Testimony to the D.C. Board of Education

The following is the text of testimony on NGSS delivered by Kathleen Porter-Magee to the D.C. Board of Education on November 20, 2013.

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank here in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and charter school classrooms.

I’m honored to be with you here today, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about the District of Columbia’s science standards as you weigh the decision to stay the course or adopt the Next Generation Science Standards.

Let me preface this by saying that we at the Fordham Institute have been broadly supportive of the Common Core State Standards. We believe the Common Core standards, which outline what students should know and be able to do in English language arts and math, are clearer and more rigorous than the vast majority of ELA and math standards they’ve replaced.

But let me also say that our support for the Common Core stems first and foremost from their quality. Of course, there are benefits to adopting a set of common standards. In ELA and math, for instance, teachers in states that have adopted similar standards have access to a far greater marketplace of tools and resources—many of them both high quality and free—that they can use to drive planning and instruction. State Boards of Education have the opportunity to capitalize on economies of scale to pool resources for summative assessments, for professional development, for curriculum, and on. And for states opting to administer common or comparable assessments, they will have the opportunity to compare achievement results both within and across states and to get a better sense of which policies and practices are likeliest to drive student achievement in similar contexts.

But commonness is only a virtue if you have quality first. Indeed, the benefits of adopting any standards depend on two things: the quality of the standards and the effectiveness of their implementation.

Before you replace the D.C. Learning Standards for science with the NGSS, let me say that the District of Columbia is currently a national leader in terms of both the quality of its K–12 science standards and also because of its thoughtful implementation of those standards.

As you consider the Next Generation Science Standards, then, I hope you will consider three important points:

First, the D.C. Learning Standards for Science are among, if not the best K–12 science standards in the nation.

Second, over the past several years, D.C.’s school, district, and state leaders have developed and systematically implemented what is widely considered to be one of the most thoughtful, bold, and effective reform plans in the nation—and implementation of the best-in-class K–12 science standards are part of that plan.

Third, we have growing evidence that these reforms—the combination of rigorous standards and effective implementation—are central to improving student learning and that they are having an impact on achievement in the District.

I will take each of these points in turn, beginning with the quality of D.C.’s existing K–12 science standards.

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been reviewing state standards in core content areas for more than fifteen years. In 2012, we released our most recent evaluation of state K–12 science standards, and we found that D.C. had the best science standards in the nation. In fact, the District of Columbia was one of only two states to earn a perfect score, earning top points for both content and rigor and clarity and specificity. (By contrast, our team of experts found most state standards to be seriously lacking. Sixteen states earned D’s and F’s for their K–12 science standards, and the overall average for states was a mediocre C.)

More specifically, our team of experts found the D.C. science expectations to be “clear and rigorous, with content that progresses appropriately through the grades.” The standards also achieve an artful balance of providing essential information succinctly, “proving that it’s possible (if difficult) to pull off both brevity and comprehensiveness.” In sum, the D.C. Learning Standards for Science “could easily guide rigorous curriculum and assessment development across all grades, from Kindergarten through high school.”

At the same time, our experts awarded the Next Generation Science Standards a mediocre C, and they deemed that the D.C. science standards were “clearly superior” to the NGSS. The evaluation revealed four pervasive and serious flaws in the Next Generation Science Standards:

First, the NGSS left much critical K–12 science content either missing or implied.

We have a large and growing body of research that demonstrates that “domain-specific knowledge”—in other words, knowledge of a particular topic—is essential for learning. Students who do not have a broad knowledge base struggle to learn new content. This suggests that, even in our information age, ensuring mastery of essential content in subjects like science, math, and history is as important as ever.

That also means that state academic standards should articulate—clearly and unambiguously—what students should know and be able to do. In a subject like science, where knowledge is cumulative and students cannot access more rigorous content before mastering essential prerequisites, we cannot afford to be vague or ambiguous on what students need to learn. Indeed, one of the reasons that the D.C. Learning Standards for science earned such high marks from our team of experts is because all essential science content was included—and because that content was presented clearly.

The Next Generation Science Standards, by contrast, omit—or merely imply—too much essential content. Specifically, our experts complained that the NGSS “never explicitly requires some content in early grades that is then assumed in subsequent standards.”

Second, the NGSS included “assessment boundaries” along with the standards that too often inappropriately limit the content and rigor of the standards.

In the Next Generation Science Standards, “assessment boundaries” are meant to cap state assessments—to put a ceiling on the content and skills that will be measured by state tests at each grade. The idea is that, while teachers and students can and should go beyond, only minimum expectations for each grade should be measured by the state.

While these assessment boundaries are meant only to limit state tests, and while they are not meant to constrain classroom-level curriculum or instruction, the likely reality is that these assessment limits will needlessly constrain what is taught and learned. And even more problematic is the fact that many of the assessment boundaries reduce the rigor or narrow the content of the standards when we should expect more of our students.

Third, the NGSS fail to integrate essential math that is critical to science learning.

Particularly in advanced science courses, math and science are inextricably linked. Yet, the NGSS includes virtually no mathematics, even when it is essential for student mastery of science content. The absence of essential math was particularly noticeable in chemistry and physics, where our domain experts explained,

… the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered. There is math available in the Common Core that could be used to enhance the science of the NGSS. No advantage is taken of this.

Fourth, the NGSS inappropriately prioritize science practices over science content.

Good science involves “doing” as well as “knowing.” Therefore, science “practices” are a critical part of science standards—and of classroom-level teaching and learning.

But practices should be viewed in service of deep mastery of science content. In other words, standards need to be explicit on content, and they need to ensure that practices are explained in context of the content within which they should be understood. Unfortunately, our report found that the Next Generation Science Standards “conferred primacy on practices and paid too little attention to the knowledge base that makes those practices both feasible and worthwhile.”

In each of these areas—content, practices, and integration of mathematics—the D.C. Learning Standards for Science are clearly superior to the Next Generation Science Standards.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, the impact of standards depends not only on the quality of the expectations themselves but also on how well those standards are implemented in the classroom. Indeed, while some would suggest that the quality of a state’s standards doesn’t matter, the reality is that quality and implementation both matter immensely.

We have a growing evidence base that supports the impact standards- and accountability-driven reform can have on classroom practice and student achievement. A study from 2005 by Eric Hanushek and Margarget Raymond that was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that state accountability policies had a positive and statistically significant impact on student achievement. And research conducted by Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California has shown that standards influence classroom instruction—and, even more critically, that the influence is greater when the standards and the state assessment are well aligned.

That is to say, while standards alone might not do much, when they are well aligned to assessments and instruction and tied to meaningful accountability, they can drive student achievement.

And here, again, D.C. is considered a leader in thoughtful implementation of standards- and accountability-driven reform. In fact, D.C. was among the first jurisdictions to develop a comprehensive and thoughtful plan to implement college- and career-ready standards across core content areas. And that implementation plan aligned rigorous standards with the DC-CAS and with ground-level curriculum, assessment, and professional-development support for teachers and leaders.

Recently, the work D.C.P.S. has been doing to implement standards was highlighted in a series of stories that ran in Education Week, and the efforts of your teachers and leaders have been widely celebrated as an example of what thoughtful district-level standards implementation can look like.

D.C.P.S. has gotten similar accolades for the D.C. IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, which is also well aligned to existing D.C. standards in core content areas, including science. In fact, an evaluation of IMPACT released last month found “strong evidence that this system causes meaningful increases in teacher performance.”

All of that is to say, if a combination of strong standards and thoughtful implementation is the key to student learning and to improving student-achievement gains, then D.C. has reached a moment when those pieces are falling into place. And, while it is still early, we have reason to believe that the suite of reforms D.C. has embraced over the last several years is making a difference. The recent NAEP reading and math results, for instance, showed that D.C. public schools saw greater gains in reading and math than any other jurisdiction. While more research is needed in the long term, these trends are promising.

Given the quality of the D.C. Learning Standards for Quality, and given the thoughtful and comprehensive implementation plan the District has embraced over the past three years, now is not the time to shift gears—especially when doing so would mean embracing lower-quality expectations for K–12 science. Instead, we urge the D.C. Board of Education to stay the course and see its recently enacted reforms through.

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