Accountability Education Industry Education Reform For-Profit NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Pearson Testing

Owen Davis: How Pearson and Other Test Makers Made a Killing on the U.S. Testing Mania

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Owen Davis writes here about the enrichment of the testing industry by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

The testing and accountability craze started before No Child Left Behind, but that federal law turned it into a bonanza for Pearson and other companies and led to a consolidation of the testing industry.

We now know, almost 20 years after NCLB was signed into law on January 8, 2002, that it has had very little effect on student test scores, on closing achievement gaps, or on any of the other wild promises made first by George W. Bush, echoed by Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, and reiterated again by Arne Duncan and John King.

Who in Congress or the federal government will have the courage to call a halt to this insane investment of billions of dollars into the testing industry?

Davis writes:

Three days after taking office, George W. Bush unveiled his signature domestic policy, No Child Left Behind. The bill would triple the number of exams the federal government required of students, while dangling stiff penalties over struggling schools. For many educators it felt like a depth charge.

The mood was different at Pearson Education, a division of the London-based conglomerate Pearson PLC. As the education community was still absorbing the shock in February 2001, Pearson Education chief executive Peter Jovanovich spoke to a group of Wall Street investment analysts. He pointed them to the proposed annual testing requirements and school report cards. “This,” Jovanovich said, “almost reads like our business plan.”

Pearson Education was a relative newcomer to the education market. Three years earlier, Pearson PLC had paid $4.6 billion to buy the textbook wing of publishing house Simon & Schuster. In 2000, the company acquired a leading standardized test provider. Now Pearson’s stars had aligned.

“Content has been king,” Marjorie Scardino, Pearson’s top executive, said at the time. “But now we’ll have the ability to put content and applications together and that will really allow us to be king.” With a hand in both delivering curriculum and testing students over that curriculum, Pearson would capitalize on America’s newfound school accountability kick.

Pearson Education’s profits increased 175 percent in the decade following No Child Left Behind. The company, whose properties included Penguin Books and the Financial Times, soon derived most of its profits from American education. Test sales jumped fivefold between 2000 and 2006. “Our assessment businesses are in the sweet spot of education policy,” Scardino told investors in 2005 – a year when more than 60 percent of American school kids lived in states giving Pearson tests.

Since 2000, the testing market has roughly tripled in size, to nearly $4 billion a year, with annual achievement tests spawning a range of more frequent tracking assessments. As testing has flourished, more and more functions of the school publishing industry the have fallen into fewer and fewer hands. In 1988, ten publishers shared 70 percent of the textbook market. Today, the “Big Three” —McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the juggernaut Pearson—control at least 85 percent of the market. These lucky few have since expanded their offerings; Pearson hawks everything from student data trackers to online credit-recovery courses to ADHD diagnostic kits.

But along the way the American public grew wary of the companies’ influence in education. Parent groups on both the left and right have cast testing mandates as political favors to test makers, a notion that has helped spark a recent nationwide pushback against accountability policies. Hundreds of thousands of parents across the country have opted their children out of mandatory tests last year, and entire schools have held test boycotts.

The sense that students are over-tested is no illusion. A 2013 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the stakes attached to testing in the U.S. to be the highest in the developed world. One study of the 66 largest urban school districts found the average student took 112 standardized tests from kindergarten to graduation, spending an average 22 hours a year just taking the exams, let alone preparing for them.

The efforts of testing companies to secure and expand their business have helped pushed American schools toward an overbearing focus on assessment – one that has failed to achieve its desired result of dramatically improving student and school performance. Here’s the story of how we got to this point.

It is a sad story, an awful story, that involves lobbyists, business plans, and billions of dollars. Nothing good there for students or teachers.

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