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Geoff Johnson: Standardized testing is big business

Ontario standardized tests that measure students’ math and literacy skills will not happen this year.

Ontario standardized tests that measure students’ math and literacy skills will not happen this year. The decision puts pressure on the province, which over the years has come to use the results to help determine everything from school funding to training for teachers.

The Ontario teachers’ union has been pushing the province for years, as testing and preparing has taken up more class time, to re-evaluate the tests.

To fully understand the reservations expressed by Canadian educators about not only the predictive validity but also the politics of large-scale standardized testing, we need to consider the business success of Pearson, the world’s largest learning company, with more than 40,000 employees working across the globe.

Pearson, which has created tests for B.C. and other provinces, has emerged as a favourite target of critics who view it as a symbol of corporations reaping big profits from public education.

Pearson’s head offices is in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it has regional offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Dubai, Australia, India, Japan and China.

Small wonder that Pearson was only mildly peeved by the cancellation of a $1.3-billion initiative by the Los Angeles school district.

Los Angeles Unified told Apple Inc. that it will not spend another dollar on the Pearson software installed on its iPads and is seeking a multimillion-dollar refund from the technology giant.

The district, said one official, is “extremely dissatisfied” with the work of Pearson on its technology initiative to get computers into the hands of each of the district’s 650,000 students.

An investigation, yet to be completed, raised question about the relationship between Pearson and senior district officials, which included Pearson-funded training sessions for 50 district employees at a poolside resort. Pearson is also reported to have given participants free iPads.

Other investigations have revealed that the four corporations that dominate the U.S. standardized-testing market spend millions of dollars lobbying state and federal officials to persuade them to favour mandated student assessments, helping to fuel a nearly $2-billion annual testing business, a new analysis shows.

Despite minor speed bumps on the road to further profit opportunities, Pearson is moving ahead and expanding its business regardless.

PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) is a consortium of U.S. states that is developing assessments that claim to measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and beyond. The PARCC website outlines its “Writing Standards Progression from Grade 2 to Grade 3,” along with “Speaking and Listening Standards” and something it describes as “Examples of Key Advances from Grade 2 to Grade 3.”

The testing will be done by Pearson, and those tests will be the indicators of whether a Grade 2 child is on track for college.

Not in Canada, you say.

In fact, Canadian students already write tests designed by Pearson.

Students in all 10 Canadian provinces participate in the Program for International Student Assessment. These are the tests that set some politicians to huffing and puffing about math education when the 2013 results were released.

Canada was one of the original participants in PISA in 2000, under the encouragement and guidance of Paul Cappon, an academic who in 2004 became the president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning.

Prior to 2010, when the Harper government cut off its funding, the CCL produced a wide variety of material to aid researchers and provincial policy-makers.

While president and CEO of the CCL, Cappon was a vocal advocate for a national strategy on education and for the more extensive uses of standardized tests.

Cappon is now the lone Canadian representative on the seven-member advisory board for Pearson.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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