THE BLOG

Enough is Enough -- Pearson Education Fails the Test Again and Again

04/24/2013 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013
  • Alan Singer Social studies educator, Hofstra University,my opinions, of course, are my own

Attention: Charles Goldsmith, Head of Corporate Communications at Pearson Plc
Emailed Sunday, April 21, 2013, noon, New York time

Dear Mr. Goldsmith

I am very upset about what I have documented as a pattern of poor performance by Pearson Education and its sub-divisions and their repeated failure to deliver the services Pearson has contracted to provide American school districts. I plan to post this column on Huffington Post on Wednesday April 24, 2013 at 9AM New York time. I open with excerpts from two recent articles from local newspapers detailing serious Pearson "errors" on standardized tests administered to children in New York City. Because of the pattern of poor performance documented in this column stretching back for more than a decade, I am pressing New York City and New York State officials to suspend all current and future relationships with your company. The instances I cite in the column are the ones that I found through my research, primarily conducted online. I would appreciate comments from your office that I can include in this blog.

Sincerely,

Dr. Alan Singer, Ph.D.

Dear Readers,

This is a long post because there is so much about the Pearson company you need to read about and evaluate. Please read to the end, because if you agree with these findings, you need to contact public officials and press them to end the relationship between Pearson and American schools. I did receive a reply to my email above from Susan Aspey, the Vice President for Media Relations at Pearson. It is included at the end of the report. I attach it without comment. It is up to you to decide if the reply satisfactorily addresses the issues I raise in this post.

Thank you for your support,

Alan

Test-Takers See Double

By Yoav Gonen, New York Post, April 19, 2013

Some reading passages on this week's state exams came straight out of a school curriculum produced by the test-maker -- giving schools that bought those materials a leg up, teachers and parents said yesterday. The rehashing of essays for students in Grades 6 and 8 was discovered on English exams created by Pearson... Officials at the firm said the inclusion of essays from their curriculum material was an "unintentional" consequence of the state's emphasis on using nonfiction texts in the exams. "The process for selecting test material is separate from creating textbooks," said Pearson director of communications Stacy Skelly. "The Pearson content developers who work on the [state] assessment contract do not work to develop curriculum for other divisions of Pearson."

2,700 More in City Qualify as Gifted After Score Errors Are Fixed

By Al Baker, The New York Times, April 20, 2013

Nearly 2,700 New York City students were wrongly told in recent weeks they were not eligible for seats in public school gifted and talented programs because of errors in scoring the tests used for admission, the Education Department said on Friday. The company that both created and scored the tests, Pearson, has apologized for the mistakes... 13 percent of all those in kindergarten through third grade who sat for the tests -- were affected by the errors, said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Education Department... Scott Smith, the president of learning assessment for Pearson, said "the fact that these errors occurred is simply unacceptable to Pearson as we fully understand the importance of accurate scoring... It is clear that we had a breakdown in our processes and we are conducting a complete, extensive investigation of every step"... Because of the mistakes, the city will withhold $500,000 from Pearson's contract, which is worth $5.5 million over three years and is in its second year."

Pearson Education is the North American affiliate of an international publishing and media company based in the United Kingdom. They own the publishers Adobe, Scott Foresman, Penguin, Longman, Wharton, Harcourt, Puffin, Prentice Hall, and Allyn & Bacon. They are deeply involved in test assessment, producing the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Millar Analogy Test, the New York City special high school admissions test, and the G.E.D. Through interlocking boards of directors, partnerships, and donation's from the company's foundation, they have developed relationships with the largely online University of Phoenix, Teach for America, Stanford University, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Gates, Lumina, Broad, and Walton Foundations.

As of May 2012, Pearson worked with eighteen states in the U.S. as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. In New York, Pearson held a $32 million, five-year contract to produce standardized tests. In Texas its contract was worth $500 million. In a statement issued ahead of its annual shareholder meeting in April 2012, Pearson said that education business accounts for more than 60% of earnings and sales and the company's total revenue is up 12% this year to $1.16 billion.

According to its website, "As the leading education services company, Pearson is serious about evolving how the world learns... Real change is our commitment and its results are delivered through connecting capabilities to create actionable, scalable solutions that improve access, affordability, and achievement." Unfortunately, their record suggests that Pearson is primarily serious about profit with little regard to "real change" or how the world actually learns.

Pearson money, both from the corporation and from the foundation, gives it tremendous political influence over educational policy decisions in the United States. Michael Winerip reported in The New York Times that the Pearson Foundation was paying to send school officials on free trips to international conferences where Pearson products were promoted and they met with Pearson executives. According to a report in The Texas Observer, "Pearson has it all -- and all of it has a price. For statewide testing in Texas alone, the company holds a five-year contract worth nearly $500 million to create and administer exams. If students should fail those tests, Pearson offers a series of remedial-learning products to help them pass. Meanwhile, kids are likely to use textbooks from Pearson-owned publishing houses like Prentice Hall and Pearson Longman. Students who want to take virtual classes may well find themselves in a course subcontracted to Pearson. And if the student drops out, Pearson partners with the American Council on Education to offer the GED exam for a profit."

A report published by In the Public Interest charged that Pearson and other for-profit companies are using their foundations to lobby for educational programs that directly benefit the companies. For example, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and its partner Chiefs for Change are a conservative education policy advocacy organization founded by former Florida governor "Jeb" Bush. Because FEE is a 501(c)(3) organization, it is not required to disclose its donors. However, the Washington Post reported that FEE and Chiefs for Change are sponsored by among others Pearson and Amplify, which is a Murdoch company.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education and Chiefs for Change are involved in writing education laws and regulations in Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island that benefit its private funders. According to David Cohen, chair of In the Public Interest, "Testing companies and for-profit online schools see education as big business. For-profit companies are hiding behind FEE and other business lobby organizations they fund to write laws and promote policies that enrich the companies."

The test score foul-up experienced in New York City is also nothing new. According to Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, it happens repeatedly. In 1998, test score delivery was delayed in California. In 1999-2000, Pearson misgraded 12,000 tests in Arizona.

2000 was a particularly bad year for Pearson. Florida fined Pearson $4 million because of delays in test score delivery. In Washington, over two hundred thousand writing exams had to be rescored. In Minnesota, Pearson misgraded 45,739 graduation tests, which resulted in a lawsuit with a $11 million settlement. The judge hearing the case found that there had been "years of quality control problems" and a "culture emphasizing profitability and cost-cutting."

But the problems in Minnesota did not stop. In 2002, a computer glitch caused malfunctions in some online math tests and Pearson incorrectly failed nearly 8,000 Minnesota students on a test that was required for high school graduation. Pearson agreed to pay up to $7 million in damages for that problem. In 2007, a Minnesota online statewide math test was shut down after the program malfunctioned for 25% of the districts that were using it. In 2010, the results from online science tests taken by 180,000 students in grades 5 to 8 were delayed due to scoring errors.

Meanwhile Pearson's problems seemed to be spreading like a computer virus. In 2005, test scores were delayed and fines were levied against Pearson in Michigan; in Virginia computerized tests were misgraded; and on the 2005-2006 SAT college admissions test over four thousand tests were wrongly scored and Pearson was forced to pay a $3 million settlement. Pearson blamed the SAT errors on "excessive moisture that caused the answer sheets to expand before they were scanned at the company's large test-processing site in Austin, Tex."

And the beat goes on. In 2008, scoring errors delayed school report cards in South Carolina; in Arkansas first graders had to retake a Pearson exam because the test used questions from the practice material. This problem, which also arose in New York (see above), seems to be the result of standard Pearson practice. One group of student teachers that took the Pearson New York State Content Specialty Test in Social Studies reported to me that their essay question, which called on them to compare two primary source documents from the era of the French Revolution, was taken directly from the California social studies teacher's exam where it included a sample answer worth full credit.

In 2009-2010, Wyoming's new computer testing program failed and the state demanded that Pearson repay $9.5 million for "complete default of the contract." In 2010, Florida test scores were delayed by more than a month and Pearson agreed to pay nearly $15 million in fines and in 2011 writing exams delivered to Florida school districts without cover sheets exposed topics on the test in advance. Meanwhile, according to the Tampa Bay Times, students taking Florida's new computerized algebra final exam could not submit finished tests because Pearson's servers were down.

Just recently, Pearson and one of its partners, the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), were forced to send out an email to participants in a new testing program for prospective teachers that "Due to unanticipated delays in the qualification of edTPA™ scorers, we are unable to confirm that all edTPA portfolio submissions scheduled for the April 11 field test reporting date will be scored by this date."

The value of other Person education services has been questioned. In 2007-2008, a study conducted by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) found that professional development provided by Pearson for math teachers did not significantly improve student performance compared with students whose teachers did not participate in the program. In Atlanta, a 2006 study conducted by the Comprehensive School Reform Center found that Pearson Achievement Solutions showed limited evidence of effectiveness for promoting comprehensive school reform in elementary schools.

The reliability of Pearson's tests is also subject to question. In May 2012, only 27% of the fourth grade students passed a new Florida writing test. When parents complained, the test was reevaluated, the passing score was changed, and the percentage of students who passed climbed to 81%. In 2012, eighth grade reading tests in New York State had to be reevaluated after parents and teachers complained about meaningless reading passages about talking pineapples and misleading questions.

In a press release, New York City School Chancellor Dennis Walcott called the recent errors by Pearson in grading the city's gifted and talented test "unacceptable" and told the public "they let our children and families down. I have told the company's officials in no uncertain terms that I expect this will never happen again."

But enough is enough. Pearson's history suggests that these types of errors will happen again and again.

In a somewhat bolder statement, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a mayoral candidate, said it was time for the city's Department of Education to "reassess its relationship with the company."

But that still is not enough. The relationship between New York City, New York State, and Pearson Education must end. Other states and municipalities should reconsider their relationship with Pearson as well. This company and its testing regime have not earned the right to work in American schools.

In response to my query, Susan Aspey emailed me and the editorial staff at Huffington Post. Ms. Aspey is the Vice President for Media Relations at Pearson. According to the website LinkedIn, she previously was press secretary at the United States Department of Education. I think she epitomizes the disturbing relationship between private companies that are selling products to many levels of American government and government agencies that promote educational policy and are supposed to regulate private contractors. I am posting it without comment. It is up to you to decide if the reply satisfactorily addresses the issues I raise in this post.

Ms. Aspey wrote:
"Once again, Mr. Singer is planning a post that mischaracterizes Pearson. For example, the change of proficiency levels for last year's Florida writing assessment was a policy decision enacted by the Florida State Board of Education. Pearson was responsible for reporting the scores to the districts. We compete for all of our contracts through open and transparent bid processes. I'd also note that we acknowledge our responsibility when errors do occur while implementing state or district testing programs. Though rare, these errors are unacceptable and we thoroughly analyze the cause to be sure it doesn't happen again, as we stated in our letter to parents and our public statement regarding the assessment scoring of the New York City Gifted and Talented program. The people of Pearson are committed to earning the trust of the educators and the students we serve."