A new packet of shrink-wrapped state tests will arrive at hundreds of elementary and middle schools across the region this week.
But these 40-minute tests given in early June won’t count for students or teachers. They’ll test whether a private contractor, Pearson Education, hit the mark when it developed multiple-choice questions for state exams.
It’s exactly the kind of class time parents such as Daniel Kasprzak think could be better spent.
“Basically, we have our children as child labor determining and enhancing the product for Pearson,” said Kasprzak, a City of Tonawanda resident who held his third-grade daughter out of state math and English exams this spring and will not allow her to take the upcoming field tests.
Speak to parents upset about statewide tests, and you’ll hear a number of concerns: the amount of time spent prepping and testing students; the narrow focus on math, English and science; and the pressure placed on students for tests designed to assess schools and teachers.
But you’ll also hear discomfort with the idea that test maker Pearson Education is profiting from their children’s education.
“I think there’s a concern among public education advocates that there’s a privatization aspect toward education,” said Chris Cerrone, a Springville parent who blogs about testing and is an educator at a local school.
Pearson in the spotlight
Concern about corporate testing in public schools has flared since 2011, when a subsidiary of Pearson won a five-year, $32 million state contract to design state tests that every student in third through eighth grade is expected to take. Pearson is not the first education corporation to create exams for the state, but its size and reach in the education and publishing industries has made it the target of those who believe efforts to reform schools through testing are derailing public education.
They point to controversy surrounding Pearson Education and its tests, including:
• Questions about whether school districts that buy Pearson textbooks gain an advantage on tests designed by the company. Some reading passages that appeared on the state exams in April also appeared in Pearson curriculum materials.
• Errors that have occurred on Pearson tests across the country, including scoring mistakes it apologized for last month on entrance exams to gifted-and-talented schools in New York City.
• Subpoenas sent by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in December 2011 that sought records related to international conferences for education leaders organized by the company’s nonprofit foundation. Schneiderman’s office said the investigation is ongoing.
Education as business
Pearson is a giant in the education and publishing fields. It publishes the Financial Times and prints books through the Penguin Group. Its education arm, Pearson Education, writes textbooks, sells school curriculum and designs tests taken by millions of children across the country. During the last decade, it has become one of the largest education companies in the world.
“Its primary agenda is deriving profits for shareholders,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a national advocacy group that opposes high-stakes testing. “Back in the day, the exams were made primarily by state and public employees who presumably had as their top priority improving the quality of public education.”
Pearson was one of two companies that submitted a proposal in 2010 to design the state math and English exams. The other was McGraw-Hill, which had previously designed tests for the state.
“Pearson is an organization that has made a long-term commitment – and a very significant investment – to serve public education,” Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for Pearson Education, said in an email response to questions from The News. “We play that role only when public officials, teachers, parents or students choose our services, and that highly competitive environment spurs us constantly to raise our game.”
Conflict of interest
But those concerned about state testing believe it’s a conflict for a private company that sells textbooks and curriculum materials aligned with new state learning standards to also design state tests that assess how well schools are teaching those standards.
Holly Balaya, a mother of six who serves on the Hamburg Board of Education, said school districts have the impression that purchasing Pearson prep and curriculum materials will help their district do well on Pearson exams.
“I have a problem with the amount of tax dollars the state is spending on it,” Balaya said of the state tests. “And the only way you’re going to stop it is if enough parents say, ‘We’ve had enough.’ ”
The impression that purchasing Pearson products will help improve test scores on Pearson exams was reinforced this spring when some reading passages that appeared on state tests were included in curriculum materials Pearson created.
“Any overlap of passages was unintentional,” said Stacy Skelly, a Pearson spokeswoman.
The company, Skelly said, uses a separate process for selecting test material than for creating textbooks, and Pearson employees who develop the state assessment contract do not develop curriculum for other divisions of Pearson.
Reaction to errors
State officials say reading passages used in textbooks could appear on tests again as the state focuses on using real-world reading samples – such as a passage from a work of literature – rather than those commissioned specifically for the exams. The use of those texts, they say, “allows for inclusion of works of literature that are worthy of reading outside of an assessment context.”
“For the very reasons that texts were selected for use on the assessment, it is possible that teachers have selected the same texts for use in their classrooms, and students may have read the books that passages were drawn from for their personal reading,” said Antonia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
Those who oppose the increase in state assessments also point to errors on tests. Last year, a Pearson math exam for fourth-graders included a question with two correct answers and an eighth-grade test that had no correct answer because of typos.
The state also chose not to count questions related to a fable about a pineapple and a hare last year after it provoked widespread complaints.
To guard against errors and to “assess the difficulty, fairness and appropriateness” of items proposed for real tests, the state requires Pearson to embed field questions into the exams and to conduct stand-alone field tests in the spring and fall.
But parents like Kasprzak would prefer to see Pearson use focus groups and its own resources, rather than classroom time, to test its exams.
Because field questions could be used on future exams, the tests are now kept secret even after they are administered, and teachers must sign confidentiality agreements. Some parents view the secrecy surrounding the tests as another indication that the tests hold little value for assessing student achievement.
“I can’t make an accurate judgment of my children’s progress without being able to see the test,” Cerrone said.
Use of kids questioned
The 40-minute field tests, which will be conducted in 220 schools in Erie and Niagara counties in early June, have prompted questions from some parents at Hillview Elementary School in Lancaster, said Principal Kathleen Carroll Knauth.
“We still have another set of tests to do,” said Knauth, who announced last month that she would take an early retirement in protest of the increased student testing and new teacher-evaluation systems. “And I’ve had a few express concerns about that: ‘Why are they using my child for field tests, my child as a guinea pig?’ ”