Monday, February 10, 2014

Pearson: Friend or Foe?

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As the country slowly realizes that the big issue with the Common Core is not the core itself but the testing aspect of school accountability, I feel it is my duty to help keep the debate focused.
As a preface to my comments, let me point out the existence of Pearson PLC, specifically its "North America" page, (see here) which as of today says
We are the largest provider of educational assessment services in the U.S. We mark large-scale school examinations for the U.S. federal government and more than 25 American states, scoring billions of multiple-choice tests and more than 111 million essays every year.
Uniform national standards do make it easier for such a company to offer products to a greater number of states. These states, deciding that there may be no need to invent their own wheel, may then see Pearson as a cost-effective option. Pearson (or any other such company) has no real interest in what those standards are, but a large interest in their adoption by as many states as possible. The sooner states were in lockstep, the better for Pearson.
The real push behind all the testing is the program known as Race to the Top. This program states, on its own web site,
Authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Race to the Top Assessment Program provides funding to consortia of States to develop assessments that are valid, support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about what students know and can do, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. These assessments are intended to play a critical role in educational systems; provide administrators, educators, parents, and students with the data and information needed to continuously improve teaching and learning; and help meet the President's goal of restoring, by 2020, the nation's position as the world leader in college graduates.
Note the phrase "consortia of states". The burden starts with states working together. Who benefits from that criterion alone? Does it really and truly matter to an 8th grade teacher whether the curricula standards they need to address have national, state, county, or district origins?  Does it matter to the students?  Does it presume that any state addressing the issue alone will be less successful?
Pearson says on their web site
Race to the Top is a federal competitive grant program designed to reward states and districts that have made innovative education reforms.
So does that contradict the stated goal of Race to the Top? Is the funding for "consortia of states" or is it a reward to states and districts?

In addition, Pearson has a link to a Race to the Top handbook for grants which states that the purpose of a grant is to:

Reward Local Education Agencies (LEAs) who have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.
 What is a Local Education Agency?  Do you know? Look it up!

Pearson's handbook goes to the assert that  "Eligible applicants include only individual LEAs and consortia of LEAs." Further, it says
1. Minimum of 2000 participating students. Consortiums can serve fewer than 2,000 students, if the consortium has at least 10 LEAs and at least 75% of the students served by each LEA are participating students.
2. At least 40% of participating students must be from low-income families.
So its natural push is to deal with larger groups. Due to the first restriction my district would not have been allowed to apply by itself. The second item would rule out many school districts.

The handbook also points to this address for more info: www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-district/index.html . Check that page out. Of course, the deadline for these grants was last October, so the page MIGHT have changed, but it seems to have very little to do with Race to the Top.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the parent of Race to the Top, stipulates
The overall goals of the ARRA are to stimulate the economy in the short term and invest in education and other essential public services to ensure the long-term economic health of our nation.

So the original motive is economics-based, which easily leads to the idea that the most crucial measures of the success of education is the "economic health of the nation." Is it really?

Back to the Race to the Top quote above: if we are to restore the US as the world leader in college graduates by 2020, we are focusing attention on students graduating from high school by 2016, which means those entering kindergarten by 2003. How does all the testing of grades K-8 in 2014 even come into play?

Late last year a group of New York state principals drafted a letter (see it here) regarding Common Core and testing in which they said "Since 2010, the amount of time spent on average taking the 3-8 ELA and Math tests has increased by a whopping 128%! The increase has been particularly hard on our younger students, with third graders seeing an increase of 163%". Who made big bucks on these tests?
During my time on a Strategic Planning Committee in the district where I taught, the recognition was made that we had to look at the system not K-12, but rather 12-K. We had to start with graduating standards and design in reverse, so that each level would seamlessly flow into the next. We were aware that the program had to remain in flux, since as students cohorts were progressing through the system, they would be different from the cohort before, and (hopefully) more successful.

I know that serious implementation of any curricular change arrives with its assessment piece, so I understand fully why the K-8 world is boiling, especially in my home state.  What I do not understand is what the K-8 world has to do with the 2020 goal. The K-8 years are extremely important, but who really gains by the mad rush into K-8 testing? Could it be Pearson?

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