THE MONEY IN TESTING
By David Bacon
schools went test-crazy.
(Standardized Testing and Reporting) test by the thousands. Based on their
scores, every school in the state has been rated and placed on a scale from
the lowest to the highest. Dozens of LA district schools found themselves
at the bottom of the list.
school exit exam, will be implemented for many students, guinea pigs who
will test its implementation for all California students in years to come.
Grey Davis' belief that a highly-publicized commitment to the latest fad in
education reform is the key to the hearts of California voters. But if
that's the case, they're just two among a horde of politicians around the
country who've arrived at the same conclusion.
but one had adopted standards for what public school students were expected
to learn in at least one subject. Forty-one of those states had gone on to
adopt tests to measure student performance, presumably on the yardstick
those standards provided.
nation's schools. And it hasn't done so without resistance. Parents in
many states have protested the extensive use of standardized tests,
especially since so many decisions involving students' lives are now
determined by test performance. Graduation from one grade to another, and
from high school itself, is now often test-determined. The ranking of
schools, the resources available to them, and even the ability of parents
and teachers to control the local curriculum, is increasingly determined by
about education, and position themselves as would-be "education
governors," and now, in this year's national election, "education
ranging from political ambition to genuine frustration by parents and
teachers with the ability of the public school system to teach its
students. But testing is getting a big push from another important source,
which gets much less media coverage - the testing companies themselves.
standards. That money is going to a few large companies, who are also the
publishers of the texts that schools use for instruction. Dominating the
field are three big publishers. McGraw-Hill and its subsidiary, CTBS,
publishes the Terranova test series. Harcourt Inc.'s Education Group
publishes the Stanford-9 test, and Houghton-Mifflin's Riverside division
publishes the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Metropolitan Achievement
a testing market that was estimated at $218.7 million for 1999 by the
Association of American Publishers. The publication of standardized tests
is considered part of the market for instructional materials, which, at
$3.4 billion, is over 15 times as large. But the market for tests has been
growing at an average of 7% a year for over a decade -- much faster than
the market for textbooks, whose annual growth rate was 3% over the last
four years, according to the executive director of the association's school
division, Steven Dreifler. That growth rate alone makes it an attractive
market for publishers, and one which promises to become much larger and
more important in relation to their traditional business of publishing
and hide it within the income figures they report for educational
publishing generally. But Houghton-Mifflin's Riverside testing operation,
which sells the Iowa test, grew at a phenomenal 17% last year, while its
overall textbook division grew at 9.2%. In 1997, McGraw-Hill's testing
division had gross income of $95 million, and its overall educational
publishing group grew 5.7% to $832 million.
the process in which the tests themselves are developed and adopted.
both state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, and the
superintendents of numerous districts, and adopted the Stanford-9 test to
administer to 4 million of the state's students annually. State educators
had spend years developing a set of standards for core curriculum, and
their intention was to move on to develop tests which would reflect what
was actually being taught.
dominated, cut the process short. To force the legislature to immediately
adopt an off-the-shelf test, he withheld $200 million in school spending
until lawmakers agreed. "We think it's a big waste of time, energy and
money," said Lloyd Porter at the time, a Yorba Linda teacher monitoring
board actions for the California Teachers Association.
school districts around California were forced to sign contracts with the
company, worth $12 million a year, for a guaranteed period of 5 years. The
state even insisted that all children take the test in English, including
those who spoke only Spanish. Obviously, the test didn't assess the real
knowledge and skills of those children. But the kids fulfilled a more
important function. They consumed the product.
Group division shot up $85 million (18%), and its profits jumped $34
August, 1999, for late reporting of test results, and for 100,000 mistaken
reports of results which were sent to parents, and had to be recalled.
New York City children were mistakenly sent to summer school when
McGraw-Hill printed their math scores on their reading test forms.
by participating in one of the most highly-touted examples of this new
test-driven trend in education - what Republican Governor, now presidential
candidate, George Bush Jr. claims as Texas' "education miracle." Beginning
as early as 1985, the company's subsidiary, Harcourt Brace Educational
Measurement, was involved in developing the now-famous Texas Academic
Assessment Skills test.
National Computer Systems, that company subcontracts the work to Harcourt.
National Computer gets about $20 million a year for TAAS development;
Harcourt's cut is not public. In addition Harcourt gets about $2.8 million
a year for developing TAAS study guides.
textbooks were marketed to local districts around the state with a flier
stating "Why choose Harcourt Brace for your math program? . . . (It is
the) only program to have tests written by the same company that helps to
write the TAAS tests and actually wrote the Parents' Study Guide for TAAS:
Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement."
Harcourt later said it would discontinue the promotion. But the fact is
that, according to the Texas Education Agency, the company sold $25 million
of elementary school math textbooks in the state last year alone.
million contract for tests in Kentucky this year. In Mississippi, with one
of the lowest per-pupil spending levels in the country, the state is about
to sign a 10-year testing contract with McGraw-Hill for a total of $29.4
million. Despite releasing test scores late this year, Wisconsin not only
renewed its McGraw-Hill contract, but increased the annual payment from
$1.25 million to $1.5 million.
legislature to kill a proposed $10.1 million test high school students
would have had to pass to graduate. In California, on the other hand, the
state's new Democratic governor, Grey Davis, last year rammed a similar
test through the state legislature, along with another measure ranking the
state's schools based on test results.
scores actually mean. Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at Harvard, says that
the TAAS test, for instance, doesn't measure what politicians say it does,
when they argue that rising scores in the state mean that children are
learning more. "There may have been no real improvement in reading skills.
There may even have been a decline," she notes, alleging that the test is
made easier so more students pass.
schools organize TAAS camps, hold TAAS Olympics, and bend the curriculum
towards test-taking, in a high-stakes environment in which the penalties
for low performance can be brutal. Texas has no collective bargaining for
teachers, and promotion can depend on student scores. Urban Texas counties
have even indicted a school board, fired teachers and a principal, and
launched investigations over allegations of test tampering.
standardized tests reflect a bias which favors white children over racial
minorities, English-speakers over immigrants, and students from families
with higher income over those with lower incomes.
tests go back over 60 years, and were originally developed in universities.
Stanford psychologist Louis Terman, who wrote the first test in the
Stanford series before World War One, was notorious for regarding racial
minorities and Jews as "feeble-minded." Other early test developers were
held similar racist views, and saw the tests as instruments to weed out the
publishers' claims of an unprecedented level of objectivity. Two Harcourt
tests, the Otis-Lennon and Metropolitan Achievement, were recently charged
with being Eurocentric and discriminatory to New Orleans's African-American
students, when they were used as a basis for admission to a local high
school. For admission during the 1997-98 school year, 763 students took
both tests, of whom 44 percent were black and 42 percent were white. Of
those, 347 passed both tests. Among those who passed, 27 percent were black
and 59 percent were white.
over bias or problems with mistaken test results. The Mexican American
Legal Defense and Education Fund, for instance, mounted a major legal
challenge to the TAAS test, saying it has a discriminatory impact on Black
and Hispanic children. According to Maureen DiMarco, formerly California's
Secretary of Education under Wilson, and now vice-president for education
and government at Houghton-Mifflin, "it's hard to have a test that doesn't
get sued." But, she notes, it's the state or school district that has to
mount a defense and bear the legal costs, not the publisher.
"Children from poor communities go to schools which don't have resources,
and use less effective methods of instruction. Lots of test scores can be
explained by the lack of books. Poor children also move more often. The
implications of what's being measured are very deep. Poor kids can learn
just as well as higher income kids. They're just not getting the resources
they need to learn."
teachers, the test market looks good to publishers. Twenty states now
work with publishers to come up with state-specific tests, called
"criteria-referenced", rather than using off-the-shelf, "norm-referenced"
tests, according to the AAP's Dreifler. Working to produce unique tests
for a state can produce consulting fees for the publisher helping to
develop the product, followed by sales of the test itself. "The trendline
is that this type of testing will grow," he says.
the writing of the standards themselves, but DiMarco says the connection
is really tighter than that. "It's a wise state that seeks the advice of a
publisher when formulating standards, to ensure they're rigorous, and not
too vague," she explains. "Then they can issue a better request for bids."
The company that helps develop the standards, presumably, has a better
chance at getting the bid for the test, and has an advantage in selling
textbooks which meet the curriculum requirements as well.
all these elements together? Publishers already hold enormous economic
power, and strive for a close relationship with the state authorities who
choose instructional materials and tests. With personnel moving back and
forth between the state and private sector, an education-industrial complex
is beginning to emerge.
the standards and accountability movement. But this is not just a
grassroots wave sweeping the country from below. Pushing its agenda are
organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust, the Heritage Foundation, and
the Hudson Institute, and corporate CEOs like IBM's Lou Gerstner.
says. "Just look at how many education governors we have now. Even
presidential candidates know they have to speak to these issues."
david bacon - labornet email david bacon
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