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What happens when a Yale grad takes the 8th grade Common Core exam?

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NEW YORK (PIX11) -- It's become controversial because of its content and the reactions of some children who have encountered it. Are the Common Core educational standards, and the exams that accompany them, so difficult that they merit the anxiety associated with them?  PIX11 News put the test to the test.

To begin with, finding the sample exam was no easy task.  Advocates of Common Core standards point out that the New York State Department of Education has posted at least as much or more of past exams online than any other state.  However, because there's such a wide variety of Common Core material posted on the department's website, it took us about 20 minutes to find sample tests, which are called "sample questions" on the state website.  For readers' convenience, this is a direct link to the sample questions

Those questions include the correct answers, of course, to the sample tests, but they also include helpful accompanying commentary that explains why answers are correct or incorrect.

I ended up checking those answers in a personal way. On deadline, I completed about half of the 103-page file of sample questions and accompanying answers and explanations for the 8th grade English Language Arts exam.

As I've disclosed in the past, I have a bachelor's degree from Yale, and a master's degree from Columbia.  Those diplomas only mean that I'm smart enough to know how much I don't know, and it's a lot. The Common Core sample test stood a chance of being a further reminder.

"Students and teachers feel the same way you do," psychologist Jeffrey Gardere, PhD, told me after the examination.  "You're a little bit nervous because you're doing a story. You're a reporter.  [Students and teachers] are even more nervous than you because they're doing this as part of their lives."

Dr. Gardere called test anxiety normal, but said it's even more intense with Common Core.  "They're feeling, 'I've got to get this right, because it says to everyone in the world if I'm prepared for high school, for college, and for life.'"

Gardere also addressed the fact that teacher evaluations are based in part on Common Core results.  He said it raises the level of anxiety on both the part of the test giver and the test taker.

"Teachers and students interacting, and both sets are nervous," Dr. Gardere said. "Then you add that together and this is a case where one plus one makes three."

While that comment resembled an incorrect math Common Core test answer, it was actually meant to show just how intense the pressure and anxiety can be during testing. As for the actual exam, this test-taking reporter was surprised by a few things.

On more than one occasion, on the multiple choice questions, two answers seemed to apply.  I found myself trying to figure out what the writers of the test had in mind as I attempted to choose between one of two potentially correct responses.

It was not all multiple choice, however.  More than half of the sample exam had essay questions listed after the fiction and non-fiction passages that make up the content of the test .  I was pleased with the specificity of the essay question instructions.  As opposed to the multiple choice responses, the essays allowed for detailed and specific answers.

I also found one error on the sample test. One non-fiction passage referred to "greenhouse gasses."  The word "gases," when used as a noun, as it was on the test, does not have have a double -s.  When used as a verb, such as "She gasses up her car," it has the double -s.

In the hour and three minutes I had available to take the test, I scored 22 points out of 25, or 88 percent.  And that was the score of a grownup who reads for a living.  Compare that to a child  knowing that a lot is riding on the exam, and it becomes clear why some students react the way Nadia Hardison, a Staten Island fifth grader, did.

"Me and Niko actually came home crying one day," she told PIX11 News about her and her brother's reaction to having to do Common Core classwork, "because it was really just annoying."

Nadia and Niko's mom opted them out of taking Common Core exams, but that decision can provoke emotions, as well.

"It's kind of awkward," said Nadia, about the first time she'd opted out, two years ago, "because I had to move to another class, and everybody stared at me when I left."

Dr. Gardere, the psychologist, acknowledged that opting out can have its own emotional effect, especially when the student involved is one of few choosing to sit the test out.

"If your child is going to take the road less traveled by not taking Common Core," said Gardere, "that may have some unintended consequences."

He said that whether a child takes the test or not, the decision has an effect.  So he offers this advice to the parents of test takers.

"Help them deal with the stress as best as possible.  The best way to do that is help them prepare as much as possible."

Noting that, it's worth posting once again the link to the New York State practice tests, with detailed commentary explaining why each answer is either right or wrong.