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Pearson responds to criticism about its standardized tests

Pearson’s Alfred Binford (Used with permission)
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When John Oliver, on his HBO “Last Week” show, did a recent segment on the problems with standardized testing, the one company that he mentioned at some length was Pearson — and that’s no surprise. Pearson is the largest education company in the world (Fortune magazine says it may control up to 60 percent of the U.S. testing market), and it has become a high-profile target of opponents of high-stakes standardized testing.

How dominant is Pearson in American public schools? Oliver noted that it is possible for American students to take Pearson-designed tests from kindergarten through at least eighth grade, use Pearson-designed curriculum and textbooks, and have teachers certified by a Pearson test. There’s more: a Pearson test is used by many to identify learning disabilities, and the GED, the test taken by high school dropouts who want the equivalent of a degree, is now owned by Pearson.

[Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core tests]

In recent years, the company has been repeatedly in the news in regard to issues including the quality, frequency and security of the standardized tests they design for various states. I asked Pearson officials if they wanted to write a post for this blog about their testing program and the related issues that have put the company in the news. The following blog post is their response. It was written by Alfred G. Binford, managing director of assessment and direct delivery at Pearson. The headline that Pearson put on the post was: “New State Tests Are One Piece of An Improving Education System.”

By Alfred G. Binford

The best things that have happened in my life are because of my family and education. A single mom made schooling a top priority for my siblings and me, and I am a proud product of the Bronx Public Schools in New York City. Education has always been “access to opportunity” for me and has helped shape me as a husband, dad, neighbor, employee, and citizen.

My wife and I want our three boys to get great educations that prepare them to earn good-paying jobs and to find fulfillment in life. Just about every parent knows that so much of future success depends on access to the best education possible. In a recent NBC News “State of Parenting” Poll, sponsored by my employer, Pearson, 86 percent of parents said that children today need more than a high school degree to achieve the American Dream.

Recognizing the need to better prepare students for success beyond high school, states have adopted new, more demanding academic learning standards (e.g., the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills; the Common Core State Standards). These standards will provide students with a solid foundation in reading and math. They’ll also improve on prior standards by helping build the skills employers say graduates need to compete in today’s global economy. That includes the ability to think critically, understand complex texts, analyze math problems, and collaborate with their peers. As an employer, I know these skills are what I look for, in addition to solid comprehension and numeracy.

With new standards, states needed better tests to capture how well students acquire these meaningful skills and provide better feedback. Student test results are one of several indicators, along with classroom grades, teacher and parental observation and feedback that make a well-rounded report card on how well a student is achieving throughout their schooling. Test results provide a vital snapshot of student performance and growth, and this is where Pearson plays a key role.

Pearson invests in the research and design of fair, rigorous tests that help teachers, parents, students, colleges and employers see how well students are progressing in their learning, and where there are areas for improvement. New annual state tests based on higher standards have introduced a potential game-changer: performance tasks that enable us to see how well students can apply what they have learned in the classroom to solve real-world problems.

This spring, there’s rightly been a great deal of media and public scrutiny as we and other testing companies have rolled out new tests. Pearson holds itself to a very high standard for excellence – when our services do not work properly, we should be held accountable. When technical glitches briefly interrupted online testing for some students in Colorado and Minnesota, we acted quickly to identify the causes and implement a fix to allow testing sessions to continue. While glitches are rightly high profile, they are the exception. We apologize for the inconvenience this caused and are taking steps to make sure students and teachers get a much better service from now on.

There were also some lurid rumors about “spying” following reports of a New Jersey student’s tweet about a test question that the student had taken, but others in New Jersey and elsewhere had yet to take. Here’s the truth: while it is only one question, the student’s actions were unfair to other students and jeopardized the integrity of the test. We have an obligation to the public and to the state to ensure that live test information does not leak. Pearson uses a monitoring service that looks for keywords directly related to the test. When we discovered the leaked information, we immediately contacted the New Jersey Department of Education so they could take the actions necessary to protect the interests of other students who were yet to take that question.

We understand that parents and teachers are very concerned about their child’s privacy. I share that concern as a parent. But I can say without question Pearson does not monitor individual students and only views information accessible through public social media channels. We believe in test fairness and feel strongly that all students should have the same level playing field so they can truly demonstrate what they have learned.

As a company, Pearson wants to do a better job of showing that we’re listening to students, teachers and parents’ concerns. We hear loudly that some parents think the tests are too long and may cause anxiety for some students. We hear that some teachers wish they had students’ test results in real time, so they could adjust their classroom instruction that same week. We’re looking at the research, design and delivery of cutting-edge assessment systems that provide better, quicker feedback.

Tests are a means to an end – showing what individual young people have learned and how schools are preparing them for their next step in college or their careers. New annual state tests, supported by Pearson and other testing companies, will help students and teachers in those crucial life choices. Strong accountability and assessment systems are pivotal to ensuring equity for all students. We share a common goal with the teachers, parents and students we serve – to ensure that every single child graduates from school ready for success in life on her or his own terms.

(Correction: An earlier version referred to an article in Forbes. The article was in Fortune.)