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Sunday, August 4, 2013
8 Things to Know About Corporations Like Pearson that Make Huge Profits from Standardized Tests
Bush's No Child Left Behind Act and Obama's Race to the Top grant program means testing giants are raking in the dough.
A few months ago, fourth-grader Joey Furlong was lying in a hospital
bed, undergoing a pre-brain surgery screening, when a teacher walked in the room with a standardized test. Shocked, Joey’s father, who was in the room, told the teacher to leave.
mother, Tami Furlong, later said, “I would like to hope she would not
have taken his arm that has an IV and oximeter on it and put a No. 2
pencil in it.”
Joey’s story serves as one example of just how
absurdly enforced standardized testing has become. Since George W.
Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002, testing in the
United States has skyrocketed. Before NCLB, under Bill Clinton’s
Improving America’s Schools Act, the federal government required
students to take six tests total — a reading and math test in
elementary, middle and high school. Under NCLB, in order to receive
federal funding, schools are required to make students take 14 tests
total — a reading and math test from grades 3-8 and once in high school,
plus a science test in elementary, middle and high school. But some
districts require even more tests.
Barack Obama’s $500 million
competitive grant program Race to the Top, enacted in 2009, chiefly
inspired school districts to give more tests. Amidst the recession,
state budgets were hit hard, and government officials were willing to do
whatever they could to receive money. Now, at least 25 states mandate
one formal assessment test in kindergarten. Race to the Top’s 2011 Early
Learning Challenge awarded schools that could prove their students'
“readiness” to begin school — meaning how well four-year-olds did on
In order to execute these policies that
significantly expanded testing, school districts needed test providers.
This, in turn, made some educational corporations very rich. Bob
Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy
organization working to prevent the misuse of standardized testing, said
he is inclined to blame politicians, rather than corporations, for the
He said, “In a capitalist society, if there’s a
market, somebody will figure out how to serve it. But the corporations
reinforce the stupidity of the bad policies of politicians.”
is the largest corporation serving this testing market. Pearson is the
world’s largest education company and book publisher, bringing in more
than $9 billion annually.
But Pearson wasn’t always so big. In
fact, Pearson, a British multinational corporation, was just starting
out in the early 2000s. But “Pearson looked at NCLB as its business
plan,” Schaeffer said. Pearson began rapidly buying up U.S. companies.
Pearson has partnered with 18 states in the U.S., as well as
Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, to produce pricey testing materials.
For a five-year contract, Pearson was paid $32 million to produce
standardized tests for New York. Its contract in Texas was worth $500
million. Pearson also owns Connections Academy, a company that runs
for-profit, virtual charter schools. It also owns the GED program,
although competitors have been creating alternatives in
order to combat Pearson’s expensive tests. By and large, the massive
corporation has far-reaching control over the education industry.
Noted educator Diane Ravitch wrote, “Truly, the reach of Pearson across all of American education is astonishing.”
Pearson is the major player in the rise of standardized testing, other
corporations have a stake in testing as well. CTB/McGraw-Hill is
probably Pearson’s main competitor, with several states across the
country using its standardized tests. CTB/McGraw, with revenues of more
than $2 billion, is best know for its TerraNova and California
Achievement Tests. Other players include Education Testing Services, as
well as Riverside Publishing and its parent company Houghton Mifflin
But while the corporations enjoy large profits, their
products continue to damage our education system. Here are eight things
you need to understand about these corporations and their tests.
1. The tests are full of errors.
At least the corporations that make these tests are able to score them properly. Right?
Wrong — and by a long shot.
recently, hundreds of New York City high school seniors had to
anxiously await their diplomas because McGraw-Hill Education made quite a
blunder of scoring their Regents exams. The computer system used to
score the exams that determine if a student can graduate broke down. The
scoring computer system was part of a $9.6 million contract with the city.
is also under fire for not having enough computer memory while students
in Indiana took their tests, causing 80,000 students to experience interruptions during
test-taking. While the state owes the corporation $24 million for this
year’s tests, the state’s education department is hoping to seek more
than $600,000 in damages.
In Oklahoma, students experienced similar glitches this year, prompting the Oklahoma Education Association to demand the
tests be disregarded. According to their report, students “were left
waiting for hours to finish tests, arrived at school day after day
expecting to be tested only to experience additional delays, and had to
take the same tests multiple times. … Consequently, thousands of
students were left exhausted, frustrated, demoralized and incapable of
giving their best effort."
A few months ago, Pearson erroneously scored New
York City students’ tests used for entry into its gifted and talented
programs. Thirteen percent of students K-3 (yes, kindergarteners take
these tests), who were qualified for the programs, were wrongly
Last year, researchers found a design flaw in Pearson’s standardized tests for Texas students. Pearson's long history of delaying scores and wrongly scoring goes on and on.
2. The corporations encourage new standards, to make new tests, to make new money.
of the best ways a standardized testing corporation can make more money
is by coming up with new standards, which is why it’s not surprising
that Pearson has played a role in crafting the new Common Core State Standards, a new set of standards set to be implemented in most states this
coming school year. Advocates argue these new standards will increase
but not improve testing —which will now be done on computers many
schools don’t even have.
Its website states: “Pearson’s close
association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State
Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the
initiative is embodied in our professional development.”
Assessment experts and academics were the main writers of
the Common Core standards, while few of its consultants were classroom
teachers, and parents played no role. The tests are expected to be much
harder than current tests. They are supposed to be able to determine
“college readiness,” although many realize — including Pearson researchers — that testing this is a complex matter.
whether or not these new standards are well designed, effective or
useful doesn’t matter much when schools get more points from the federal
Race to the Top program for implementing them. Pearson, then, acts as a
national aid, ready to assist in the new profitable standards by developing the curriculum and assessments.
Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson's K-12 division, said: “It's a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we're involved in."
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates
implementing the new standards will cost the nation between $1 billion
and $8 billion. Nearly all the profits will go to book publishers and
test creators like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer of New York City schools, has warned:
"There's lots and lots of books that have got fancy, pretty stickers on
them saying 'Common Core,' but they actually haven't changed anything
in the inside."
3. They profit from testing teachers, too.
corporations have found they can profit from turning students into
unimaginative machines, they are newly discovering they can profit from
standardizing teachers as well. Pearson’s new edTPA standardized
assessments will determine teacher certification. Seven states have
already adopted edTPA, with New York set to implement the program in May
The standard requires those pursuing a teaching career to
complete the assessment during student teaching. Pearson requires these
student teachers to complete a written examination and submit at least
20-minute videos of themselves teaching, which the corporation will then
own. The test costs prospective teachers $300. And instead of a teacher
or supervisor assessing the instruction, Pearson will pay anonymous,
current or retired teachers or administrators $75 to evaluate them.
type of teaching assessment completely tears down the imaginative art
and craft of teaching by standardizing it, which can only leave students
to be less excited about school, with less personal connection to
One prospective student relayed his fears of edTPA to his teacher:
… was excited because the teacher he had been assigned to for Fieldwork
I, where students spend 35 hours observing and participating in
secondary settings, had invited him to student teach with her. Because
he had tremendous respect and admiration for this teacher, Joel was
thrilled by the opportunity. But he was also worried, so worried that he
hesitated to accept the offer.
Joel was apprehensive
about completing the edTPA in this school. It is an urban environment in
a community noted for poverty and gang activity. He had forged
relationships with the young people in the school, as well as several
faculty members, but the judgment of an objective scorer who might not
understand if the classroom was not filled with compliant, well-behaved
learners had made my student hesitate.
4. They have lobbying power.
only are these corporations cheering on additional testing from the
sidelines, they are also flexing their money muscle via lobbying. One
2011 report found Pearson spent close to $700,000 lobbying in four key states.
But most of its lobbying is much more implicit. The New York Times reported that
in 2011, Pearson Foundation underwent investigation for paying for
state officials trips to education conferences overseas. The foundation,
which is a non-profit and tax-exempt, was charged with using its
resources to benefit the Pearson for-profit company.
Possibly the most egregious activity was uncovered in a recent report published
by In the Public Interest, which found that Pearson helps fund
Foundation for Excellence in Education and its partner Chiefs for Change
— both Jeb Bush-founded, conservative education policy advocacy
organizations. In turn, the foundation crafts policy that profits
Pearson. The report disclosed emails between
the two organizations that show they are working on writing state laws
benefiting their corporate funders. The organizations have already
written education policies that benefit its funders in Florida,
Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.
5. Their test content is absurd.
If you haven’t heard of “Pineapplegate,” be sure to check out Pearson’s absurd passage about
a race between a hare and a pineapple, given to New York eighth-graders
last year, and see if you can answer the bizarre questions. Perhaps the
worst part about Pineapplegate was Pearson’s defense of the passage and
its questions by offering nonsensical explanations to the “correct” answers.
from illogical content, tests often include questions that require
skills not yet taught to the students. For example, New York had to toss a [fifth grade] math question because it required students to understand mathematical concepts not taught until middle or high school.
bilingual students have to take tests in English before they have
mastered the language. It takes five to seven years to master a
language. Students with special needs are also required to take these
tests and receive few accommodations.
6. They give students with the ‘proper’ textbooks an advantage.
making sure students are graded properly, how else can you ensure they
do well on Pearson’s tests? By making sure your school buys Pearson’s
books. In a blog post titled
“How Pearson Cheats on State Tests,” Diane Ravitch writes that an
upstate New York teacher alerted her to the fact that her student’s
standardized tests contained a story her students read a week earlier
from their textbooks.
The teacher wrote:
Day 1 of the NYS ELA 8 Exam, I discovered what I believe to be a huge
ethical flaw in the State test. The state test included a passage on why
leaves change color that is included in the Pearson-generated NYS ELA 8
text. I taught it in my class just last week. In a test with 6 passages
and questions to complete in 90 minutes, it was a huge advantage to
students fortunate enough to use a Pearson text and not that of a rival
publisher. It may very well have an impact on student test scores.
7. They make students take additional tests for their company research.
does Pearson attempt to fine-tune its tests? Not by using paid research
or paying students to take tests. Instead, it administers “field tests”
to certain schools and subjects students to even further testing during
the school year.
Last year, parents in NYC were fed up, and protested against
administering what some called “free pilot studies” for Pearson.
Meanwhile, teachers were sent a memo from the NY State Education’s
Office telling them to lie to students and pretend that these field tests were real.
A few months later, Pearson decided to try bribery as an approach to continuing its field-testing. If principals decided to use their students as guinea pigs, they would get a free Kindle, Nook, iPad, or iPod Touch.
8. They use product placement.
Root Beer, IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™ — what do all these
corporate brands have in common? They were all found in this year’s New
York State English exam. Pearson denies receiving money from these
corporations, though some say there should be further investigation.
Eighth-grader Isaiah Schrader wrote a piece about
how he “found the trademark references and their associated footnotes
very distracting and troubling.” Schrader argued that even if they
weren’t paid, Pearson should not advertise to children, who are
especially susceptible to advertising. He wrote:
students should be required, however, to take tests that subject them
to hidden advertising. Clearly the trademarked products mentioned
throughout the exam had no relevance to the stated goals of testing
students’ reading comprehension and analytical skills. Surely Pearson
can afford to edit standardized tests and remove all mention of
goal of NCLB was to improve overall achievement in education, to
surpass some of the U.S.’s international competitors, and to close the
race gap. Yet, after 11 years, research has found no significant
improvement in test scores. One report
by FairTest, revealed that scores actually increased more rapidly prior
to NCLB. There was also no evidence of the race gap narrowing. A
National Research Council report showed
similar results. And no significant improvement has been made
concerning the country’s ranking in reading and math scores compared
with other countries.
Because Race to the Top ties teacher
evaluations to these test scores and NCLB puts sanctions on schools that
fail, both teachers and administrators have also suffered in various
ways from these programs. [Note: tying student test scores is anomylous, internationally.] Teachers have had to teach to the test and put
other classroom learning aside, which researchers believe is the cause
of decreased creativity
among children. A 2011 teacher survey revealed that 66 percent of
teachers said the NCLB’s focus on reading and math has led to reduced
time for art, science and social studies.
administrators have reacted by taking students’ scores into their own
hands — and cheating. Cheating scandals have been documented in more than 37 states, with the largest and most recent scandal in Atlanta, GA. One superintendant in El Paso is currently serving jail time for cheating and even forcing low-scoring students to drop out of school.
charter schools, forcing low-scorers out has been common practice.
Students with disabilities, bilingual students and students with various
behavioral issues are routinely denied
access to charter schools for fear of lowering the schools’ test
scores, which charters rely on in an attempt to appear superior.
as testing has become more high-stakes — determining promotion,
graduation (for 26 states), teachers’ jobs and schools’ very existence —
students are facing insurmountable stress and anxiety. ["Children Stressed to the Breaking Point Due to Standardized Testing," A Principal's Reflection blog]
(One California standardized test even came with an instruction packet
on what to do with a test booklet if a student vomits on it.) Perhaps,
more damaging, a new study ["Study Links High Stakes Testing to Higher Incarceration Rates," The Real News]
has found a relationship between high-stakes testing and the
school-to-prison pipeline, with students who fail high stakes testing
exams 12 percent more likely to face incarceration.
Testing, however, doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, it can be helpful if used to gauge students’ abilities.
As Bob Schaeffer writes:
tests can be a portion of an assessment system. They are an okay tool
to measure factual recall in a real quick way. … The purpose of testing
is to improve learning and teaching, which means it should be primarily a
feedback tool not a label and punish tool.”
now, Pearson and other educational corporations profit off of Bush and
Obama’s policies that made standardized tests one of the main forms of
assessment, tied to severe consequences. And while students, teachers
and schools suffer the consequences of these profitable standardized
tests, Sandy Kress, one of the key architects of No Child Left
Behind—and now a lobbyist for Pearson—sends his son to a private Latin school that doesn’t give the tests.
Schaeffer said Obama’s children also go to a private school where standardized testing isn’t emphasized.
said, “Well to-do parents can buy their way out of the test prep
insanity by moving to well to-do districts where there’s not much test
prep going on in schools.”
Fortunately, the increase in standardized testing has been met with resistance.
Across the country, teachers are refusing to give the tests and
students are refusing to take them. Parents are also speaking out and
are part of the grassroots fight to remind corporations, politicians and
school boards that our education is not for sale.
Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.