will use to measure students’ progress. Which test your child takes – Smarter Balanced or PARCC – will depend on which state you live in. Some states have opted out of the consortia and are instead developing their own assessments.

While there will be some differences between the tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC will both assess students’ math and language arts skills. Unlike previous standardized tests, these tests will attempt to measure students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills by presenting them with problems that go far beyond simple multiple choice or True/False questions. Common Core-aligned tests will include multistep performance tasks and opportunities for writing.

The Common Core-aligned assessments are also designed to be taken in a digital environment. Instead of filling in circles with #2 pencils, students will interact with the tests via computers or tablets equipped with keyboards. Students will type out some answers; in some cases, they will also be asked to highlight, rearrange or manipulate text or information. The tests may even include video source material. (Smarter Balanced will offer a paper-and-pencil version of the test to schools that do not yet have enough computers or technology to administer the tests digitally.)

The Common Core-aligned tests are not timed; students can take as long as necessary to complete the assessment. Test developers estimate that it will take approximately seven to eight hours to fully complete both the math and language arts portions of the assessments.

What to expect when your child takes the test

Because the tests (and Common Core State Standards) are new, they may seem more difficult than the tests you and your child are used to seeing. Students who are used to answering questions that ask them to regurgitate facts may find it difficult to respond to questions that ask them to gather, analyze and synthesize information. These tests are designed to measure the skills your student is developing in the classroom.

Want to see what kind of material will be on the tests? Here’s a sample 3rd grade math question, from PARCC:

“For a school field trip, 72 students will be traveling in 9 vans. Each van will hold an equal number of students. The equation shows a way to determine the number of students that will be in each van:  72 ÷ 9 = ?   The given equation can be rewritten using a different operation.”

Students are then asked to use a drop-down menu to choose values to complete the following equation:

____     _____   _____  = 72
9            +           9
72          –           72
?           x           ?

An English language arts assessment question for grades 3-5 asks students to read a short story about “Grandma Ruth” that begins, “Last night I learned that my grandmother was named after Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player of all time. I learned this six hours too late.” The test question asks, “What does Naomi learn about Grandma Ruth? Use details from the text to support your answer.” Students are asked to type their answer in the space provided.

Another question highlights one paragraph from “Grandma Ruth” — a paragraph that begins, “My grandma pulled the ball out, unwrapped it, and held it out for us to see. The ball was scarred almost beyond recognition…” — and then asks students to “click on two phrases from the paragraph that help you understand the meaning of scarred.”

Additional sample questions are available on the PARCC and Smarter Balanced websites.

Questions like these are probably pretty familiar to your student. Most schools have been working with Common Core for a year or more now, and students are becoming increasingly skilled at answering these kinds of questions. Educators warn, though, that the number of students rated proficient, advanced and at grade level will probably go down when students take the new tests because the new tests measure how well students measure up to the new,  more challenging standards. They expect scores — and student achievement — to rise as students and teachers spend more time working with the standards.

The Core-aligned assessments have no impact on your child’s classroom grades, and your child’s test scores may not correspond with your child’s school grades. Some students do very well in classroom work, but don’t do as well on tests. Your child’s teacher can help you figure out if your child’s performance on the test is representative of his/her overall ability or not.

If you have concerns or questions about the assessments, talk to your child’s teacher, who can tell you what test your child will be taking and how the school has been helping students prepare for the tests.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at and

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