The good news is that New York State just released sample questions that address the Common Core. Yet if this is what testing mastery of the Common Core looks like, then the standards themselves are in trouble. Let's look closely at one of the questions related to primary sources.
The sample 5th grade question below follows a passage about civil rights organizer, Cesár Chavez, accompanied by the photo at left. (Used in the test with permission from the Cesar Chavez Foundation.)
8. According to the passage how were the farmers not treated with respect?
- A They were not given jobs because of their race. B They were not given suitable working conditions. C They were not allowed to vote. D They were not able to speak for themselves.
- Key: B Aligned CCLS: RI.5.2 Commentary: The question aligns to CCLS RI.5.2 because it requires students to understand details from the text that specifically reference a theme in the text. Rationale: Option B is correct. The passage states that the farmers were not being treated with dignity because of the working conditions they were forced to endure.
The problem is, "B" is not the only correct answer. The text is ambiguous in its treatment of the subject of respect. It does say explicitly that the farm workers were treated poorly and not with respect. (Answer "B.") Yet later paragraphs raise the issue of respect again, specifically saying that teaching people how to vote was one solution to people's problems. See this excerpt:
- The Community Service Organization worked to help people. César now worked to bring people together to identify problems and find ways to solve their problems. Many problems were not solved because community leaders did not respect all people. César, Fred Ross, and the Community Service Organization helped people in the community learn how to vote. They also taught people that community leaders respected voters. Community leaders worked harder to solve the problems of voters. César worked in many communities in California to help people gain the respect they deserved.
These paragraphs are unclear about whether community leaders already respected voters or needed to. Which community leaders is also unclear. More important, the photo itself–the sole primary source here–shows people working for the vote. Not being able to vote is absolutely an issue of respect. And the idea that people don't vote only because they don't know how flies in the face of the American experience with civil rights, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in particular. So students would be correct to answer "C." Indeed, based on the evidence in front of them, I would argue more correct than "B."
Other sample questions contain errors. For example, 5th grade question "3" shows a limited understanding of the meaning of the term, "to impress," incorrectly assuming that the word always implies intent to impress.
More important to me, question "6" in the 8th grade test also shows sloppy treatment of primary sources. In this case, the answer key rationale incorrectly interprets an instruction to folk music collectors in the source, ignoring the historical context of the original author's instruction. (In this case, there is no correct answer. The rationale given wholly misses that the original author meant to point out that California was colonized by Spain hundreds of years before the U.S. annexed it.)
I know well how difficult it is to write performance assessments. I would add that there are encouraging elements here. It is great to see the attempt to incorporate primary sources. Furthermore, it is delightful to see literature from the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Louisa May Alcott, Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. DuBois. Yet we can and must do better than these initial efforts.