The problem with Pearson-designed tests that threatens thousands of scores

testsI’ve written about some of the problems with new standardized tests given to students in New York — including mistakes with scoring for gifted and talented programs, concerns about product placement in  test questions and badly written questions and possible answers — but here is a piece on a different issue surrounding the exams and the company that designed them, Pearson. This was written by Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the editor of the Common Core Watch blog, where this post first appeared. Previously, she served as a middle school and high school teacher and as the founding curriculum and professional development director for Achievement First, a network of public charter schools. She can be found on Twitter at @kportermagee.

By Kathleen Porter-Magee

It’s testing season in New York, which can mean only one thing: It’s open season on Pearson, the corporation everyone loves to hate. But this time, when they crossed a serious line, far too many state leaders and reformers are holding their fire.

To date, most of the anti-Pearson ire has been focused on a calculation error that led 5,000 New York City students to be incorrectly told that they didn’t qualify for the city’s Gifted and Talented program. Sloppy, no doubt, but not corrupt. (The error has since been corrected, and all qualified students are now eligible.)

But there is a far more serious transgression that has gotten very little attention, and it’s one that threatens the validity of the English Language Arts (ELA) scores for thousands of New York students and raises serious questions about the overlap between Pearson’s curriculum and assessment divisions.

The New York Post and Daily News reported that the Pearson-developed New York State ELA sixth- and eighth-grade assessments included passages that were also in a Pearson-created, “Common Core–aligned” ELA curriculum. This meant that students in schools that purchased and used instructional materials from Pearson had an enormous advantage over those who didn’t.

Predictably, reform critics pounced on the announcement. Leonie Haimson, one of New York’s loudest and most outspoken education reform opponents, argued, “The state should be obligated to throw out every item on the exams based on passages in Pearson textbooks assigned elsewhere in the state.”

Also predictably, the testing giant dismissed the overlap as an immaterial consequence of a standards environment that demands an “emphasis on using nonfiction texts in the exams.” In other words, their take is that, as long as the questions were different, the duplication of a passage doesn’t matter.

What’s most troubling, though, is that officials at the New York Department of Education are equally nonplussed. According to the Post, when questioned about the discovery, department spokesman Tom Dunn proclaimed that such overlap was going to happen. “The alternative,” he explained, “would be to exclude many authors and texts that are capable of supporting the rigorous analysis called for by the Common Core.”

This reaction is particularly surprising coming from New York, where officials have been investing enormous time and money into developing curriculum materials, independent of the Pearson publishing machine, that are high quality and faithfully aligned to the Common Core—work that will inevitably be undermined if Pearson continues to link the NY assessment directly to their curriculum.

But does reading a passage in advance of a test really give some students an advantage over others? Surely the students didn’t memorize the passage. And Pearson representatives assured that the questions on the test were different from the questions in the curriculum. So, what’s the problem?

A lot, actually. That’s because a test of reading comprehension isn’t just measuring a series of decontextualized skills. As E.D. Hirsch has long argued, reading comprehension tests are actually assessments of student background knowledge as much as anything else. In fact, as Hirsch and Robert Pondicsio argued in a must-read piece in the American Prospect from 2010,

Even simple texts, like those on reading tests, are filled with gaps — presumed domain knowledge — that the writer assumes the reader knows.… Researchers have consistently demonstrated that in order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter.

They go on to explain, “Students who are identified as ‘poor readers’ comprehend with relative ease when asked to read passages on familiar subjects, outperforming even ‘good readers’ who lack relevant background knowledge.”

That means that students who read the Pearson test before seeing it on the state test had the opportunity to fill the gaps in their own knowledge—whether through class discussion or simply by reading and answering the questions provided in the curriculum—before they took the test. And that means that the validity of a test that aims to differentiate between “good” and “poor” readers is necessarily called into question.

Unfortunately, it seems that New York education officials don’t realize how significant this problem is. Or even that it is a problem. (Meryl Tisch, New York Board of Regents chancellor, actually defended the quality of the assessments, boasting that, thanks to a rigorous new quality-control review, the Department of Education had avoided the kinds of problems that lead to last year’s now-famous pineapple scandal. And that failure to recognize what may be a far more serious and consequential challenge may be the biggest red flag that Common Core assessment decisions are in trouble in the Empire State.

As for Pearson, it’s no stranger to these kinds of conflict-of-interest accusations. In the U.K., Pearson both administers a state “A-Level” qualifying exam—the results of which are used to inform, among other things, university admissions—and sells textbooks aimed at helping students prepare for those assessments. Last November, U.K. officials launched an investigation into “possible conflicts of interest within its role as both a publisher of textbooks and an issuer of academic qualifications.”

It’s a textbook (pardon the pun) anti-trust scenario: By developing both the test and curriculum materials, Pearson will basically control the market, regardless of the quality of their materials. After all, if you were a New York principal and learned that Pearson included passages from their curriculum on the state test—the results of which are used to inform everything from student to teacher to school accountability—whose curriculum would you buy?

Given the importance of statewide assessment to standards- and accountability-driven reform, there is little room for error. Reform advocates need to be vigilant in ensuring that standards-aligned tests are rigorous and valid. And that means taking a much harder look at the relationship between test development and curriculum development—and perhaps taking the time to learn lessons from the missteps of our fellow reformers across the pond.

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