Why Testing?

A post in a new-to-me newsletter called Education Dive tries to explain “Why testing prevails in K-12 education“. It starts with the president’s call from last October for a reexamination of the purpose for the current testing structure in most American schools.

“The president said students “should only take tests that are worth taking – tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everyone is on track,” testing shouldn’t take up too much classroom time, and the assessments should be one tool in a more complete toolbox to help schools get an indication of student progress and school and teacher effectiveness.”

The rest of the piece is a pretty good review of the arguments on both sides: the incredible amount of instructional time diverted by testing and test prep, countered by the administrative and political need for data, data, data to provide “accountability”

However, it’s not until the very last paragraph that the writer arrives at the primary reason why the spring standardized testing ritual now underway in most American schools will continue for the foreseeable future: “Testing…makes a lot of money. Lots of it.”

Pearson, and the bureaucratic infrastructure built to support standardized testing, must be fed.

Pearson Conquers the World

If you work in public education in this country, it’s very hard to escape Pearson.

They write the tests used by most states to assess learning under the Common Core curriculum, as well as test for non-CC states like Virginia (where we build our own standardized testing swamp). Plus they provide scoring services for those tests, sell textbooks aligned to those tests, and offer professional development to help teachers prep their students to take the tests.

But, according to a very interesting article in the current Wired Magazine, the US and UK are just the beginning. Pearson is working hard to Cover the Planet in Company-Run Schools.

The writer uses the schools Pearson is opening in the Philippines to explain the fundamentals of their process.

They locate in cheaply rented spaces, hire younger, less-experienced teachers, and train and pay them less than instructors at government-run schools. The company argues that by using a curriculum reflecting its expertise, plus digital technology–computers, tablets, software–it can deliver a more standardized, higher-quality education at a lower cost per student. All Pearson-backed schools agree to test students frequently and use software and analytics to track outcomes.

Sounds very much like charter schools in the US. And, although the Pearson schools profiled are in areas of high poverty with dismal public education options, the students they are serving are often comparably better off, from families that place a higher value on learning.

However, other analyses have pointed out that the students at fee-charging schools tend to come from families with a little more money, which generally correlates with higher test scores. There’s an X factor too, harder to quantify: It could be that for-profit schools attract more parents like Nellie, who place more of an emphasis on education and whose children would therefore do better in any setting. Critics of charter schools in the US make a parallel argument, accusing them of “creaming off” the most engaged families.

Pearson’s global privatization efforts, which increasingly involve syphoning off scarce public education funds through vouchers, have received a great deal of criticism from organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, who would rather see money spent on improving opportunities for all children.

But Michael Barber, their chief education adviser, says the issue is not about fixing public education anyway: “The question is, how do we get every child a good education?”. And, of course, build his company into a hugely profitable conglomerate.

In the end, however, there are better questions to ask about the issue of privatizing public schools. Do you believe education is a “basic human service” that should be provided at high levels to every child? Or a commodity to be marketed at differing levels of quality based on the economic fortunes of the family?

The Wired article (worth your time to read) makes it clear where Pearson stands.

Investing in Pearson-style Learning

Yesterday Pearson, our favorite merchant for all things standardized testing, sold The Financial Times for £844m (roughly $1.3 billion US money) in cash.

So, what do they plan to do with all that money?

We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

This is the promise of learning— and the future of Pearson.

I’m not sure what most of that means, what a “bigger, bolder impact” might look like, or how they can help people “discover a love of learning”.

But based on Pearson’s history, be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Blame Belongs to Us

If you don’t live inside the ultimate company town that is the Washington DC metro area, you may not have heard of Politico. It’s basically an inside-the-beltway gossip rag that one writer calls “Tiger Beat On The Potomac”.1

While most of what they publish isn’t worth your bandwidth or time, Politico does have an investigative unit that occasionally produces something worth reading. Like their recent deep dive into Pearson, the 800-pound gorilla of standardized testing, in an aptly titled piece No Profit Left Behind. It’s not especially flattering.

A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets – but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

And it’s not at all surprising when the writer states “[t]he story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades”.

What she misses is that the “obsession” has not really been with “reform” as much as the desire to hold someone accountable for the perceived “decline” in the American education system. The politicians writing the laws needed concrete data, and companies like Pearson crafted the products to deliver it. Right place, right time.2

The worst part about the contracts many states have entered into with Pearson is that they get paid regardless of whether their products and services actually work, or at least do what the company says they will. One example that hits too close to home.

The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved “school turnaround” consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages. Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results. State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.

Our state must have pretty low criteria for consultants. As, it seems, do many districts and states all over the country.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, keeping in mind the bottom line, as I ranted about recently, is that the blame for the educational malpractice described in this piece belongs in large part to us.

“When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” – Jonathan Zimmerman, education historian at New York University.

We, dear citizen and taxpayer, enable the pigs to eat at the trough.