Does the Pearson Pineapple Strike Again?
In the spring, New York State parents, teachers and students were in an uproar over an eighth grade reading test developed by Pearson Education that included a now infamous reading passage about a race between a pineapple and a hare (rabbit) because the passage and the accompanying questions made no sense. The state education department eventually decided not to count these questions. The broader question remains. Should a private publishing company have so much power over curriculum and assessment in New York State and around the country? Meanwhile, a new testing controversy involving a Pearson sub-division is brewing.
A federal civil rights complaint charging bias in the New York City specialized high school application process has been brought by a series of organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice and The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund argues that
racial disparities result in large part from admissions policies that rely too heavily or even exclusively on standardized tests, even though the three leading organizations in the area of educational test measurement -- the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education -- have concluded that a high-stakes decision with a major impact on a student's educational opportunities, such as admission to a specialized or gifted/talented program, should not turn on the results of a single test. There is also a marked failure to provide African Americans and Latinos with opportunities to learn the material or otherwise prepare to meet the admissions standards used to determine whether students will be placed in these specialized programs.
Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez calls the specialized high school admission test
a tool for more affluent New Yorkers to buy their children's way to the front of the line, and for school officials to justify excluding a scandalous number of African-American and Hispanic kids from the city's best high schools.
According to Gonzalez, in 1999 black students comprised 24 percent of the student body at Brooklyn Tech but during Bloomberg's terms as mayor the percentage has plummeted to 10 percent. Stuyvesant's student body, which was nearly 13 percent black in 1979 is now 1.2 percent.
The New York City Specialized High School Test is given each fall to approximately 20,000 middle school students. Students select up to eight schools they would like to attend and learn the results the following February. The schools include the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School, as well as newer schools such as Brooklyn Latin School, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, and Staten Island Technical High School.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the select schools, the admission process, and the Pearson test claiming it was "designed for the best and the brightest" and that he saw no need to change the admissions policy or state law. The mayor declared, "I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be . . . There's nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school -- no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That's been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it's going to continue to be."
Apparently the mayor is unaware of the way the admission process for the Specialized High Schools actually works. There is no passing grade. Instead, New York City rations seats in these schools. It admits only the top scorers and the "passing" score varies from year to year. Students with the highest test scores get their choice of schools with many qualified students closed out. For example, in 2004, a score of 567 earned a student admission to Stuyvesant High School. The minimum score for Bronx Science was 522 and it was 493 for Brooklyn Tech. However in 2006, a student could be admitted to Stuyvesant with a 558 and Bronx Science with a 510. Because of these fluctuations and the rationing of seats, qualified students capable of doing the work can miss the cut off and be denied admission.
The controversy over admission to New York City's elite high schools is not new. In May 1971, New York Times education columnist Fred Hechinger reported that efforts were being made to eliminate a "discovery" program that allowed for greater black and Hispanic enrollment and school Chancellor Scribner had ordered a study to investigate charges that the entire admission process was discriminatory. To prevent changes, the state legislature passed a law in 1972 to effectively prevent efforts to racially diversify the city's select high schools with the single high-stakes test as the only way to gain admission.
In 2005, The New York Times reported that the admissions test had not been changed in 30 years and city officials acknowledged they had never conducted studies to gauge the validity of the test. Other select schools around the country, including the Boston Latin School and the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, evaluate student applications based on test scores, grades, essays and teacher recommendations.
John Liu, the Comptroller of New York City and a graduate of Bronx Science, has denounced the current situation. According to Liu,
The woeful lack of diversity at our Specialized High Schools is troubling and something we have been watching closely. The admissions process -- a single, grueling test -- is flawed and must be changed. Admissions criteria must be broadened, the test must be analyzed for predictive bias, and the City must do more recruiting for those schools in communities of color.
Part of the problem with the current admission process is that it favors students from more affluent families who can pay for expensive test prep classes. Based on online advertising, New York Academics offers one-on-one instruction at fees ranging from $100 to $120 per hour.
The Kaplan company offers individual SHSAT Premier Tutoring starting at $2,599 and class at $849.
The Princeton Review also has multiple levels of preparation. Its Premier Level cost $6,300, its Master Level cost $3,879, and its low-cost online offering is a bargain at only $1,500. The Kuei Luck Enrichment Center in Fresh Meadows, Queens targets Chinese-American students and offers tutoring for only $2,200. The problem would be eliminated if there actually was a passing score and every qualified student was assigned to a specialized high school.
Pearson of pineapple fame is involved in this process because the Specialized High School Test is produced and graded by American Guidance Service under a contract with the New York City Department of Education. Since 2005 the American Guidance Service has been owned by Pearson Education. Their web address http://www.agsnet.com actually takes browsers to http://www.pearsonschool.com/.