Common Core Tests: What Are They Testing For?

With all the myths floating around about the Common Core, preparing for tests can be pretty intimidating – what are they all about? What skills are they testing for? You try to look it up, but breaking down Common Core tests like the PARCC and the SBAC isn’t that easy even with all the graphs and explanations they’ve posted online (or perhaps because of them…).

Breaking Down Common Core Tests

It takes quite a bit of digging through the websites to even find the SBAC’s Summative Assessment Blueprints or the PARCC’s Mathematics High Level Blueprint or English Language Arts (ELA) High Level Blueprints. And understanding them? Well, it’s not a walk in the park.

To really be able to translate the charts provided, you almost have to have studied the Common Core standards, and it really helps to be familiar with the practice tests for the PARCC and SBAC (or others like the AIR). I’ve studied both the standards and each of those tests multiple times, and interpreting their summative assessments and blueprints still takes effort.

That’s why I decided to look at the tests and see what kinds of skills they were testing. I compared the PARCC and the SBAC math and English Language arts tests for 3rd grade through high school. I wanted to see if they matched the values I saw emphasized in the common core. Here’s what I found.

Preparing for Tests Common Core Test Infographic

Now, I’ll tell you straight off that those percentages are averages. In PARCC math, for example, grades 3-8 are tested more highly on expression than application, and Algebra I – Math III are tested more highly on application than expression (which makes sense). English Language Arts is tested more highly on expression in general (more writing on the English test? No way!). And the SBAC has ranges to show the possible number of questions in different sections, so what percentage of the test is taken up by application varies by the value in the range.

What you’re seeing in the infographic is the average percentage across all grades (including the variation in ranges for the SBAC). The words in the center show the average breakdown across both tests, but comparing them to the graphs to the sides, the size of the words could represent any one of them.

That’s what made breaking down the common core tests so surprising: even with all that supposed variation, the end result was amazingly similar. All the tests value the same 3 levels of understanding: skill mastery, expression, and application.

Skill Mastery (Conceptual Understanding)

Don’t know what that means? It means the kinds of school problems that students have seen on tests for decades. Ok, maybe the formatting and style of questions have changed a bit – we didn’t take our tests on the computer, for instance – but they’re testing the same things:

  • Does the child understand the math/English concepts?
  • Does the student know the necessary process to get the correct answer?
  • Does the child recognize key terms?

These types of questions make up the majority of the tests. If a student knows the math and English subjects covered in his or her grade, then that student should do pretty well in this section because that’s what it’s all about: Can the student do the math? Can the student read and comprehend?

People tend to think that the Common Core Standards changed everything in education, but in a lot of ways, the tests are emphasizing the same types of questions that tests always have.


Here’s where the emphasis has changed. Or, to be more honest, here’s where some of the skills valued in English Language Arts have begun to be valued in math, as well: the ability to express thoughts and support them.

  • Can the student clearly state his or her thought process or reasoning (in complete sentences and so that someone with no background of the problem could understand)?
  • Can the child support his or her answer using evidence from the reading passage or mathematical problem?

Students who aren’t used to showing their work or verbalizing their reasoning, especially in math, may struggle with this. Have them practice explaining their work to you verbally and in written form. A test prep program could also help provide practice for this.


Application questions test whether students can use their knowledge in situations or ways that they haven’t seen before.

  • Can the child recognize what concept to use in a real-world situation?
  • Can the student adjust the process from class to make the concept suit the circumstances?

That’s what application is testing. Can you only use the Pythagorean Theorem in the same types of word problems you’ve always seen (Joe puts a ladder against a wall…), or do you understand it well enough to use it in real-life applications? Can you only quote the definition of the parts of speech (“A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea), or can you identify the parts of speech in a sentence and use them to help improve your writing?

Why Skill Mastery, Expression, & Application?

Think of Skill Mastery as the lowest level of understanding that a student can have of a topic, the most basic understanding of the topic that the school requires. Like making sure that Algebra students can work with variables, solve equations, graph, etc. Those topics and skills are the main focus of what students learn in school, so it makes sense for them to be the biggest portion of the test.

The next step above the basic understanding is expression: explaining something is generally harder than doing it. At the same time, being able to explain your thoughts and reasoning is an important skill (useful in any kind of interview, proposal, etc.). Applying the information demonstrates an even higher level of understanding because it requires understanding something well enough to be flexible with it: it shows that you know the topic well enough to use it in real life.

So by including expression and application, the test-makers are assessing higher levels of understanding. To get full points, it’s not enough to have the minimum required understanding. That matches the goal of the Common Core Standards.

Still worried about common core tests? What else would you like to know?

Author: Elizabeth F., Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead

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