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March 17, 2015

Concerns rising over Pearson, the company behind PARCC and other tests

Some parents, critics ask if 'Goliath' has too much power in assessing N.J. students

Education Testing
03172015_PARCC_testing_YouTube CBS New York/via YouTube

Almost 900,000 New Jersey students are taking the Pearson-administered PARCC test in March.

This year, five million kids in the United States, including New Jersey, will take a new standardized test -  the PARCC. Potential new teachers in Pennsylvania will take a new certification test – the PAPA. And thousands of men and women who never finished high school will be betting their futures on the results of a proficiency exam – the GED.

What do all these tests have in common? The company that administers them: Pearson.

Pearson, a London-based international publishing and education company which originally started in construction in 1844, has become a colossus in the U.S. education system. On every level of education, the company has a presence and a product to sell.

"The [Department of Education] informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during PARCC testing. I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing...." – Watchung Hills superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, in an email sent to other superintendents

Teachers use Pearson’s PowerSchool and SchoolNet software to record student grades and a host of other data. Pearson sells textbooks aligned to the Common Core curriculum which means by extension aligned with the PARCC test – a controversial curriculum and test being promoted by the federal government to better prepare students for the global economy. And Pearson has a huge presence in higher education, where it helps universities to run online classes.  

Pearson has power. With almost 900,000 New Jersey students taking the PARCC test this month, some parents and critics are asking: how much power, exactly?

“We have this Goliath standardized, computerized test created and administered by a private corporation,” said Marian Raab, a parent in Maplewood, New Jersey, and a vocal critic.

Over the weekend, in fact, concerns about Pearson intensified when it was revealed the company was monitoring the social media accounts of New Jersey students in the midst of taking the PARCC test. 

Last week, Elizabeth Jewett, schools superintendent for the Watchung Hills Regional School district in Warren, New Jersey, sent an email to other superintendents after the district received a late night call from the state's Department of Education.

"Last night at 10PM, my testing coordinator received a call from the NJDOE that Pearson had initiated a Priority 1 Alert for an item breach within our school," Jewett wrote to her peers. "The information the NJDOE initially called with was that there was a security breach DURING the test session, and they suggested the student took a picture of a test item and tweeted it. After further investigation on our part, it turned out that the student had posted a tweet (NO PICTURE) at 3:18PM (after school) that referenced a PARCC test question. The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent – who was obviously highly concerned as to her child’s tweets being monitored by the DOE.

"The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during PARCC testing. I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing – and if our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all of the student data, I am sure I will be receiving more letters of refusal once this gets out (not to mention the fact that the DOE wanted us to also issue discipline to the student). I thought this was worth sharing with the group."

The district has acknowledged that Jewett sent the email, which was first published online by former Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Stacy Skelly, vice president for corporate affairs at Pearson’s School division, defended the company's monitoring of student social media accounts for any mention of the PARCC test.

"The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid," Skelly told the Post. "We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level."

Michael Yaple, a New Jersey Department of Education spokesman,  said monitoring the Internet to see if test questions were leaked was "not new, nor is it unique to this test."

"Test security measures to identify test breaches have been used in the past, even when New Jersey had paper tests. It is done in other states, and it is done with other tests," he said. 

But Yaple said he did not know if test security was previously provided by the test vendor or by DOE staff. 

"It is our intent to ensure that no one intrudes upon any student’s personal space. If we hear of instances where someone believes a vendor has overstepped its bounds, we will look into the matter," he said.

It's those privacy concerns, among others, that have prompted Raab to refuse to let her sixth-grade son take the PARCC and volunteer with Save Our Schools New Jersey, which opposes the culture of high-stakes standardized testing. She’s concerned about the amount of data that passes through Pearson’s servers.

“How does one company get a monopoly on judging our children like this?” Raab asked.

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An Ohio student takes the PARCC test online.  (Ty Wright / AP)

PEARSON AND NEW JERSEY

Last weekNew Jersey officials revealed details of the state's four-year contract with Pearson, which has started to administer and score the online PARCC tests this month.  Total cost: as much as $108 million.

Winning such a large contract is nothing new for Pearson.

A financial report on Pearson’s website noted that 13 million students in more than 70 countries last year used PowerSchool, a gradebook software. There were also 600,000 downloads of its PowerSchool app for iPhone.

More than 10 million students are in schools that use Schoolnet, software that creates student assessments and then analyzes the results so that teachers can make “data-driven decisions.” In New Jersey, 27 school districts launched Schoolnet last year, and 14 more implementations are in progress.

"We were the largest textbook publisher...we are also the largest trustee of student data," said Jonathan Harber, the CEO of Pearson K-12 Technology, at an Education Datapalooza conference at the White House in 2012.

Pearson says that its innovative use of data can move the educational field forward in many ways, from allowing parents to keep track of their kid’s homework to helping students decide what college to attend.

“Public and private partnerships can actually make a positive difference for our learners,” Skelly told PhillyVoice. “We take investments that perhaps would be difficult for states or school districts individually to make, and we’re investing in innovation.”

“Nobody wants a monopoly. You want to be able to choose the best deal from whomever, whatever services you want. But this one company is controlling everything.” – Kim Gibson, Burlington City mother

All student data belongs to the state; Pearson does not own any of it. Nevertheless, Raab is concerned about the sheer amount of personal data that a hacker could steal if Pearson’s security was breached.

“PowerSchool is how you as a public school parent check your child’s grades….How do we know that Pearson is protecting our children’s data?” she asked.

Kim Gibson, a mother of three in Burlington City, shares Raab’s reservations about the PARCC test. When she speaks about Pearson, she accidentally calls the company “he” – almost like Pearson is an actual person, a Big Brother of sorts.

“My issue is who developed the test. It’s Pearson. He developed the test; they developed the textbooks for the class, all the materials to help you pass the test. It’s my understanding they even developed all the GED materials in case you don’t pass high school because you failed the test,” she said.

Pearson, in fact, partnered with the non-profit Council on American Education to run the General Educational Development test, or GED, in 2011.

“It really seems like it’s a monopoly to me that this one person is controlling – or this one company is controlling – all this educational stuff,” Gibson said.

But Pearson doesn’t have the kind of control that people think it has, according to Skelly.

“I think one of those big, big misconceptions is that Pearson somehow sets policy,” she said. “We simply don’t operate that way. The only people that set state policy are the people who are elected to do so.”

Both mothers used the word "monopoly" to describe Pearson, but it’s not the only private company selling products to the public school system. Public schools have had relationships with private companies since the beginning of their history, and in the assessment business, Pearson faces competition from companies like McGraw Hill, Measured Progress, Educational Testing Service (ETS), of Princeton, as well as the Data Recognition Corp., which has the contract for scoring Pennsylvania’s state assessment tests.

“We compete in a competitive environment for contracts or opportunities to work with customers… we are held accountable by the people that we work for and with,” Skelly said.

One Brookings Institute study from 2012 found that, out of 45 states surveyed, 12 used Pearson for their primary state standardized tests. By federal law, states must give these tests each year from third grade to eighth, plus once in high school.

According to the Software and Information Industry Association, testing and assessment sales through high school have increased 57 percent over the last three years of its annual survey. For the 2012-2013 school year, sales represented almost $2.5 billion.

Standardized tests and curriculum are nothing new in education. But few have generated the kind of concerns and opposition facing the PARCC tests. 

PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, is a consortium of 11 states and the District of Columbia that banded together to develop new assessments based on the Common Core standards. The idea behind these standardized test consortiums is to make education more uniform across the country – so that it’s possible to accurately compare New Jersey students to students anywhere else in the country, or even the world.

This international comparison may become easier in the future, since Pearson is designing the framework of the 2015 and 2018 PISA tests, tests used internationally to score student achievement. 

Joining a consortium is also a way to save on costs, as states can pool resources and exert greater bargaining power. Smaller states in particular can benefit.

"The general idea of collaborating is (that it’s) a way that states can get more bang for their buck," said Matthew Chingos, a researcher at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C.

When it came time to choose who would administer and score a test based on Common Core standards, every PARCC state chose to contract with one company – Pearson.

A student protests the PARCC test in New Mexico. (Russell Contreras/ AP) 

“PARCC states felt that for the sake of having a common experience and having comparable results, it was important to have a single vendor,” said David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for PARCC Inc., the non-profit organization that serves as a project manager on behalf of the consortium. 

The choice was also made easier by the fact that Pearson was the only company to bid on the contract. 

The American Institutes for Research, a non-profit organization that wanted to bid for the assessment contract, is now suing New Mexico. The state, which has been the scene of a number of student and parent protests over the PARCC test, took the lead in searching for a vendor and writing a contract that other states incorporated into their own pricing agreements.   

The organization alleges that the proposed contract was structured in such a way that only Pearson could possibly have fit the requirements.

"The Request for Proposals, issued on behalf of the PARCC consortium, was designed to allow all other PARCC states the ability to avoid competitive procurements, effectively committing a billion public dollars in a sole-source contract,” argued the American Institutes for Research.

Skelly said the process was still fair. Pearson’s 793-page bid, made available through an open records request, shows that it would work with rivals, such as ETS, as subcontractors for the PARCC test.

“Nobody else chose to bid. That’s the point, it’s a competitive environment,” Skelly said. “Nobody else offered their capabilities to meet the need. It’s an open and transparent process.”

“Nobody wants a monopoly,” said Gibson, the mother from Burlington City. “You want to be able to choose the best deal from whomever, whatever services you want. But this one company is controlling everything.”

But Pearson says that states are free to choose another company if the results of the PARCC are not satisfactory. 

“If we haven’t met the needs of our customer, we won’t get selected again. If we don’t hold up our end of the bargain…then it’s a competitive environment and somebody else could be selected in our place,” Skelly said. “Not only do we hold ourselves accountable, we are also rightly so held accountable by districts and parents and students.”

To increase accountability, Pearson has pledged that by 2018 it will make efficacy reports public on every product it creates in which it has invested at least $1 million. 

“It’s an initiative that Pearson has undertaken to essentially make sure that all of our products and services result in some kind of measurable outcome for our learners,” Skelly said. She did not specify those measurable outcomes.

PEARSON AND PENNSYLVANIA TEACHERS

Worry over standardized testing for children has been loud and well-publicized ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. 

In Pennsylvania, however, educators are voicing concern over other kinds of assessments – not tests given to students, but tests given to teachers.

Pennsylvania isn’t administering the PARCC tests, although it is a “participating” state in the consortium, meaning that it has been involved in some consortium activities without committing itself to the test.

We didn't believe that a national test was the best route for Pennsylvania students,” said Jessica Hickernell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We have state exams that we believe corresponded to our Pa.-specific academic standards.”

To get certified, however, prospective teachers in undergraduate programs in the state must pass a Pearson-administered basic skills test – PAPA, or the Pre-service Academic Performance Assessment. Many teacher education programs will not even accept students who fail a basic skills test.

“If they don’t pass PAPA, they don’t get to be in the program,” said Dr. Kira Baker-Doyle, a professor of education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Montgomery County. Students do have the option of submitting their high school SAT or ACT scores, but they can’t retake those tests in college to get a higher score.

Baker-Doyle said that the United States is unusual from an international perspective for contracting teacher licensing tests out to private companies.

“The United States, in using these third-party companies, has a very unique approach in comparison to a lot of the European nations and other nations that have much stronger kind of teacher professionalism,” she said.

 She also claimed that since Pennsylvania switched from using the Praxis tests (administered by ETS) to PAPA, passing rates have gone down, making it harder for people to become teachers in the first place.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education was not able to provide passing rate data on the PAPA, but Pearson confirmed that rates went down in a 2013 FAQ posted on the Pennsylvania Educator Certification Test website:

Q: How do you explain to students and their parents the sudden shift in pass rates (compared to the previous test) on the PAPA?
A: The PAPA is a new and different test. The passing score was set by the PDE based on the recommendations of a standard setting panel of Pennsylvania educators.

Standardized tests also affect teachers once they’ve been certified, since evaluations of their job performance may be tied to student test scores.

“It forces you to see your student as a number, which is really sad,” Baker-Doyle said.

A more nuanced way to measure a teacher’s effectiveness is to actually see what they do in the classroom, rather than just looking at their students’ test scores. One idea is for student teachers to film themselves in the classroom and assemble these videos into a portfolio review, so that evaluators can assess the potential teacher directly on how they interact with students.

Baker-Doyle applauds this approach – but she and other educators are worried about a new development on the horizon.

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Pearson PLC headquarters in the distinctive Shell Mex House on The Strand in London, off the Thames River. (Google StreetView)

'MOTIVATED BY FINANCIAL GAIN'

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is working on a proposal to add another requirement for certification, involving the creation of a standardized video portfolio system. While teacher education programs would like to control the portfolio system themselves, the Department of Education is signaling that they’ll contract with a private company to film, store, and evaluate the portfolios. This company will almost certainly be either Pearson or ETS.

“This comes down to management of data…they’re trusting that Pearson and ETS can do a better job of doing that than schools of education,” said Baker-Doyle.

The Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators has written that it "objects vigorously to relinquishing the critical process of student teacher assessment to third-party vendors who do not know our teacher candidates, do not observe them personally in their classrooms, and are motivated by financial gain."

Representatives from Pearson and its rival, ETS,  attended PAC-TE’s Teacher Education Assembly in October to show off their products, and Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) officials asked for feedback, but PAC-TE complained that it was being offered a “forced choice” between two private companies.

“Although PDE officials have invited PAC-TE institutions to devise alternative systems, they have made it quite clear that such systems will not be considered unless they incorporate standardized, third-party components such as those offered by Pearson and ETS,” PAC-TE wrote.

The organization also pointed out that since many schools forbid the filming of students, there would be fewer schools allowing student teacher placements in the first place.

There is also the question of whether the private company would own these videos, and how the scores on video assessments might be connected to other standardized tests.

Scores from the video assessments of teachers could be linked to their students’ test scores, forming the basis of teacher evaluations. Then those evaluations – in a full turn of the circle – could be used to evaluate and rank the teacher education programs.

The PDE did not comment on any proposals for new pre-service teacher assessments.

Ultimately, the entire point of having an assessment system is to hold educational institutions accountable. The question that arises, then, is how do schools in turn hold those assessment systems – and the companies selling them – accountable.

How do states find out if a test really does measure a student’s readiness for college or career? One way to do that would be to see if the kids who get higher scores on the PARCC also have higher rates of college graduation or employment, but that data won’t be available for years.

As Skelly said, it’s the districts, parents and students that need to be paying attention now.

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