Pearson-Taught Students May Be Getting an Unfair Testing Advantage

Published May 21, 2013

The largest education company in the world put reading passages from its new Common Core-aligned curriculum in the sixth- and eighth-grade tests it administered in New York, prompting concerns that schools using Pearson materials gained a testing advantage over those that did not.

This is the first year of New York’s new Common Core-aligned statewide tests, and year two of education company Pearson’s five year, $32 million contract to provide grade 3-8 assessments in English language arts and math, “making it the first year this specific overlap between a Pearson Common Core curriculum and a Pearson Common Core-aligned assessment could have existed,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “It’s less likely that this kind of passage duplication happened in the past.”

Common Core is a set of national math and English requirements for grades K-12 that 45 states, including New York, have adopted. National tests corresponding to the standards will come out in 2014-2015. Between now and then, several states are administering new, interim tests to prepare for the change.

‘Authentic’ Reading Passages
Until now, most test developers have written passages specifically for tests, which wouldn’t be reprinted in curricula or other materials, Porter-Magee said. But Pearson sought to use “authentic passages,” or selections from books and other already existing materials, in aligning New York’s new assessment to Common Core, she said.

“By definition, authentic texts have been published elsewhere,” said Tom Dunn, a New York Department of Education spokesman. “It is not surprising that a passage on the assessments may have appeared elsewhere in a textbook, and it is likely to happen again as we go forward with the use of authentic texts in state assessments.”

In November, the department posted online Test Guides that mentioned potential overlap between authentic passages and classroom materials.

“The move to using authentic texts allows for the inclusion of works of literature that are worthy of reading outside of an assessment context,” said Dunn. “The use of authentic, meaningful texts may mean that some texts are more emotionally charged or may use language outside of a student’s particular cultural experience.”

As for the forthcoming national tests, they too will use “authentic texts” but probably won’t have the exact same passages as particular curricula.

“Our passages might range from about 300-500 words for elementary grades. The likelihood that passages of that length would also appear in classroom activities is pretty slight,” says Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups developing the national tests. “Most state-level tests now being used have a preference for ‘permissioned’ text rather than ‘commissioned’ text.”

Herding the Market
Using authentic assessments “is a big step forward,” Porter-Magee agrees, but it requires a more critical look at “the overlap between assessment and curriculum development.” As she wrote on Fordham’s blog, “If you were a New York principal and learned that Pearson included passages from their curriculum on the state test—the results of which are used to inform everything from student to teacher to school accountability—whose curriculum would you buy?”

State lawmakers have so far refused to address this question, and several turned down inquiries for this story. But parents and school leaders have questioned the use of the reprinted passages and their implications for open curriculum selection.

“It is possible that teachers have selected the same texts for use in their classrooms, and students may have read the books that passages were drawn from [in] their personal reading,” said Dunn. “While all assessments will include appropriate texts, please be aware that authentic texts will likely prompt real responses—perhaps even strong disagreement—among students. Students need to be prepared to respond accordingly while engaging with the test. The alternative would be to exclude many authors and texts that are capable of supporting the rigorous analysis called for by the Common Core.”


Image by Shannan Muskopf