Anatomy of a Quiz Question, Part 2: Why Was That Question So Hard?

As we mentioned in Part 1 of our “Anatomy Of A Quiz Question” series, Newsela quiz questions are meant to be challenging enough to match the items your students may see on Common Core standardized tests. So what makes a question stand out as particularly tough, and how can you help your students perform well on even the trickiest items? Below is an article excerpt along with a question we’ve identified as especially challenging. This question is from an article on the migrant crisis, titled “People run to Europe to escape war, but some are stuck at train station.”

Countries Say They Need More Help

Europe cannot decide what to do. More than 332,000 migrants have entered Europe this year. Greece, Italy and Hungary are seeing the most people coming in. They have asked for more help. Germany has demanded that other countries take in more migrants. Germany expects to let 800,000 migrants stay this year. That is the most in Europe.

The people coming to Europe are desperate. They just want to be safe. They cross the sea in boats that are badly built. Others ride on the tops of trains. Many migrants have died. 

This week, 11 migrants drowned trying to cross the sea to Greece. Also, trains between London and Paris were stopped. Migrants were running on the tracks. They tried to climb on top of the trains.

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Only 37% of students answered this question correctly, compared to the average score of 50% for third grade anchor 2 questions. Those who chose A likely understood the main idea of the section, which is that European countries have asked for support with managing the flood of migrants. Choice A gives a detail about a country that has asked for this support, and explains the exact demand that the country has made.


This question was challenging because it required several different reading comprehension skills, including the following:

  • Attending to the question wording — it asked about a section, not the whole article.
  • Identifying the main idea of the section, potentially using the section title as a clue.
  • Separating key details from unimportant details.

If your students need support with main idea questions, check out some of the teacher-created lesson plans in Newsela’s Learning and Support section. This lesson teaches students to identify central idea using the 5Ws (who, what, when, where and why) using an article on a young lemonade entrepreneur. Another lesson assesses central idea and understanding of people and events through a text set on Malala Yousafzai.

How do you help students break down tricky questions, and what strategies do you use to teach main idea? Tweet us @newsela and stay tuned for Part 3 of our series.