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The Pearsonizing of the American Mind

Dear Deborah,

People keep asking why states are spending more and more money on testing at the same time that states are cutting the school budget, laying off teachers, closing school libraries, eliminating the arts, and increasing class size. A good question.

Now that parents are feeling the effects of these decisions, as they see their children spending more time on tests and less time learning, they are getting involved in the movement to stop expensive, unnecessary, and punitive testing. Not many are opposed to testing per se; they are against the misuse of testing and the waste of instructional time for their children.

Members of more than half the school boards in Texas have now signed a resolution opposing it, as have a growing number of school districts in other states. The national resolution, modeled on the Texas resolution, has been endorsed by thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations. On Thursday, parent groups in New York City are planning a demonstration in front of the offices of Pearson, the testing giant that now controls testing in many of our largest states, including New York, Florida, and Texas. The parent groups call it "a field trip against field tests." They are protesting the fact that another day of instruction will be lost so that Pearson can field test new test questions. Some parents have actually sent invoices to Pearson, demanding payment for the use of their children's time.

Of course, Pearson is not just a publisher of standardized tests. It is a mega-corporation. It is a behemoth of for-profit goods and services to the education marketplace. It sells textbooks and test-preparation materials. Last year, it purchased Connections Academy, a for-profit online corporation; the vice president of Connections is active on the education committee of ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, which lobbies for privatization of schools.

Last year, as well, Pearson partnered with the American Council on Education with plans to turn the GED into a for-profit business. In addition, Pearson entered into a partnership in 2011 with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to produce instructional materials aligned to the Common Core standards. Pearson will create and market online math courses for kindergarten through 10th grades and online courses in reading for kindergarten through 12th grades. Gates put up $3 million to develop 24 new courses. Four courses will available for free, according to the story in The New York Times, "to give educators a taste of how the digital courses can be used in classrooms." In other words, four are marketing tools to promote the sales of the other 20.

New Yorkers have recently become aware of the incompetence of Pearson's standardized tests. Surely, everyone knows the story of "the hare and the pineapple," known on Twitter as #pineapplegate. That one went viral, with newspapers across the nation ridiculing a stupid story with stupid questions. The pineapple wasn't the only error on the tests. It turns out that a question in 5th grade math required knowledge that was taught in later grades, and other questions were canceled because they had no right answer or two right answers.

Since the tests are not released for public review, no one will ever know how many more pineapples or ill-phrased questions or bad answers are embedded there. It seems strange, doesn't it, to maintain a veil of secrecy over tests that will be used to shape the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools. Why not release the questions and let everyone pore over them? This seems a bit like a trial in which the accused is not allowed to view the evidence. When the conviction comes, the accused must trust that a higher power judged him or her to be good or bad. Teachers will be fired based on the Pearson tests, and neither they nor the public will be allowed to see the evidence.

The more I see of the misuse of standardized testing, the more intolerable it seems. Last week, I learned that the Scantron tests in Illinois included a reading passage extolling the virtues of charter schools as education reform. The passage included pie charts and graphs to demonstrate the superiority of charters over the public schools attended by the students taking the tests. It even cited a fictional "millionaire" who sends his own children to a charter school. This was pure, shameless propaganda. Is it worth mentioning that Scantron recently dropped its sponsorship of ALEC, the right-wing, pro-privatization organization?

One thing is clear. The tests are the linchpin of the attack on public education. The politicians throw about test scores as evidence that our entire public education system is a failed enterprise. (For a recent example, see my review of the Council on Foreign Relations report, which made the absurd claim that public education is a "grave threat" to national security.)

If the public comes to understand how flawed the tests are, how marred by random error, statistical error, measurement error, and human error, they would lose their luster. They are not scientific instruments. They are social constructions. And these imperfect instruments are being misused and abused to advance a wrong-headed political agenda.

Diane

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