A few months ago, Pearson lost its three-decade testing monopoly in Texas, with the Educational Testing Service winning the largest part of the state’s new testing contract — $280 million — over the next four years, with Pearson keeping some $60 million in testing business. Pearson’s last contract with Texas was for $468 million over five years, ending this year.
In 2014, Pearson, it lost its contract to provide a standardized assessment system for public schools in Florida, and a new $220 million, six-year contract instead went to the AIR (formerly known as the American Institutes of Research).
There’s more. Pearson is the primary vendor for PARCC, the chief contractor for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two multi-state consortia charged with designing new Common Core-aligned exams with some $360 million in federal funds. In 2010, 26 states were aligned with PARCC, but now there fewer than 10 states, with Arkansas and Ohio just dropping out, and Mississippi doing so early this year.
Pearson-created Common Core tests in New York have been the target of complaints for several years, including a now infamous question about a “talking pineapple” on a 2012 standardized reading test given to eighth-grade students, which students and adults said didn’t make sense. Ultimately, the question wasn’t counted in students’ scores. But questions about other questions have continued, including these concerns expressed this year by educators:
- Requiring fourth graders to write about the architectural design of roller coasters and why cables are used instead of chains
- A sixth-grade passage from “That Spot” by Jack London, which included words and phrases such as “beaten curs,” “absconders of justice,” surmise, “savve our cabin,” and “let’s maroon him”
- A passage on the third-grade test from “Drag Racer” which has a grade level of 5.9 and an interest level of 9-12th grade.
New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch suggested dissatisfaction with Pearson’s work over the past several years in a statement about the change:
“Our students deserve the best, most accurate assessments we can give them. Teachers and parents should have clear, practical information to help them help their students learn. Our goal is to continue to improve the assessments to make sure they provide the instructional support parents and teachers need to prepare our students for college and careers. This new contract also recognizes how vitally important it is to have New York State teachers involved in the test development process.”
Pearson has experienced repeated problems with its tests in many states over the years, and this year was no exception. These are just some of issues Pearson faced so far in 2015, as collected by FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a non-profit that works to end the misuse of standardized testing:
2015 New York – Quality of Pearson-designed questions on state exam challenged
2015 California – Pearson battles over award of state testing contract to rival firm
It is worth noting that a change in testing company is no guarantee that a state-wide assessment system will improve with another vendor. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, said that Pearson lost its contract in Florida, which turned to AIR, which had previous statewide testing experience in Utah as well as in Minnesota, which ended up replacing AIR this year. Can you guess what company took over? Yes, Pearson.
Schaeffer wrote in an e-mail that the assessment industry has a “systemic” problem. He said it doesn’t have the capacity to do “all the tasks politicians and ideologues have assigned it, especially in a competitive bidding environment where the lowest-cost vendor usually wins contacts.” And, even if exam design and administration were flawless, which they are not, “the instruments should not be used to make all the high-stakes educational decisions the test-and-punish crowd have layered on.”