THE BLOG

Pearson and Testing Buddies Try to Shut the Barn Door (But the Info Is Already Out)

02/09/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

In response to one of my recent posts on Common Core and high-stakes assessments, I received an email asking, "Why are Pearson tests so bad?"

The short answer to this question is actually provided by the now defunct Pearson Foundation on their "Five Things I've Learned" website. Pearson Foundation claimed to present "great examples of the best in education" from "education leaders devoted to improving the fortunes of others through learning." One "leader" highlighted is Andreas Schleicher, a data collection specialist with the OECD, the organization that develops the international PISA tests in collaboration with Pearson. The tests are used to compare performance by students from different counties and justify calls for increased high-stakes testing in the United States.

In the posted interview, either Schleicher or Pearson let the cat out of the bag. According to Schleicher, "The skills that are easiest to teach and test are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate and outsource."

Educational decisions should not be about what is best for students, what is most important to know, or what promotes active citizenship in democratic societies. Decisions are made based on what is easiest to test, digitize, and outsource. Schleicher does not say it outright, but the implication for a company like Pearson is clear. Educational decisions should be based on what is most profitable - for them!

The longer answer is the way Pearson and its testing buddies, groups like Stanford University's SCALE, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), New York State Education, and the federal Education Department, try to ignore or silence critics who have the audacity to raise questions about the validity of their testing programs. They make inflated claims for the value of their products, diligently buy-off supporters in academia and the press, and the rest of us are supposed to remain quiet. Anyone who wants to participate in the design of better tests is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure that they cannot participate in open discussion about what they are selling.

Pearson is now under federal investigation for inappropriate contact with Los Angeles school officials prior to being awarded a lucrative contract. Its now defunct not-for-profit foundation agreed to pay a $7.7 million fine in New York State for providing perks to school officials, including free trips to "conferences" where Pearson promoted its products.

Pearson's influence is also spread in other ways. It is a major exhibitor at national educational conferences sponsored by American Educational Research Association, ASCD, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Council for the Social Studies, helping to fund the conferences and distributing swag to participants. Pearson also provides workshops and speakers for these conferences, advertises in their publications, and invites prestigious and influential speakers to participate in Pearson-sponsored events.

I guess, or hope, I have become so much of an irritant, Pearson and its testing buddies do not want me at their shows. Actually they do me a favor. I do not really want to speak at their conferences or serve on their committees. But I cannot resist applying, to find out what they are up to.

I was not really surprised when my offer to keynote or conduct a workshop at the SCALE edTPA conference in October 2014 or to evaluate teacher certification tests for New York State Education and Pearson were declined. What are Pearson, SCALE, and NYS Education afraid of? I hope it is me!

The October 2014 National edTPA Implementation Conference was promoted as a two-day gathering "open to higher education administrators, faculty and supervisors, and state education agencies who are seeking to deepen their understanding of edTPA," the video and portfolio assessment of student teachers applying for certification in New York and other states, and "network within a learning community of edTPA users." edTPA was developed at Stanford University, but it is being administered nationally by Pearson. Pearson also evaluates student teaching portfolios and performance videos.

I proposed a plenary session analyzing the claims made by edTPA advocates, the operation of edTPA, and its legitimacy. I offered to be an individual speaker or a member of a panel. Unlike the scheduled keynote speaker Dr. Lorrie Shepard, a researcher and administrator at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was a secondary school teacher for 14 years, I have been a teacher educator and student teaching field supervisor for 24 years, and I actually supervised and taught students who successfully completed edTPA.

On July 13, 2014, I received an email that I believe was inadvertently forwarded to me. It was sent by Ray Pecheone, Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) to conference organizers. In the email, Dr. Pecheone wrote "We need to be careful about this and not give him a big forum - need to discuss - not opposed to participation but not wanting to promote an insurrection at the meeting."

I have also sharply criticized edTPA in Huffington Post columns, which I believe is a reason for Dr. Pecheone's concerns. I suspect Dr. Pecheone is also concerned about the future of edTPA because in July 2014 the American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution declaring "that neither edTPA nor any other performance assessment should be tied to a high-stakes testing regime and the outsourcing of evaluation, especially to for-profit corporations such as Pearson, as it is not an appropriate assessment of teacher education programs and teacher performance." In addition, in April 2014 New York, the state that had most avidly championed the edTPA program for evaluating student teachers, announced a two-year moratorium on the requirement that student teaches pass edTPA before earning teaching certification. It looks to me like the "insurrection" Dr. Pecheone fears is much needed and has already begun.

In the end, I was not invited to present at the conference so I did not attend. Conference organizers informed me that too many good proposals were submitted. From a conference follow-up report I learned that Dr. Shepard "kicked off the event with a plenary talk underscoring the importance of ongoing research to study and support the validity of teacher performance assessments in general, and edTPA in particular." Note she said "support the validity" of the test, not evaluate whether they are valid, which is the question I have been raising.

In another interesting comment, Dr. Shepard let slip one of the big problems with edTPA and all the teacher preparation exams. Once people realize what is required to pass, they were preparing for the tests, not to be better teachers. She argued, "Legitimate practice elevates practice. Illegitimate practice is when you get better for a test, but not for the bigger job." Unfortunately, as Dr. Shepard explained, in a=the high-stakes testing environment fostered by Pearson and its testing buddies, "Legitimate practice can turn into corruption if not in the service of underlying teaching skills and ability."

My tango with Pearson and the New York State Teacher Certification exams (NYSTCE) began when a cooperating teacher I work with forwarded me the following email from Anne S. Hartjen, Supervisor in Education Programs at the New York State Education Department. The teacher nominated me and I also went to the website and applied to help develop a new content specialty test for aspiring social studies teachers.

NYSED is pleased to extend an opportunity for you to nominate up to five individuals to serve on the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations (NYSTCE) Social Studies Framework Review Committees to be held on November 5-6, 2014. Nominees may not be Education Specialist, but feel free to forward this to your best Education Specialist and ask them to nominate.

We are seeking nominees in the following areas: higher education faculty, higher education deans and directors of education programs, BOCES staff, Teacher Center directors, school administrators, curriculum specialists, and P-12 teachers. The nominees must have a deep knowledge of the Common Core Standards. We need your assistance in identifying nominees who represent the diversity of New York State, and include the ethnic and racial diversity that exist in your community as well as urban/rural/suburban schools, and the various geographic areas of the State.

You may nominate an individual by visiting the NYSTCE Recruitment website at http://www.nyrecruit.nesinc.com/ and click on "Nominate." As this committee is quickly approaching, it would also be helpful if you also forwarded the link to the nominee and ask them to visit the site and click on "apply now."

When I went to the website, I discovered, not to my surprise, that my application would be "reviewed by the Evaluation Systems group of Pearson and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) in regard to open committee spaces. If your qualifications match an opening you will be sent an e-mail invitation. If committees are full, we will keep your application on file for future use."

After applying, I received this email from Nancy McKillip, Associate in Children with Disabilities, Office of State Assessment, New York State Education Department.

Dear Educator,

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) and the Evaluation Systems group of Pearson are contacting New York educators who have applied to participate in test development activities for the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations™ (NYSTCE®) for the new Social Studies Content Specialty Test (CST). As part of the Regents Reform Agenda, the revised content specialty tests have been aligned to reflect increased rigor and the Common Core Learning Standards. For additional information regarding the new assessments, please see www.nystce.nesinc.com/NY_annProgramUpdate.asp.

We are currently finalizing our selections for the Social Studies CST Framework Review Committee which will be held on November 5-6, 2014, in Albany, New York. The purpose of this meeting is to review the proposed framework for the Social Studies CST. This is the first stage in the test development process for this new CST.

As we complete our selections for this committee meeting, I would like to invite you to the Doodle poll "NYSTCE Social Studies CST Framework Review" where you will be able to indicate your availability for these dates. This will be a 2 day conference and your attendance at both days is required. We will finalize our selections and send out invitations as soon as we have the results of the poll. Please send your reply no later than Thursday, October 9th. Applicants who are not available or not selected for this committee will remain on our committee list and will be contacted as future test development activities are available.


A few days later, October 23, 2014, I was emailed by Anne S. Hartjen informing me that I had probably not been selected to work on the new social studies test.

Dear Educator,

Thank you for completing our Doodle Poll and offering your services to work on our new NYSTCE Social Studies Framework. At this time we have completed our selection for this committee and committee members have been sent an invitation. If you were not sent an invitation, we are not able to use you at this time. Let me assure you that selecting committees from excellent candidates like yourself is a very difficult process. In addition to having overwhelming responses to our polls, we have very specific demographic requirements that we must meet to ensure valid and reliable tests. This is just the beginning of a several year test development process. Hopefully, you will be available for other committees that we will hold over the next few years.


What Hartjen, McKillip, Pearson, and NYSED did not realize is that I was able to get the list of applicants from the sign in at the Doodle Poll site. I contacted people who I new and learned the following from some who had been accepted. This information was later confirmed in an email from Hartjen.

1. There was bad planning. Some of the applicants who were chosen could not attend because the meetings conflicted with Open School Night in some New York City high schools.
2. To participate, an applicant had to agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Pearson.
3. Districts would be paid for any substitutes that need to be hired.
4. Individual committee members would be reimbursed for travel expenses, receive a food stipend and overnight accommodations if needed, but would not be paid for their work on the committee.

While I like to be paid for my work, and I am positive Pearson and State Education employees who work on these projects are paid, my main concern is the non-disclosure agreement. This is a major reason why I cannot participate in Pearson projects. This link takes readers to a similar online non-disclosure agreement for Indiana teachers.

The agreement makes clear that the test is being developed by Pearson, not NYSED. It "establishes the necessary arrangements between the Participant and the Evaluation Systems group of Pearson, a business of NCS Pearson, Inc. ("Pearson") to assure the protection and preservation of the confidential and/or proprietary information disclosed or made available to Participant during development and committee meetings related to the New York State Teacher Certification ExaminationsTM (NYSTCE®)."

According to the agreement, confidential information includes "discussions, proceedings, and outcomes" as well as "any other information that Pearson verbally designates as Confidential Information at the time of its disclosure or a reasonable time thereafter." To me, this means two things. Since "discussions, proceedings, and outcomes" are labeled confidential, Pearson can decide to ignore the committee's input or an individual's suggestions, turn out a lousy product, and people who participated in the process are legally banned from criticizing the final outcome. In addition, Pearson claims the right to decide after the fact that something was confidential and that by discussing it a participant violated the agreement. I think this clause is intended to intimidate participants into silence.

What is ridiculous about the agreements is that information about Pearson teacher certification tests is all over the Internet and it is impossible to police. One company advertises that its edTPA tutoring is "administered by edTPA exam grader" who will "review to ensure you get a passing score" and if you are willing to pay enough, "Our edTPA tutors and experts can develop your edTPA." Another company offers one-to-one tutoring for all New York State Teacher certification exams, and students who have used their services report that their test preparation material is suspiciously a lot like the actual tests. Pearson has made the assembly of these test prep materials easier because it uses sample questions on study guides prepared for one state as test questions in other states.

Pearson is also in trouble because starting in September 2015 New York State began to implement a series of new Pearson tests for teacher certification. The initial tests are for students who are preparing to teach English, Math, and special education. On the state test website, applicants are told that "Tests taken after Aug 23, 2014: Score reporting will be delayed until early 2015 while passing standards are being established for this test." In other words, the tests were created without guidelines for grading them and prospectus teachers just have to wait until Pearson and its NYSED testing buddy figure out what to do.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, Pearson CEO James Fallon claimed "We are here to serve parents, governments, teachers, and most importantly students. We're trying to take the right actions for the long term, rather than the most popular ones. And if sometimes that means we get both praise and criticism--hopefully that shows we are charting a sensible middle path." If you believe that, do you want to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?

Once before, I agreed to sign a Pearson confidentiality agreement so my student teachers could participate in a field test of the SCALE edTPA exam. As Pearson and its test buddies must by now realize, I will not sign again and I will not be intimidated into silence.

Note: The Jeb Bush presidential campaign may bring Pearson new scrutiny and a new wave of problems. Bush' Foundation for Excellence in Education often mixed politics with philanthropy as it lobbied state governments to adopt digital learning in public schools. Many of the digital products, including hardware, software, and curriculum, are produced by donors to the Bush foundation, including Microsoft, Intel, News Corp., K12, and of course, Pearson. In New Mexico, Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, a Bush protégé who worked in the Florida Department of Education when he was governor, overruled the state's elected education commission and allowed Pearson to open a virtual charter school. Brandon Pinette, a spokesperson for Pearson, declined to answer questions posed by the Washington Post about whether the company economically benefits from its relationship with Bush's foundation. Pinette replied that Pearson has a "long, proud history of investing in and across the U.S., and this work includes a sponsorship of a variety of education organizations focused on improving learning."