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"Funky Monkey" and Pearson Fail the Test

05/07/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

John Oliver nailed Pearson on his HBO Last Week Tonight show on Standardized Testing. If you have not seen it yet, clink the link and watch it. I laughed a lot but can't really say I enjoyed the show; it was too disturbing. It won't be funny until companies like Pearson are brought down, especially given how they keep failing our children and schools by failing their own tests.

Oliver broadcast videos being used to promote high-stakes standardized testing as fun and showed one particularly bizarre elementary school testing rally in Texas that featured a dancing "Funky Monkey" test mascot. He even had an ersatz "Funky Monkey" live on the show that he banned for bad behavior

During the HBO program Oliver systematically took apart both the national testing regime and Pearson. According to Oliver, American students take on the average over 100 high-stakes standardized tests during their school careers. Often the tests are so upsetting to students that the test instructions actually alert teachers to what to do if students vomit on the test booklets. And a big problem is that despite more than a decade of increased testing and test-aligned curriculum, U.S. students are not performing any better on international benchmark exams.

In one of the best segments of the show, Oliver described how the computer algorithm used to evaluate student performance on high-stakes tests and teacher effectiveness is based on mathematical formulas developed for breeding cattle. If you doubt Oliver, Professor Stephen Caldas of Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York did a careful analysis of the New York State "2013-2014 Growth Model for Educator Evaluation Technical Report." Pages 65-67 show the mystery equations used to calculate the future of New York State children. I have a PHD in history and I used to be pretty good in math. The only part of the equations I understood was repeated use of the term matrix which appears six times in the report and three times in that section. I don't want to be alarming, but the movie may be right. We may all be living in "The Matrix."

But there is some hope on the horizon.

Nationally, although final numbers will not be available for a few months, hundreds of thousands of student probably opted-out of the last round of high-stakes standardized tests. In some schools and districts where parents and students were well-organized opt-out rates were well above 50%. In addition, Pearson's contract to write, administer, and grade high-stakes standardized tests for New York State is scheduled to expire at the end of 2015. The current New York City contract with Pearson for its Specialized High School Admissions Test ends in 2016 and is up for renewal. Parents, teachers, and students must build up the crescendo shouting "No! No! No!"

With this post I report cases where Pearson and other leading testing companies failed in the latest round of high-stakes testing across the United States. I also document some of the other problems John Oliver highlighted in his HBO report.

Ridiculous or Just Unfair Questions

Karen Ranney, a kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn emailed me a copy of a letter she sent to the chair of the New York State Board of Regents complaining about the third grade ELA test that had a reading passage on drag racing. She couldn't understand why children where being introduced to a practice that is generally illegal.

A fifth-grade teacher from New York State reported on the Badass Teachers (BAT) discussion page that "only 6 of my 17 in the room with me were able to finish" the ELA test. What through the teacher was that the "ones who DIDN'T finish were my high kids, my avid readers. There was just far too much material on the test for them to get through and comprehend." The teacher reported "I had kids closing their books when I told them pencils down in tears. They worked SO HARD, but it just wasn't enough. How could it be? The test isn't designed for them to pass."

On BAT, another teacher discussed the SIXTH grade ELA test. It had six lengthy reading passages. Each passage was two-to-three pages long followed by either six or seven questions and students had only 90 minutes to complete this part of the test. Only two students in the class, both previously tested as reading on the NINTH grade level, were able to complete the test.

In defiance of Pearson and New York State's gag rule on discussing questions on copyrighted grade 3-8 math and English Language Arts (ELA) tests, another New York State teacher wrote an open letter dedicated to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. In the letter she used a number of what she described as "insanely hard words" that appeared on the 4, 6, and 8th grade tests.

"There is a man in Albany, who I surmise, by his clamorous paroxysms, has an extreme aversion to educators. He sees teachers as curs, or likens them to mangy dogs. Methinks he suffers from a rare form of psychopathology in which he absconds with our dignity by enacting laws counterintuitive to the orthodoxy of educational leadership. We have given him sufferance for far too long. He's currently taking a circuitous path to DC, but he will no doubt soon find himself in litigious waters. The time has come to bowdlerize his posits, send him many furlongs away, and maroon him there, maybe Cuba?

I think the best word here is psychopathology because it effectively describes the high-stakes testing regime promoted by Pearson and the other testing companies.

Computer Glitches

In Montana, Smarter Balanced grades 3-8 and 11 English/language arts and math tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards were made optional because of problems opening the online test and generally inadequate server capacity. Nevada and North Dakota also experienced problems with the Smarter Balanced tests. Both states had to halt the tests. All three states use a company called Measured Progress as their "testing vendor" for online exams. On PARCC exams, Measured Progress is a Pearson sub-contractor.

Technical difficulties caused computerized testing in Colorado to "not operate optimally" on Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests. The Colorado tests use a PearsonAccess portal.

Who Grades the Tests?

John Oliver went nuts when he discovered Pearson was advertising on Craigslist for test scorers. According to the ad, college graduates are paid $12 an hour to grade exams on a Texas standardized test. A college degree is required, but it can be in any field welcome. Scorers who were interviewed for the HBO broadcast complained about being pressed to work faster and pressured to maintain grade quotas so they had a balance of high, medium, and low scores.

I have had personal experience preparing student teachers for a Pearson administered and evaluated certification exam know as edTPA. Recently I came across online testimony by an edTPA evaluator that is actually being distributed by Pearson's SCALE testing partner to demonstrate the legitimacy of the tests. The evaluator described being an "official edTPA scorer" as "one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had since I started working in the area of teacher preparation," which immediately made me suspicious. While the scorer's online resume and biography list her as a university field placement coordinator and faculty member, a school board member, and as very active in community affairs, there is no evidence she ever was a classroom teacher or has teaching certification in the area where she is evaluating student teachers. I emailed the edTPA scorer to find out if she ever taught in public schools but she did not respond.

Legal Problems

The Los Angeles Unified School District is threatening to sue Apple and Pearson to recoup millions of dollars because a curriculum designed to work with iPads is plagued by problems. The district is currently withholding payments and has notified companies it "will not accept or compensate Apple for new deliveries of [Pearson] curriculum."

On May 20, 2015, the New York City Panel for Educational Policy will be voting on a series of multi-year contacts. One contract is for the purchase of up to $8 million in Pearson software including iLit, SuccessMaker, and GradPoint. As part of the contract approval process, the purchasing agent investigated Pearson. They found 23 investigations by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of Pearson Education between 2007 and the present. In ten cases the accusations were dismissed. But eight were settled "without admission of guilt" and five were settled with terms remaining "confidential." Essentially, that means that Pearson was forced to pay off in thirteen cases. The EEOC conducted another 37 investigations of NCS Pearson between 2007 and the present of which nine cases are still pending.

In addition, since 2010, Pearson companies have been cited four times for OSHA violations and has been forced to pay fines, NCS Pearson had to repay the federal Transportation Security Administration $5.6 million because of over-charging, and the Pearson Foundation and Pearson Education agree to pay penalties of $7.7 million after being subpoenaed in an investigation by the State Attorney General. Despite all of this, the Department of education "found Pearson's performance to be satisfactory on prior work and, in light of Pearson's efforts to address these issues as they arise, does not believe any of these matters preclude a determination that the vendor is responsible."

Responsible for what is not clear. Panel for Educational Policy members need to look at what happened in L.A. and watch the John Oliver video before they sign off on any future Pearson contracts!

General Incompetence

In New York there was a problem with the Pearson Russian language version of the eighth-grade math test; some of the questions were written in Korean. According to the online magazine Chalkbeat, no one has figured out yet whether the mistake was caused by Pearson or the State Education Department. A spokesperson for State Education claimed that there were "very, very few" mistakes on this year's tests, but conceded that in one of the reading passages different names were used for the same character in the title and the text. Maybe they all should be fired?

Apparently Pearson officials know that the company may be in trouble. In a report to investors, as early as 2012, Pearson acknowledged, "There are inherent risks associated with our school assessment businesses, both in the US and the UK. A service failure caused by a breakdown in our testing and assessment processes could lead to a mis-grading of student tests and/or late delivery of test results to students and their schools. In either event we may be subject to legal claims, penalty charges under our contracts, non-renewal of contracts and/or the suspension or withdrawal of our accreditation to conduct tests. It is also possible that such events would result in adverse publicity, which may affect our ability to retain existing contracts and/or obtain new customers."

In February 2015, Pearson reported "declines in our State Assessments business." However, the company seemed pleased "high-stakes online test volumes grew strongly, up 40% on 2013 to 11 million, as customers transitioned to computer based testing. Paper based high stakes test volumes declined 17% to 32 million, in part due to the growth of computer based testing, but also the impact of legislative changes in Texas and California." But investors should not fear because Pearson was "awarded contracts to administer Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments in 11 states and extended our contracts to administer Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments and the Maryland High School Assessment. We will continue to administer the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) until summer 2016."

Maybe, instead of banishing it from his show, John Oliver needs to turn the "Funky Monkey" on Pearson.