Will Kentucky’s education system be standards driven or test driven?

When the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) came to the Bluegrass State, Kentuckians were told their state’s education system would be built around those standards.

Well, perhaps not.

There was a presentation about the pending revision to the state’s science assessments during today’s meeting the Kentucky School Curriculum and Assessment Committee (SCAAC). The presenter was asked if all science areas would be covered in the assessments for elementary, middle and high schools. The answer, to my considerable surprise, was “Yes.”

Not certain I heard this correctly, I questioned the presenter during a break and confirmed that all science areas would be fair game in the new science assessments at all school levels. That included chemistry and physics for high schools.

The reason this surprised me, and the reason this is a problem, is because the generally vague NGSS essentially cut off completely after high school biology. Topics from high school chemistry and physics are basically absent even though some at the Kentucky Department of Education don’t seem to understand that.

Furthermore, a well-established legal principal known as “Notice or “Fair Notice” says you can’t give tests that have consequences if you don’t provide advance notice of what is fair game on the tests. The way you provide notice is with the state’s education standards. NGSS can’t give adequate notice for things it doesn’t include.

So, is Kentucky sailing into really troubled waters with its new science assessments? Unless some changes are made, I think so.

Kentucky’s existing, NGSS-based science standards are inadequate

Omission of important high school science topics in the NGSS has been a matter of serious discussion for some time.

For example, a 2013 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute directly states:

“It would be impossible to derive a high school physics or chemistry course from the content included in the NGSS.”

Harry Keller, CEO of an online science lab provider, also laments much missing high school science material. He summarizes in an article titled, “Next Generation Science Standards Fall Flat” in the online “ETC Journal, A journal for educational technology & change:”

“Do the NGSS abandon all that scientists hold dear? It feels that way to me.”

Even the biology covered by NGSS is deficient. Jennifer Helms, a professor of nursing, writes that coverage of “the human body is missing,” a deficiency that could kill the aspirations of nursing hopefuls. Helms also says:

“Essential life science concepts are absent, such as “bacteria” and “virus”; cytology (design and function of cells) is woefully lacking with no mention of protein structure or functions, cellular feedback mechanisms, or cell and tissue types.”

If we rely on the NGSS, we might have to forget about good doctors, too.

By the way, my own examination (I hold Masters’ and Bachelors’ degrees in Electrical Engineering) confirms many important high school science subjects such as the Universal Gas Law and Ohm’s Law for electrical circuits are absent in the NGSS.

These laws are, and need to be, studied in quality high school chemistry and physics courses.

Even more amazing, the NGSS actually admits on its own web site that electrical circuits are not included in any grade level.This web page says:

“Examples of circuits can be included for instructional purposes when appropriate.”

So, this increasingly important area of science is just an unnamed option according to the NGSS. As such, it can’t be tested, either.

That would come as a real surprise to the folks who create the National Assessment of Educational Progress, who included an electric circuit problem as an example of what this respected national assessment expects fourth grade students to know about.

NAEP 2009 G4 Science Electrical Problem Graphic

So, while we are surrounded today by electrical devices, the people who created the NGSS didn’t think a study of electrical circuits was important! Good Grief!

To summarize, there is no doubt that important material is missing from the NGSS. That makes it a very weak framework to support a quality assessment program. But, there are other issues.

The legal problem

Kentucky can’t blithely test material that isn’t in the state’s education standards. If the tests have any consequences (think school accountability and students’ grades), testing material not in the standards runs afoul of a pretty well established legal requirement known as “Fair Notice,” or sometimes just “Notice.”

An interesting discussion of Notice is found in the 1995 OEA Panel Report on KIRIS testing. The Panel’s report says on Page A-6:

“Notice is a procedural due process requirement. The Debra P. court held that students who might be deprived of their property rights in a diploma must receive adequate prior notification of any required assessment. Similarly, for schools being held accountable for the assessment performance of their students, fairness dictates that they have adequate notice of what they will be held accountable for. Notice means not only knowing in advance but being given clear information about what is to be taught and the specific outcomes to be expected.”

The way notice is properly provided is with high quality standards issued well prior to actual testing.

Recalling my earlier comments, the NGSS doesn’t provide any real notice regarding high school chemistry and physics topics. Thus, including any such material in the state’s pending science assessment becomes problematic on several counts.

For one thing, it is unfair to both teachers and students to put material on the test that no one reasonably expects to see there.

Making the tests – rather than the published standards – the real repository of the state’s standards also plays parents, citizens and employers. The state promises to teach one thing publicly with the published standards. But, the state in actuality requires something else – something hidden – through what is actually included on the tests – tests that parents, employers and the public can’t see and which teachers get only fleeting looks at, too.

If material shows up by surprise on the tests, in future years teachers will rely less on the published standards and more on the tests. Once again, Kentucky won’t be standards-driven; it will be test-driven. And, “Again” is the proper word here.

A test-driven system is what happened in the early 1990s with Kentucky’s long-defunct KIRIS assessments. KIRIS came along well before the state had anything even beginning to approach decent education standards. At the time an associate commissioner of education in Frankfort told me the tests were the operational definition of the standards. Decoded, that meant the real standards were hidden in secret tests. Neither the public nor the teachers had any real idea what was fair game on KIRIS.

This very chaotic and mystifying situation led to the 1995 OEA Panel Report I mentioned earlier. KIRIS was indeed a mess, and the OEA panel was most unimpressed. KIRIS did not long survive as a consequence.

By the way, the CCSS leaves out essentially all high school trigonometry and pre-calculus. If any material from those STEM-essential math courses shows on the state’s math assessments, the same Notice issues will arise. That won’t be fair to taxpayers, employers, parents, teachers, and most of all, our kids, either. If we are going to teach it and assess it, our standards need to clearly list it.

What can be done?

We shouldn’t make the real-standards-hidden-in-tests KIRIS mistake twice.

The right answer to this problem is to seriously improve, if not outright replace, the NGSS with a far more specific product that includes high school chemistry and physics material. The change must also include performance standards so everyone – teachers, students, parents, test writers, and citizens – will know how good a performance is good enough to score “Proficient.”

At present, such performance standards are sorely missing throughout the NGSS at all grade levels. Decisions about what “Proficient” looks like are being made in secret by test creators. That makes Kentucky’s real education system test driven, again.

Another, far less acceptable approach would be to keep the incomplete NGSS as is and only include test material that draws from that overly limited set of standards. That would meet the requirements of Fair Notice, but it would be a bad choice for Kentucky’s kids.

The situation is clear. If there are consequences, you have to give adequate notice about what is going to be on the tests. If the published education standards don’t include all needed subject matter material along with information about how good a performance is required in each area, you either can’t test and hold anyone accountable, or you need to change the standards.

Right now, it looks like Senate Bill 1 from the 2017 Regular Legislative Session will require a full review of all our education standards, including those from both CCSS and the NGSS. Hopefully, the Kentucky Department of Education and the state board will rise to this important challenge and extensively revamp our current standards to insure full and detailed coverage of all required academic areas along with solid information about how to gauge successful mastery of those standards.

Once that standards review job is complete, we then can competently develop new tests. Developing tests first, without solid standards available, not only expensively puts the cart before the horse, but it might also be riding that costly horse backwards into serious Fair Notice issues, as well.