8 Things To Know About Corporations Like Pearson That Profit 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.
Shutterstock.com/Eric Von Seggern

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.

Joey’s 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 “entry assessments.”

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 testing boom.

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.”

Pearson 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.

Currently, 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.”

While 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 Harcourt.

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.

Most 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. 

CTB/McGraw-Hill 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 rejected. 

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.

One 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.

But 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."

The 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.

As 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 2014.

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.

This 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 teachers.

One prospective student relayed his fears of edTPA to his teacher:

Joel … 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.

Not 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.

Aside from illogical content, tests often include questions that require skills not yet taught to the students. For example, New York had to toss a math question because it required students to understand mathematical concepts not taught until middle or high school.

Meanwhile, 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.

Besides 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:

On 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.

How 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.

Mug™ 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:

No 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 trademarked products.

The 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. 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.

Meanwhile, many 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.

For 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.

And 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. (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 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:

"Standardized 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.”

But for 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.   

He 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.