Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Evidence of the testing-educational complex, with State officials indistinguishable from Pearson flacks

Just in time for tomorrow's rally tomorrow, protesting the NJ state tax giveaways of $80 million to Pearson, today it was announced that the company agreed to pay $75 million in damages plus costs to settle a lawsuit over price-fixing e-books.   
This comes after multiple Pearson mis-steps and grievous errors, including mistakes in scoring the NYC Gifted and talented tests not once but twice, creating state exams that were too long, too difficult, full of ambiguous questions that made children cry, and last year, the infamous Pineapple readind passage and at least 30 other errors, with  faulty questions and problems with translation and scoring.  

This year the New York State Pearson exams also featured crass, commercial product placements as well as  reading passages lifted off of Pearson textbooks that had been purchased and assigned elsewhere in the state but not NYC.  According to Kathleen Porter Magee of the conservative Fordham Institute, Pearson is abusing its monopoly power in way 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." 
Below is an exchange between Cynthia Wachtell, a NYC parent, who sent a letter to the Board of Regents, suggesting that the portions of the exams that drew reading passages from Pearson texts be invalidated.  The State Education official who responded, Steven Katz, claims that this borrowing was coincidental, and only happened because "authentic, meaningful texts" were used,  as though there aren't any "meaningful" pieces of literature  that are not contained in Pearson textbooks.  As Cynthia replies, there is a "vast body of fictional and non-fictional works from which the test passages could be selected."
Katz' claim, that this unfair practice resulted from the "authentic" nature of the texts, echoes the excuse made by  Pearson earlier in the year, when questions were raised about the inclusion of brand name products and logos in the ELA exams.  Their PR department then wrote, in the company's defense that  "...several assessment programs use only authentic passages and the inclusion of brand names is inevitable."  The arguments of both the SED and Pearson seems markedly unconvincing, and yes, inauthentic to me. 

Even more Pearson errors are described by Alan Singer at Huffington Post, along with the response of the head PR honcho at Pearson, Susan Aspey, former press secretary at the US Department of Education,which according to Singer, "epitomizes the disturbing relationship between private companies that are selling products and government agencies."  

 Indeed, the fact that the excuses offered by New York State Ed officials for Pearson incompetence and/or venality are indistinguishable from those made by Pearson PR flacks reveals how both are inextricably linked in an overarching testing-educational complex, like the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about decades before.  Their email exchange follows:
Dear Board of Regents Members,

I have two sons in public school in Manhattan, grades 6 and 8.  Recently, they both took the ELA exams for their respective grades.  Subsequently, I discovered that both of their tests seem to have included passages that students in other school districts, which had purchased Pearson prep materials, had already seen.  The following are from online sources:

"I am an 8th grade teacher in Xxxx, NY. On Day 1 of the NYS ELA 8 Exam, I discovered what I believe to be a huge ethical flaw in the State test. The state test included a passage on why leaves change color that is included in the Pearson-generated NYS ELA 8 text. I taught it in my class just last week."

"Pearson advantage? A story is building that the 6th grade exam had a passage that was very similar to a Pearson product’s story in Scott Foresman Reading Street 6.1 (pages 208-224)".

As reported in the New York Post:  Officials at Pearson "said the inclusion of essays from their curriculum material was an 'unintentional' consequence of the state’s emphasis on using nonfiction texts in the exams."

This is an appalling error, and it will be a huge ethical lapse, if it is not promptly addressed.   Of course, it is hard to assess the extent of this problem precisely because Pearson refuses to make the tests public.  What is obvious, though, is that Pearson has failed again.  

As the eight grade teacher further writes, "[I]t was a huge advantage to students fortunate enough to use a Pearson text and not that of a rival publisher."  Clearly, all questions based upon these passages must now be disqualified.


Cynthia Wachtell

From: Steven Katz [SKATZ@MAIL.NYSED.GOV]
Sent: Monday, May 20, 2013 1:59 PM
To: Cynthia Wachtell
Subject: Re: Fwd: Other Kids Saw the ELA Passages in Advance
Dear Ms. Wachtell:

Thank you for sharing with the New York State Education Department and its Board of Regents your concern that some students taking the Grades 3-8 English Language Arts Tests may have previously read passages in widely used textbooks.

These Common Core English language arts tests use authentic texts for the reading passages. The move to using authentic texts allows for the inclusion of works of literature that are worthy of reading outside of an assessment context. By definition, authentic texts have been published elsewhere. It is not surprising that a passage on the assessments may have appeared in a textbook or an anthology, or may have been encountered by students when reading books, magazines, or newspapers. It is possible it may happen again as we go forward with the use of authentic texts in state assessments.

Using authentic, meaningful texts means that some students have read texts included on the 2013 Common Core English Language Arts Tests prior to test administration.  For the very reasons that texts were selected for use on the assessment, it is possible that teachers have selected the same texts for use in their classrooms. In addition, well-read students may have read the books that passages were drawn from for their personal reading. Be assured, however, that students who may have previously read either the source a passage was drawn from or a textbook or anthology it was included in have not had access to the test questions associated with the passage.

Once again, thank you for your comments on the 2013 English Language Arts Tests.

Steven E. Katz
Director of State Assessment

Dear Mr. Katz,

I appreciate your thoughtful response to my message.  However, I must disagree with the conclusions that you draw.

The students who read the Pearson passages in advance of the test did so in a test prep situation in the months, weeks, and even days leading up to the ELA test.  They discussed the passages in class.  They answered questions about the passages, even if they were not the same questions that appeared on the actual test.  If they did not understand the passages or words in them, they had the advantage of their teachers and classmates' input.  This is quite different from the experience of a student casually reading a passage, in the course of independent reading, at what might be many months, or even years, remove from the ELA test.

Moreover, the likelihood of a student randomly encountering in advance a passage that appears on a test is quite slim.  There is a vast body of fictional and non-fictional works from which the test passages could be selected.  However, the fact that a 6th or 8th grade student who used the Pearson test prep materials definitely encountered a test passage in advance of the Pearson created test is a certainty.

For the integrity of the testing process -- especially now that there are such "high stakes" depending upon it -- I remain convinced that these two passages need to be disqualified.  Moreover, I believe that Pearson's repeated errors warrant a cancelation of the company's contract.  


Cynthia Wachtell

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