By Isaiah Schrader
Students from Massena to Montauk, from Plattsburgh to Poughkeepsie just took the New York State English exam. The exam, created by the education giant, Pearson, featured passages and questions that required the test-taker to be able to comprehend and analyze them. This was no small feat. The passages, like one about a man fishing for a screwdriver with a magnet, and a story about a busboy cleaning up soda, challenged students throughout the state. But the test had one feature that shocked this test-taker and surely others who noticed it: product placement.
The “busboy” passage in the eighth grade test I took was fictional, written about a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant. In it, the busboy neglects to notice a large puddle of root beer under a table that he clears. His irate employer notifies him about the mess, and he cleans it up. It seems alright at first glace. However, the root beer was referred to at one point as Mug™ Root Beer. It was followed by a footnote, which informed test-takers that Mug™ was a registered trademark of PepsiCo. The brand of soda, the type of soda, and, come to think of it, the exact beverage was not necessary to the development of the story, nor was it mentioned in any of the confusing and analytical questions following the passage.
So why was the brand and trademark included? Did the New York State Department of Education, which regulates the tests, receive any payment for these references to trademarked products? “No one was paid for product placements,’’ Antonia Valentine, a spokeswoman for the department, told me in an interview. “This is the first time we have had 100 percent authentic texts on the assessments. Any brand names that occurred in them were incidental and were cited according to publishing conventions.” She added that only in some cases unrelated to product placement – when passages were not in the public domain – did the state pay for permission to use passages. There was, in the same story that cited Mug™ Root Beer a mention of a Melmac™ dish. It played an equally unimportant role in the passage.
Non-fictional passages in the test I took included an article about robots, where the brands IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™ popped up, each explained with a footnote. I cannot speak for all test takers, but I found the trademark references and their associated footnotes very distracting and troubling.
According to Barbara Kolson, an intellectual property lawyer for Stuart Weitzman Shoes, “The fact that the brands did not pay Pearson for the ‘product placement’ does not mean that the use is not product placement.” To the test-takers subjected to hidden advertising, it made no difference whether or not it was paid for. The only conclusion they (and this test-taker) made is that they could not be coincidental.
The effect of advertising on children is a hotly debated subject. Studies show that children are more susceptible than adults to advertising. The American Psychology Association recommends legislation restricting ads directed towards children. In Maine, for example, the advertising in schools of “Foods of Minimum Nutritional Value,” or FMNV, is prohibited. Following the same logic, shouldn’t state tests also exclude references to trademarked products that eighth graders find appealing, even tantalizing, like Mug™ root beer, or Lego® toys?
Why would Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education business, include gratuitous references to trademarked products in its tests? Pearson did not answer my e-mailed messages requesting comment. [Pearson did issue a general statement, which you can read after this article.]
The company, which has a five-year, $32 million contract with New York State to produce standardized tests, should have been more responsible and reproduced texts that did not include trademarked – and highly recognizable – products.
Additionally, why would New York State permit these tests to create a captive market for products, like soda, that lead to obesity and other health problems in children? Arguably, New York State taxpayers have paid for the ads in their children’s state tests, one way or another.
Students in grades 3-8 are required by New York State to take standardized tests annually. 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.
Not only were students subjected to hidden advertising on this test, the new common core exam was much longer and more difficult than the old state assessments. The old tests, created by the McGraw Hill Company, were administered over a period of about two hours (per day) and included about forty questions over the course of three days. The new assessments were administered over the course of ninety minutes per day, with forty multiple choice questions per day on the first two days, and ten short and long response questions as well as an essay on the third day. By decreasing the time, and increasing the content in volume and difficulty, completing the exam was impossible for many students.
Taken together, the subjective and even nonsensical nature of questions and answers, product placement, and more time-consuming test format made the state assessments the most frustrating and unpleasant standardized test I have ever taken.
As a student who takes these tests year after year, I (and many others) can testify to the nonsensical and, at times, illogical qualities of many test passages and questions. Last year, for example, Pearson had to throw out six questions on its eighth grade English test that followed a perplexing fable with the moral, “Pineapples don’t have sleeves”. I thought that nothing could be worse than that test. I was wrong.
The Pearson statement:
As part of our partnership with NYSED, Pearson searches for previously published passages that will support grade-level appropriate items for use in the 3-8 ELA assessments. The passages must meet certain criteria agreed upon by both NYSED and Pearson in order to best align to Common Core State Standards and be robust enough to support the development of items. Once passages are approved, Pearson follows legal protocols to procure the rights to use the published passages on the assessment on behalf of NYSED. If a fee is required to obtain permission, Pearson pays this fee. NYSED has ultimate approval of passages used on the assessment.
As one of the main shifts of the Common Core State Standards is to help students read and analyze more authentic literature and workplace documents, brand names are referenced occasionally in the passages. Neither Pearson nor NYSED request that these brand names be added, eliminated, or changed. The brand names are not selected, but exist as part of previously published passages due to choices made by authors. Pearson and NYSED do not receive any financial compensation for product branding that is included in a passage or an item. If a brand is mentioned in a passage or item, the trademark symbol is included in order to follow rights and permission laws and procedures.
When a state testing program decides to use only authentic passages, the inclusion of brand names is inevitable. It should also be noted that passages are not edited for use on the assessment, unless permission to do so has been granted. Preserving the passage in its original state is part of the effort to present material students are likely to encounter in college or the workforce. As standard protocol, NYSED does not request the editing of passages, including the reference to products. In rare instances, if a correction to the original text is required (e.g., incorrect facts or incorrect punctuation), permission is sought to make that correction, and the change is only made if permission is granted.
As a practice, Pearson follows all trademark/copyright laws for art, products, photography, and text.This is not a new practice this year in New York State or for any Pearson product; it is part of Pearson’s ongoing attempt to provide material that meets the modern landscape of assessment while following important laws and regulations.
In addition, it should be noted that several assessment programs use only authentic passages and the inclusion of brand names is inevitable. We have verified that several different assessment programs have instances of brand names included due to use of authentic texts.