By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY - Pearson, a London-based education giant, dominates controversial testing and evaluations for students and teachers in New York, and the company's influence is raising alarms with some of the state's education leaders.
In New York and across much of the country, Pearson designs state assessments for public school students. Those test scores are then used to evaluate teachers.
That's not all: Pearson is formulating the exams college students must take in order to become certified teachers in New York.
So concerned about Pearson's grip in New York, state leaders this year chose another company to design a general education diploma exam, even though Pearson does the work in other states.
"I have nothing to suggest that (Pearson's) work is terribly poor or outlandish, or, on the other hand, that there's anything spectacular about it," said Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union.
"I think that we've allowed their bottom line to drive the quality of tests, and we've allowed a rushed timeline in New York to negatively influence their ability to do the best possible job," he finished.
Pearson has been a dominant force in Albany as the state has rapidly expanded testing to meet federal mandates and new standards pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The state began a $32.1 million five-year contract with Pearson in 2011 for math and language arts assessments for some grades, tests that this year were aligned to a new, more difficult curriculum, called the Common Core.
Students are expected to see a 30 percent drop in scores on the late-April exams, a prediction that frustrated teachers and parents who said schools did not have enough time to prepare. Test scores are expected to be released later this summer.
Parents, protesting the exams, argued that testing had become more important in schools than learning and blamed the private company's influence for the apparent shift. Pearson also includes the publishing companies Prentice Hall, Penguin Books and Random House.
State Education Commissioner John King said on a public-radio program in April that concerns over the privatization of public education are valid ones, and the state works to limit any one company's weight. King was not available more recently for an interview.
"We've got to be vigilant about ensuring that we protect the integrity of public education," King said in an April 30 interview on "The Capitol Pressroom." "That said, there have always been private providers who have sold -- whether it's textbooks or pencils -- a whole variety of products to schools, and we've just got to make sure that that marketplace is a fair one and it's well regulated. And I think the state does a good job at that."
Pearson said it operates under a strict contract that ensures quality and that New York continues to choose the company because it stands out from competitors.
"Because of our size and our scale and our experience -- and frankly, our expertise -- we're able to meet the individual or distinct needs (of) any given state," said Walter Sherwood, vice president of state services for Pearson.
Fears of a testing 'monopoly'
The transition to the national Common Core standards has aroused lively debate about the role of testing in schools -- and the private companies that make the exams. But the fact that a few large corporations provide schools with assessments and other materials is not new.
Since 1999, there have been only about three to five vendors bidding on assessment contracts, state officials said. The state has gone through standard procurement procedures to choose the "best value" vendor when contracts expire every three to five years.
During the bidding process, state officials evaluate companies' proposals. Most consideration is given to quality, although cost is still a significant factor, said Don Juron, the education department's chief financial officer.
"There is not a large pool of vendors out there currently providing these types of large-scale assessment services," Juron said.
Sometimes Pearson has won the contract for the math and language arts exams. In other years, it has been CTB/McGraw Hill or other companies.
Pearson has spent about $60,000 a year on lobbying in Albany since 2005, records show, and in the first six months of this year, the company spent $40,500. But that places it nowhere near the top of Albany's big spenders. Four groups spent at least $2 million on lobbying last year.
Pearson's main responsibility under the current contract is to develop the content for third through eighth grade math tests and third through 11th grade language arts tests. The state prints, packages, delivers and scores its own exams.
New York's previous contract was with CTB/McGraw Hill, and it was more expensive. While the current contract costs about $6.4 million annually for five years, the previous one cost more than $8 million annually for six.
Along with the main testing agreement, the state has several other contracts with Pearson.
The state awarded Pearson a $6.2 million three-year contract in 2012 for developing an online portal of education data. The portal is a required component of New York's $750 million award through the nationally competitive grant program, Race To The Top.
Another $1 million five-year contract that began in 2010 is for formulating and administering field tests, which are preliminary and not scored.
The state Office of General Services also has a $200,000 contract with Pearson for books and other materials.
There are other costs to the assessment program. The annual cost of the elementary and middle school tests is $13.4 million, including the Pearson contract, the education department reported.
High school Regents exams, which are developed in-house, cost another $11.9 million, and other assessments, including those for students with disabilities and who speak languages other than English, cost $9.2 million annually. Those figures do not include the cost of local scoring, which is funded by school districts.
New York also holds contracts with Pearson for teacher certification exams, but those are paid for by the test-takers, not the state.
Willa Powell, a Rochester school board member who instructed her son, then in third grade, to refuse the April exams, said private companies like Pearson garner too much influence when New York's education system should be controlled by public officials.
"If Pearson is writing the tests for the children and writing the tests for the teachers and writing the textbooks, isn't it Pearson that owns our public education, and not our Regents and not our commissioner of education and not the people that we have entrusted to make these serious decisions?" she said.
King said the state is committed to preserving a competitive marketplace.
"Do I worry about Pearson and how fast it has grown and how large it has grown? Sure. I think everyone in the education sector does," he said on the radio.
Pearson stressed that it competes for every contract in New York and nationwide. Also, it doesn't work alone. Though it is the prime contractor on many states' assessment programs, the company works with multiple sub-contractors, many of which are minority- or women-owned businesses or non-profits, Sherwood said.
"It's a little misleading to think about it in terms of a monopoly," he said. "Pearson is the largest education assessment provider, yes. But we compete very fiercely with a half a dozen or more other companies for every opportunity that we go up against."
Education leaders in New York worry that the state is not ensuring appropriate oversight of private companies paid with public dollars.
Critics pointed to problems that arose with the tests last year. There were typographical mistakes, translation errors on foreign-language versions of the tests and some questions that were confusing, ambiguous or written with multiple correct answers.
"If a teacher has a kind of screw up that Pearson had on these tests, they wouldn't get tenure," said Billy Easton, executive director of the labor-backed policy group Alliance for Quality Education. "These tests are so loaded with consequences for schools and teachers, and they have these screw ups, and we continue to give contracts to (Pearson). It really undermines public trust."
Stephen Grimm, superintendent of Penfield schools in Monroe County, said schools are under too much pressure from external forces, when administrators' and teachers' attention should be focused on local needs.
"We're spending a lot of time focusing on meeting expectations of these outside ideas and not enough time focusing on what is important in our community," Grimm said. "When all of those things are ... developed and directed by a private company that doesn't have local, human interests, then it's concerning to me."
Education department officials said there are a variety of tools the state can use to inspect Pearson's work. After the errors last year, the state amended the contract to demand stricter quality control.
The state voided the problematic questions and threatened Pearson with financial consequences if it didn't improve.
Pearson said it has taken steps to prevent the errors in the future, such as adding staff and undergoing audits. The company stressed that the state has recourse if it doesn't perform.
"The state certainly has a lot of leeway in enforcing expectations ... under the contract," Sherwood said. "They can do everything from canceling the contract to withholding payment to asking us to do third party audits of our work."
Mary Beth Fiore, superintendent of Elmira Heights schools in Chemung County, said she trusts the state's vetting process.
She said it would be preferable for the state to develop all of its own exams, but it doesn't have the funding to do so.
"It's unfortunate that we have to turn outside of the public sector to a private company, but that's the reality," Fiore said. "As long as the process is transparent to all, and everyone has an equal access to submit something for consideration, then I think that that's the best that we can do."
Senate Education Committee Chair John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said the state is responsible for the quality of products and services delivered by private contractors.
"There isn't a test, there isn't a review, there isn't a practice, there is no field testing that goes out the door without the approval of the state education department," he said. "Whether it's Pearson or any other company similarly situated, they provide a function, they play a role, and in large part, what they are responding to is what they are asked to do or told to do by state ed."
Evaluating current, future teachers
Pearson has traditionally been the designer of the state's teacher certification exams.
As part of a series of reforms, the state will begin using four new exams in the fall. Three are being developed by Pearson, while the fourth, called edTPA, is a project of Stanford University but will be administered by Pearson.
The edTPA evaluation, considered a "bar exam" for educators, requires student teachers to submit a portfolio of work, including a 10- to 20-minute video of their instruction in the classroom.
While there is no cost to the state for the development of the exams, prospective teachers must pay $380 for the three written exams and $300 for the portfolio evaluation.
Pearson also has a hand in rating current teachers. Students' test scores on the elementary and middle school exams are used as 20 percent of teacher evaluations, which could be used in firing decisions.
Sherwood said it's out of Pearson's control how policy makers decide to use test scores.
"But it reinforces for us how important it is to get what we do right," he said. "And it's never lost on us, especially those of us who, like myself, were educators and have kids in schools and understand the consequences of the work that we do."
New York did not contract with Pearson for a new GED exam, though. CTB/McGraw Hill will design the high school equivalency exam instead, because state leaders were worried about a "monopoly."
In New York, it's against the law to charge for a GED exam, and it costs the state about $4 million a year. Pearson's exam would have doubled the cost, reducing the number of students who could take the exam, officials said.
GED Testing Service, the Pearson partner developing the new 2014 exam, said it didn't submit a proposal to New York, because the state wouldn't offer an online exam.
But state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a March news release that the state opposed "a Pearson GED monopoly (which) would put our students at the mercy of Pearson's pricing.
"We can't let price deny anyone the opportunity for success," she finished.
Walter Sherwood, Vice President of State Services at Pearson sent WGRZ this statement:
"Pearson has been privileged to support New York State's Department of Education for several years under a variety of contracts. Following federal education standards, New York State sets specific policies, which include assessment requirements. Pearson competes with other companies to win each contract based on the state's highly detailed request for services. If we are awarded the contract, our experts work closely with the state Department of Education, local superintendents and educators to deliver the best possible services."
Pearson, a London-based education giant, has a $32.1 million five-year contract to create state language arts and math assessments for elementary and middle school students.
The scores on these tests are then used in teacher evaluations, which could be used in firing decisions.
Pearson also creates New York's teacher certification exams, which are free to the state, but will costs prospective teachers nearly $700 to take starting in the fall.
The state contracts with Pearson for a variety of other services, including an additional $6.2 million over three years for creating on online data portal, $1 million over five years for administering field tests and $200,000 for providing books and other materials.
Pearson has spent about $60,000 a year lobbying in Albany since 2005, and it has already spent $40,500 this year.