Policy Documents

Testimony to the Kentucky Senate On Senate Bill 224 to Repeal and Replace Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, and Enact Student Data Protections

March 13, 2014

Testimony to the Kentucky Senate
On Senate Bill 224 to Repeal and Replace Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, and Enact Student Data Protections
March 13, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, and especially to Sen. Katie Stine for inviting me. I am Joy Pullmann, a mother of three small children and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. Heartland is a state-focused, national think tank whose mission is to research and promote ideas that empower individuals. Because we believe in academic freedom at Heartland, I do not speak for everyone at the institute.

My remarks on Senate Bill 224 will focus not on the quality of Common Core’s math and English standards, because I understand you will hear about that from folks better qualified to discuss it, but instead on why Common Core destroys the American idea of representative government and cannot improve student achievement. I will also discuss the scientific wasteland that is the Next Generation Science Standards and problems with national Common Core tests, which include intrusions into representative government and technical problems. I understand I have about ten minutes to do this, so let’s get going.

If you’ve heard much about the pompously named Next Generation Science Standards in the media, you probably know that they heavily push global warming and evolution. We do not even need to get into those religious and scientific debates to note that what could have been neutral, fact- and inquiry-based discussions of these heated topics instead heavily imposes one party line to the exclusion of scientific inquiry or even fact. For this reason, a nonprofit and several parents have sued Kansas for adopting NGSS. Their contention is that the standards impose one religious understanding upon all children, which of course trespasses against constitutional barriers to government-imposed religion.[1] So, practically speaking, these standards not only open Kentucky taxpayers up to more lawsuits, but in terms of principles I think we’d all agree we don’t want government, through schools, imposing religion on anyone. Better to get science standards that don’t do that.

Even brushing this dispute aside, NGSS are, quite simply, rotten science standards. Even NGSS itself says it does not prepare students who want to go into STEM fields after high school: “NGSS do not define advanced work in the sciences….students wishing to move into STEM fields should be encouraged to follow their interest with additional coursework.”[2] It’s far worse than that, though. As Kentuckian Martin Cothran wrote in the Lexington Herald-Leader, in NGSS “climate and weather issues are more important than gravity, photosynthesis, electricity, genetics, radiation and quantum mechanics. Genes are mentioned 38 times; the solar system 23 times; DNA 16 times; oxygen 16 times; mutation 11 times; chromosomes nine times; electrons six times; bacteria four times, and mitosis three times. Meanwhile the terms ‘climate,’ ‘weather’ and ‘global warming’ are together mentioned over 130 times.”[3] A Thomas B. Fordham Institute analysis of the standards by several prominent scientists finds that NGSS omits an astonishing number of essential science content, including almost all math, much of high school chemistry and high school physics, and a variety of smaller but key concepts such as simple electrical circuits, acids and bases, and chemical formulas. In fact, the reviewers say, “there is so little advanced content that it would be impossible to derive a high school physics or chemistry course from the content included in the NGSS.”[4] Fifteen states and national and international organizations already offer “clearly superior” science standards , the report says. Why can’t Kentucky pick one of those, or start with the best and see if it can be improved further? There is no good reason not to.

Many of the same organizations that wrote NGSS also wrote Common Core, and the two are designed to work together. We are repeatedly told that Common Core and NGSS are the products of “state-led” processes. That’s supposed to make us feel better about the fact that they were incubated within private organizations unaccountable to the public, contrary to how states have always conducted the business of public education because our laws rightly grant every citizen to have a voice in the policies that govern our lives. The U.S. Constitution guarantees this, as does the Kentucky Constitution: “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority.”[5] Representative government is the birthright of every American, and our leaders have sold it for the mess of pottage called Common Core.

Briefly, this is how Common Core subverts that birthright. Neither Kentucky nor federal law grants nongovernmental organizations the power to create massive, far-reaching education mandates outside public purview. The National Governors’ Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, which with their creation Achieve, Inc. created Common Core behind closed doors, are private trade organizations that have no legal right to write any public policy. In fact, both receive substantial funds from taxpayers through federal grants and state fees. [6]Yet we are constantly told that Common Core is a “state-led” enterprise. Who is supposed to lead the states? Why, their citizens, as the Kentucky Constitution says. Not a shadow government comprised of nonprofits not subject to open records and open meetings laws and whose members are nowhere near elected or appointed by taxpayers and voters and who are not required to explain who made what decisions and why.

I’ve heard some folks insist that Kentucky teachers got to submit comments on Common Core and thereby “be involved in the process.” This is a farce. Although Common Core’s shepherds requested public comments, they never published these or responded to them publicly, which is typically required for public rule-making. Not one Kentuckian appears on the list of 135 contributors to Common Core,[7] and Common Core contributors were required to sign confidentiality agreements.[8] I spoke with several of these contributors, and they told me they have no idea what influence their comments had on the final product, as the standards’ lead writers were completely in control of that process.[9] Some noted that the lead writers entirely ignored their suggestions.[10] Two of those five lead writers had never written education standards before, and none of them were ever K-12 teachers.[11] And none of them were from Kentucky, or in any way beholden to Kentucky’s people or granted any legal authority to make any decisions for the state. Anyone who presumes to say this in any way befits government of the people, by the people, and for the people has no idea what those words mean.

Kentucky’s education boards apparently had to pass Common Core to find out what was in it, because they adopted the standards a full month before even the first draft was publicly available.[12] That meeting was February 10, 2010, and the first draft of Common Core published on March 10, 2010.[13] The final version of Common Core—which was significantly different from the draft—was published on June 2, 2010, about a week after Kentucky had told the federal government it had adopted Common Core in an attempt to get federal Race to the Top money.[14] So Kentucky taxpayers, parents, and even decision-makers had no way of knowing what their state was promising to do to its education system, and it apparently didn’t matter to those who decided.

The state’s relationship with the national Common Core testing organization called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, also subordinates taxpayers and their duly elected representatives to a set of unelected bureaucrats inside a private nonprofit. Kentucky’s memorandum of understanding with PARCC commits the state to “address barriers in State law, statute, regulation, or policy to implementing the proposed assessment system.”[15] The products coming out of this centrally planned, undemocratic process are, not surprisingly, nothing anyone should be proud to offer children.

I’ll let the others discuss the academic ineptitude of Common Core and discuss the existing and future problems with its tests. The first is cost. Even if we accept the estimate of per-student testing costs from Kentucky’s current testing overlord, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (or PARCC), that $29.50 per student is $5.50 more than you currently pay for English and math tests in grades 3-9, according both to PARCC and the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.[16] Multiplying that extra $5.50 by Kentucky’s 354,262 students in grades 3 to 9 will mean you all have to find an extra $1.948 million somewhere, every year you use PARCC.

That cost only gets the tests shipped to the kids. It doesn’t provide them the technology required to administer these all-online tests. The only independent estimate of technology costs for Kentucky to administer PARCC tests comes out to approximately $110 million.[17] A large amount of that is an unfunded mandate from the state that will have to be paid by local taxpayers. Across the country, school districts are taking on additional debt to pay for computers for these tests, and the debt typically comes due years after the computers’ relatively short lifecycle.


Then you have the likely technical difficulties with Common Core tests. Kentucky has more experience with that than other states. Last spring, if you remember, your shiny new Common Core-aligned tests that were supposed to preview many of the type of open-ended test questions coming on the national tests failed singularly in that respect. The state found it could not score these open-ended questions quickly or cost-efficiently, so told local districts to do so if they wanted, but none of the questions counted towards what test results are supposed to now.[18] That, of course, changes an objective measure that applies to every student into a subjective measure where some test questions apply in some schools but not in others. And, as you may remember, the Kentucky Department of Education didn’t see fit to inform the legislature of this until the news got out several months later.[19] Kentucky has faced this problem since at least 1996 and still can’t seem to get smoothly functioning open-response items on tests.[20] Maybe it’s time to try something else, especially since PARCC also plans to have states manually score their own students’ answers to constructed-response questions.[21]

Further, Kentucky was one of several states last spring that had to invalidate thousands of test results because of computer glitches as students tried to take new online tests.[22] The whole point of these tests is public accountability for student results, because their results arrive far too late to inform instruction. Glitches that constantly invalidate results make it impossible to achieve this goal. It’s time to get it right or stop pretending to care about accountability by forcing kids to participate in several weeks of an annual testing charade. 

The last major area of concern with the tests is that the contractual agreements that entered them into Kentucky also present dangers to student data privacy.  PARCC has committed to the federal government that it will “provide timely and complete access to any and all data collected at the State level to [the U.S. Department of Education]” and any agencies or organizations the feds designate.[23] It has not defined exactly what student information it will collect, and that memorandum of understanding I mentioned earlier gives it the authority to decide unilaterally and to collect, not random, group-level data, but individual, “student-level” data. In 2012, through a regulatory rewrite of FERPA, the U.S. Department of Education granted itself and every government agency, including schools, the right to share children’s information with any individual or organization they please, without informing parents,[24] who are the legal guardians of their children and usually must give consent for things as trivial as field trips or aspirin. So when people say the federal FERPA law protects student privacy, their information is not up to date. In other words, PARCC currently has carte blanche over what student information it wishes to collect, it has promised to turn individual student data to the federal government, and it may also give that information to any company or other entity without informing parents.

Although PARCC pledge to use student identification numbers, researchers have known from the 90s that this is not a secure way to make records anonymous. Back then, using just seven datapoints such as age and race, researchers reattached student records to their names with 86 percent accuracy.[25] With just a few more pieces of information, that accuracy rate goes up 100 percent, which is why researcher Richard Innes calls it “digital DNA.” This is why Kentucky should either drop PARCC or pass laws guaranteeing student privacy will not be violated through its relationship with PARCC.

The talking points coming from the multibillion-dollar private organizations pushing Common Core sound good, of course. But it’s time to confront the evidence no one seems willing to discuss, which is the utter lack of evidence that standards improve student achievement. The Brookings Institution finds no statistical link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” their recent report concludes.[26]

So why do we keep hearing that Common Core is the magic pill America’s lackluster schoolchildren desperately need? Dr. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas explains: “The only evidence in support of Common Core consists of projects funded directly or indirectly by the Gates Foundation in which panels of selected experts are asked to offer their opinion on the quality of Common Core standards.  Not surprisingly, panels organized by the backers of Common Core believe that Common Core is good…  The few independent evaluations of Common Core that exist suggest that its standards are mediocre and represent little change from what most states already have.”[27]

There is much to discuss with Common Core. I have here only hit on a few highlights, believe it or not. But just these reveal that Common Core subverts representative government; is rife with glaring omissions of essential content; will most likely impose glitchy, substandard tests on kids and teachers and high costs on taxpayers; and is actually not supported by research. But, hey, it has a great communications team. Maybe, though, it’s time to ditch them and get better standards—at least, if what we’re here to do is the humble work of serving kids and taxpayers rather than to cater blindly to glitzy special interests.

I thank you for your time and attention.

[1] COPE, et. al. v. Kansas State Board of Education, et. al., United States District Court, District of Kansas, plaintiffs complaint, September 26, 2013: http://www.copeinc.org/docs/legal-complaint.pdf.

[2] “The Next Generation Science Standards Executive Summary,” Achieve, Inc., June 2013, p. 8: http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/Final%20Release%20NGSS%20Front%20Matter%20-%206.17.13%20Update_0.pdf.

[3] “New science standards overdo focus on climate change,” Martin Cothran, Lexington Herald-Leader, July 5, 2013: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/07/05/2704466/ky-voices-new-science-standards.html.

[4] “Final Evaluation of the Next Generation Science Standards,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, June 13, 2013: http://www.edexcellence.net/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/20130612-NGSS-Final-Review_7.pdf.

[5] Kentucky Constitution, Section 4: http://www.lrc.state.ky.us/legresou/constitu/004.htm.

[6] “’State-Led’ Common Core Pushed by Federally Funded Nonprofit,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, April 24, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/04/24/state-led-common-core-pushed-federally-funded-nonprofit.

[7] “Common Core Standards Initiative K-12 Standards Development Teams,” National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, November 10, 2009: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/2010COMMONCOREK12TEAM.PDF.

[8] “Message from Professor Jim Milgram, Standford University, to Richard Innes Regarding the Conduct of the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee, May 11, 2013: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/8/81/Message_from_Professor_Jim_Milgram_Regarding_Delphi_Issues.pdf.

[9] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[10] “Common Core’s Invalid Validation Committee,” Sandra Stotsky, paper presented at “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core,” September 9, 2013: http://educationfreedomohio.org/2013/09/10/common-cores-invalid-validation-committee/.

[11] “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Joy Pullmann, School Reform News, June 7, 2013: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/06/07/five-people-wrote-state-led-common-core.

[12] Minutes of the meeting between the Kentucky Board of Education, Council on Postsecondary Education, and Education Professional Standards Board, February 10, 2010 (Appendix A): http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase2-applications/appendixes/kentucky.pdf.

[13] "Draft K-12 Common Core State Standards Available for Comment," National Governors Association, March 10, 2010: http://www.nga.org/cms/home/news-room/news-releases/page_2010/col2-content/main-content-list/title_draft-k-12-common-core-state-standards-available-for-comment.html.

[14] Kentucky Race to the Top Phase Two Application, May 28, 2010: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase2-applications/kentucky.pdf.

[15] Kentucky Memorandum of Understanding for Race to the Top Comprehensive Assessment Systems Grant, June 3, 2010, p. 14 and 15: http://www.fldoe.org/parcc/pdf/MOUKentucky.pdf.

[16] “Strength in Numbers: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems,” Matthew Chingos, Brookings Institution, November 2012: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/11/29%20cost%20of%20assessment%20chingos/11_assessment_chingos_final.pdf.

[17] “National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards,” Pioneer Institute, February 2012: http://pioneerinstitute.org/download/national-cost-of-aligning-states-and-localities-to-the-common-core-standards/.

[18] “Kentucky Common-Core Testing Snafus Upset Lawmakers,” Andrew Ujifasa, Education Week, May 6, 2013: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/state_edwatch/2013/05/kentucky_common_core_test_scoring_altered_lawmakers_upset.html.

[19] “Kentucky’s common-core testing program hits major snag,” Bluegrass Institute, 2013: http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c8bf0d300f4ae54cc43c1d26b&id=3aa69420e2.

[20] “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers,” Bluegrass Institute, accessed March 12, 2014: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/index.php?title=Partnership_for_Assessment_of_Readiness_for_College_and_Careers_(PARCC).

[21] Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers application to the USDOE for Race to the Top Assessment funding, June 17, 2010, p. 59, 60: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010parcc.pdf; and “Mid-Year Assessments,” Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, July 2013: http://ca539dfd55636c55e922-fd4c048d1c793e15a27f954b34a49d25.r49.cf1.rackcdn.com/MidYear_July%202013%20Overview_FINAL.pdf.

[22] “States' Online Testing Problems Raise Common-Core Concerns,” Michelle Davis, Education Week, May 7, 2013: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/05/03/30testing.h32.html?tkn=YRVFm00oZBVHXhwIuOnD%2FehxkJV6AiBt2xyJ&cmp=clp-edweek.

[23] Cooperative Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Education and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of [sic] College and Careers, January 7, 2011, p. 10: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/parcc-cooperative-agreement.pdf.

[24] “Controlling Education from the Top,” Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Pioneer Institute/American Principles Project, May 2012: pioneerinstitute.org/download/controlling-education-from-the-top/.

[25] “Impact of Exclusion Rates on NAEP 1994 to 1998 Grade 4 Reading Gains in Kentucky,” Lauress Weiss, National Center for Education Statistics, September 27, 1999, Table 2: https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/remarks99/9_27_99pt2.asp#table2.

[26] “How Well Are American Students Learning?” Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution, Volume III, Number 1 (February 2012): www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf.

[27] Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jay Greene, September 21, 2011: http://jaypgreene.com/2011/09/21/my-testimony-on-national-standards-before-us-house/.