Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson

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Last week I attended this year’s IRA Convention where every registered participant not associated with an exhibitor’s booth had to wear a name badge around their neck emblazoned with Pearson’s name and logo—which, in effect, made each and every one of us a walking advertisement for the corporate giant that seems to be taking over public education. Also last week third through eighth grade students throughout New York State were sitting at their desks with sharpened pencils, bubble sheets and test booklets published by Pearson, trying to make it through the three-day ordeal that was this year’s state ELA exam.

Subway Test PosterPearson created the tests as part of a $32 million five-year contract with New York State to design Common Core aligned assessments, and the word on the street was they were going to be hard. New York City had, in fact, already warned schools and parents to expect a dramatic drop in scores, and they spent $240,000 on what the New York Daily News called “a splashy ad campaign” explaining the drop to parents through posters that appeared in the subway and on ferries.

What all that money couldn’t buy, however, was any peace of mind, as reports from parents and teachers attest to on sites such as WNYC’s Schoolbook, the New York City Public School Parents blog, and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s “Responses to the NYS ELA Exam” page. There you’ll find stories of students in tears, vomiting and even soiling themselves as their stress and anxiety levels mounted. And you’ll hear many tales of students running out of time, which was in short supply. According to testing expert Fred Smith, whose piece on the New York State tests appeared in the Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” students had 7% less time per item than last year when the passages and questions weren’t as difficult. Not only does this make no sense, it’s also profoundly ironic: One of the Standards’ Six Instructional Shifts specifically tells teachers to be “patient [and] create more time in the curriculum for close and careful reading,” yet this year’s tests seemed to value speed over thoughtfulness and depth. And students had to waste what precious time they had on passages and questions that Pearson was field testing—that is, trying out for use on future tests—which served Pearson’s purposes, not students’.

As Smith says, such field testing “raises legal and ethical questions about forcing children to serve as subjects for commercial research purposes without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent.” And this wasn’t the only ethical question this year’s test brought up. As reported in the New York Post, At the Chalk Face and Diane Ravitch’s blog, several teachers noticed passages on the 6th and 8th grade tests that were in Pearson textbooks, giving students who’d read those texts in class an unfair advantage—and perhaps encouraging schools to buy additional Pearson products to up their students’ chances of scoring well.

Trademark SymbolThere were also reports of other kinds of product placement, with brand names, such as Nike, IBM and Mug Root Beer, appearing in many of the passages. Pearson has said this is an inevitable consequence of using ‘authentic’ texts. But while brand names do, of course, appear in lots of books and articles, you usually don’t see trademark symbols or footnotes such as the one that supposedly explained that “Mug Root Beer is the leading brand of Root Beer” beneath a passage that referred to the brand.

I say supposedly because the tests are kept under lock and key with teachers jeopardizing their careers by revealing specific details of the contents. This lack of transparency again raises questions about corporate versus citizens’ rights—though parents exercised their right to have their children ‘opt out’ of the test in record number this year, and a petition has started circulating online demanding that the State cancel its contract with Pearson.

The lack of transparency also means that parents and other taxpayers who have financed the tests cannot judge for themselves how well, or not, they lived up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s claim:

“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”

ELA Test BookletThe full battery of what Duncan calls these “game-changer” tests are not due out until the 2014-15 school year, but New York State and Pearson have said that this year’s assessments are in line with what’s to come—and Pearson’s in a position to know. They’ve been deeply involved in developing test items for PARCC, one of the two consortia that have received $360 million in federal funds to create the new assessments. Yet according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these ‘game-changer’ exams will be “only marginally better than current tests” and will waste an enormous amount of time and money for everyone except Pearson.

As for IRA, it was heartening to hear (at least in the sessions I attended) more emphasis placed on best practice than data and more talk about meeting the needs of students than the needs of the test. There was even a little insurrection going on with those Pearson name badges: My fellow presenter Mary Lee Hahn of the A Year of Reading blog bought some clear packing tape and used it cover Pearson’s logo with her own business card, and several people used magic markers and editing marks to change PEARSON to A PERSON.

All that and the volume of online chatter I discovered about New York’s tests once I got home made think that there might still be a chance to raise our voices, flex our muscles, and reclaim the conversation from Pearson about where education is going.

Barry Lane at IRA

Educator, author and songwriter Barry Lane pushing Pearson out of the way at the 2013 International Reading Association Convention

14 thoughts on “Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson

  1. Thank you for this, Vicki. I missed you at IRA, but I am grateful to read these words from you, one of my heroes…

    • A facebook friend also said that people were pinning a button celebrating reading over Pearson as well, so I think there was lots of creative problem solving going on!

      • Sorry, I meant to leave my reply here instead of to Julie D. Creativity and innovation are sorely needed now as we figure out ways to fight back.

  2. I would like some thoughts about how teachers and administrators are using authentic data that is not driven by a Parson assessment. Suggestions?

    • This is an important question, Julie, that raises additional questions about what we mean by authentic data and the purpose it serves. If we want data that reveals if students are on track for being college and career ready, we need to heed the words of Massachusetts college professors and researchers who believe that standardized tests, and the teaching around them, are precisely what’s making students not ready for college. If we want data that reveals how well students are able to apply what they’ve learned, Pearson assessments won’t do that because–if New York’s test were any indication–there were lots of items which teachers hadn’t covered in good part because no one was sure how Pearson was going to interpret the CCS (which they’re winding up doing in a pretty narrow way). If we want data that reveals how students are progressing over time, the assessments must be consistent year to year, which hasn’t been the case in New York. If we want data that will help us better target instruction, the Pearson assessment analytics are too broad–i.e., if it notes that students can’t identify a main idea, for instance, which is a complicated skill, we have no idea where the breakdown happens. Are students unable to synthesize information? Are they unable to fully comprehend the information because of vocabulary or background knowledge they don’t possess? Did they choose an answer that was deemed wrong but that they might be able to defend well if given a chance to explain their thinking? Did they get tripped up on something incredibly small, like an antecedent, that led them in the wrong direction? Did the strategies we taught them not actually work with this particular text? Was the question phrased in a particularly convoluted way (like through a double negative, which I’ve seen in test prep books this year)?

      As for alternatives, I think that ongoing formative assessment combined with teacher-developed summative assessments can do a far better job–especially if we give teachers more time and support to deepen their own understanding of the Standards and all that’s truly involved in meeting them. This is, in fact, what many New York City teachers have been trying to do in designing performance-based pre- and post-assessments to their units. The best of them are not only aligned to the CCS and instruction, but they’re built around real-world essential questions and inquiries in which students have some agency and choice. And interestingly enough the Washington Post Answer Sheet article I cited in the post (“Why Common Core Tests Won’t Be What Arne Duncan Promised”) shares an Assessment Continuum Chart that places the performance-based tasks that New York City and State have been developing as being further on the deeper learning continuum than either the current tests or the ones that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are developing.

      So unless we want data just for data’s sake, we need to think about what we’re really trying to measure and how the tools we use can do that–or not.

  3. I also wrote about the Pearson product placement initiative.http://usedbooksinclass.com/2013/04/22/pearsons-test-dilemma-is-a-text-authentic-because-of-product-placement/

    Your experience at IRA was similar to my experience at the FETC (Florida Education Technology Conference) where the keynote speakers either spoke directly against standardized tests or claimed they were unnecessary. For example, Executive Director, Institute of Play, Katie Salen spoke on “Connected Learning: Activating Games, Design and Play”. However, the ads in the big tech programs and the sponsorship of many of the activities and workshops were funded by the large corporate presence of Pearson, Odysseyware, McGraw Hill, etc.
    The conference represented the present paradox of education.

    • Sounds like we’re leading parallel lives again, reading some of the same articles and writing about them in almost eerily similar ways. But did you see the piece in The Atlantic–“The Coming Revolution in Public Education” (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/04/the-coming-revolution-in-public-education/275163/)? It says much of what we and others have been saying for the last year or so in blogs, and it’s the first time I’ve really heard that coming from a major mainstream publication.

      As for the product placements, you mentioned Lego in your post, and I found myself wondering whether the test passage came from the book Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions, which made it onto the list of exemplar texts in the CCS Appendix B. It’s a great book whose purpose is not to sell toys but to explore the creative and innovative thinking that led to their development. And I just pulled it out of my bookshelf to see how that author handled the trademark question. There is a list of all the registered trademarks and their owners on the copyright page in a very small font. Nothing appears in the actual chapter. And I think what was so offensive about the test, was not just that there were products mentioned in some of the texts, but that so much attention was drawn to the trademark, and there were even mottos or slogans like “the leading brand of root beer.” If the trademark did need to be noted, it could have been placed in a more discrete place, like the inside back cover. And they could have chosen other chapters in that book, like the ones on seesaws, tops or hobbyhorses that would have preserved “authenticity” without seemingly pushing a product. It all makes Pearson’s ‘authentic text’ argument sound dubious at best.

      • Yes, but revolutions have casualties. I am cautiously waiting to see who will take the biggest hit. Hopefully, it will be the corporations wearing the scarlet redcoats with Xs on the back! Regardless, the “revolution” distracts everyone…politicians, parents, and teachers. Ultimately, the students suffer.

      • Well, no, they couldn’t do that (put the product logos and trademarks hidden away somewhere) because I’m sure Pearson got big bucks from these companies for advertising their products. It’s all about the bottom line.

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