Note: I sent a draft of this draft blog to the head of Corporate Communications at Pearson Plc prior to posting to give Pearson an opportunity to respond in the body of text. I received a reply from Susan Aspey, Vice President of Media Relations for Pearson Public Affairs. Her comments are included at the end of this posting. In addition, Ms. Aspey extended an invitation to meet with Pearson "researchers and experts" who she believes "are working daily with educators to improve learning." I look forward to meeting with them.
On Friday, March 29, a Fulton County, Georgia grand jury charged Beverly L. Hall, the former Superintendent of Atlanta, Georgia schools and thirty-four other former and current school officials with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements in connection to a school testing scandal that was exposed in 2011. Dr. Hall had been highly honored and well paid because of supposedly miraculous improvements in student test results in Atlanta. In 2009, she was named "School Superintendent of the Year" by the American Association of School Administrators and hosted at a White House reception by the United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In addition, she received more than $500,000 in performance bonuses while superintendent of the Atlanta school system.
The Atlanta testing scandal has broader implications for education in the United States as politicians, including President Barack Obama, and private corporations and foundations are pushing for increased testing of students and the evaluation of teachers based on student scores on high-stakes standardized tests. The push for increased testing has reshaped what happens in classrooms across the country and may be a poison that ultimately threatens the survival of our public schools.
The Atlanta scandal initially broke when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published studies in 2008 and 2009 that found "suspiciously high gains" on the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test and a large number of erasures on answer sheets with wrong-to-right corrections at 58 Atlanta schools.
In a press release issued in July 2011, the Governor of Georgia summarized the findings of the state's investigation of Atlanta schools. According to the Governor, "the 2009 CRCT statistics . . . allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating in APS," a finding that was confirmed by a decline in erasures on the 2010 test. The Governor reported, "There were warnings of cheating on CRCT as early as December 2005/January 2006. The warnings were significant and clear and were ignored." He also stated there was evidence of cheating as early as 2001. Investigators "found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools" they examined. "There were 38 principals of those 56 schools (67.9%) found to be responsible for, or directly involved in, cheating." Of 178 school personnel implicated, "82 confessed to this misconduct." Sadly, the report notes, "Thousands of children were harmed by the 2009 CRCT cheating by being denied remedial education because of their inflated CRCT scores."
While the suspect test, the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT, was designed by McGraw-Hill, other companies, especially Pearson Education, may bear some responsibility for what happened in Atlanta. Pearson designs and administers a number of standardized tests in Georgia including Writing tests for grades 3, 5, 8, and 11; and the EOCT (End of Course Tests) and GHSGT (Georgia High School Graduation Tests) in English/Language Arts, Mathematic, Science, and Social Studies [Google New System Test Coordinators Overview, August 2012 - Georgia for a powerpoint report]. It also runs school "improvement" programs in Atlanta schools through its Achievement Solutions division.
I want to make this very clear. I am not accusing Pearson or any of the other testing and tutorial companies marketing their products to the Atlanta school system of cheating on these exams. But given their involvement in these schools and the promotion of their products based on data they reported from the Atlanta school system, they have a responsibility to clarify their role.
Pearson's program in Atlanta was especially important to its marketing efforts because the 51,000 students in the Atlanta public schools were 92% Black and Latino and 70% received free or reduced price lunch, a designation for poverty. These are the groups that both the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs are targeting for academic improvement. Essentially, Pearson can argue that success in Atlanta with these student populations could be translated into success anywhere.
According to a Pearson Achievement Solutions document entitled "School Progress / Atlanta Public Schools":
"Pearson Achievement Solutions has worked with 11 schools in Atlanta Public Schools since the 2000-01 school year. Prior to working with Pearson Achievement Solutions, all 11 schools were not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. In the 2002-03 school year, after just two years working with Pearson Achievement Solutions, all 11 schools achieved AYP. All 11 schools also met the AYP goals in the 2003-04 school year. Since then, Pearson Achievement Solutions has continued work with eight of those schools. All eight schools have achieved their AYP goals every year through the 2005-06 school year."
Each of these schools used what Pearson Achievement Solutions calls its "School Progress Professional Development Program," which Pearson describes as a...
"...data-driven approach to improvement designed to help schools achieve aggressive district goals... At each school, Pearson Achievement Solutions worked with administrators and teachers to conduct a thorough needs analysis, consisting of a review of student achievement data and student work, classroom observations, instructional practice surveys, and interviews. Next, they worked on the creation of a data-driven professional development plan to address the school's unique needs, and the application of research-based strategies to drive results."
As part of the program, "Pearson Achievement Solutions delivers professional development throughout the year in many forms, including teacher coaching and mentoring, lesson modeling, faculty study groups, school-based workshops, and online resources. Checkpoints [italics added] are built into the process to ensure consistent progress in achieving school improvement goals."
This document claims that as a result of "Pearson Achievement Solutions' proven diagnostic tools, data-driven planning, and research-based professional development, APS has achieved measurable, school-wide improvements in the quality of classroom instruction. All schools have shown improvement in Mathematics and Reading/English Language Arts on Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT)."
Overall, student scores at the Pearson Achievement Solutions Schools -- Grove Park, Dunbar, Centennial, Beecher Hills, CW Hill, East Lake, FL Stanton, and Walter White -- rose from 74.5% of the Grades 3, 4, and 5 students meeting or exceeding standards on the Mathematics exam in 2004 to 82.2% in 2006, and in Reading/English Language Arts went from 78.75% in 2004 to 86.3% in 2005 and back to 79.3% in 2006. Pearson Achievement Solutions attributed the slight declines in 2006 to the introduction of new standards.
The Pearson Achievement Solutions document highlights Grove Park Elementary School with 520 pre-kindergarten to grade five students.
"In 2004, the Georgia Department of Education named Grove Park Elementary a 'Georgia School of Excellence.' The school was recognized for recording continuous gains in student achievement in reading, language arts and math over a three-year period. In addition, in 2003-04 and 2004-05, Grove Park was named a 'Pearson Achievement Solutions National Demonstration School' in recognition of its exceptional achievement in test scores, teaching and learning, assessment practices, school organization, school community, and sensible use of technology."
On the Mathematics exam, the percentage of students in Grades 3, 4, and 5 meeting or exceeding standards at Grove Park School rose from 68% in 2004 to 77.1% in 2006 although the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Reading/English Language Arts remained flat at 70%.
Pearson also recognized Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary, East Lake Elementary School, and Walter White Elementary School in Atlanta as Pearson Achievement Solutions National Demonstration Schools for 2006-07.
At Dunbar the percentage of students in Grades 3, 4, and 5 meeting or exceeding standards on the Mathematics exam rose from 61% in 2004 to 73.4% in 2005 to 71.6% in 2006 and in Reading/English Language Arts from 64% in 2004 to 75.9% in 2005 and back to 70.6% in 2006.
At East Lake the percentage of students in Grades 3, 4, and 5 meeting or exceeding standards on the Mathematics exam rose from 72% in 2004 to 91% in 2005 to 98% in 2006 and in Reading/English Language Arts from 76% in 2004 to 97.5% in 2005 and back to 91.3% in 2006.
At Walter White the percentage of students in Grades 3, 4, and 5 meeting or exceeding standards on the Mathematics exam rose from 70% in 2004 to 77.1% in 2005 to 77.9% in 2006 and in Reading/English Language Arts from 78% in 2004 to 83.5% in 2005 and back to 80.2% in 2006.
The 2011 Georgia Criminal investigation report that led to the recent indictments gives a somewhat different explanation for the surprisingly high improvement in test scores at these schools. Investigators found the level of cheating at Grove Park to be "moderate." Two teachers confessed to changing student answers; however the principal seemed to be unaware of it. At East Lake the cheating was described as "severe." Investigators charged that the school Principal and testing coordinator "directed efforts including changing answers and arranging easier tests for some students, the report says." The principal also "threatened retaliation against teachers who 'slandered' her to investigators." One teacher charged that the principal told the staff to "do whatever we have to do, even if it means breaking the rules." Both the principal and testing coordinator denied the allegations, the principal claiming that "all erasures were done by students."
At White Elementary cheating was also found to be "severe." "Teachers were accused of giving answers to students and correcting CRCT answer sheets."
Again, I want to make very clear that I am not accusing Pearson or any of the other testing and tutorial companies marketing their products to the Atlanta school system of cheating on these exams. But given their involvement in these schools and the promotion of their products based on data they reported from the Atlanta school system, there is much they have to answer for. If they want to continue marketing their high stakes tests, tutorials, and curriculum packages to United States schools, they have an obligation to explain their role.
For example, how did Pearson, which claims to have checkpoints "built into the process to ensure consistent progress in achieving school improvement goals," attempt to establish the validity of the Atlanta school district's claims for off-the-charts improvement on test scores before taking credit for the results? I would also like to know why the Pearson Achievement Solutions website was down for updating while the indictments were being released and whether any material was deleted.
Otherwise, I recommend that the federal government, states, localities, and school districts place a moratorium on all further business dealings with Pearson and the other companies marketing high stakes tests, tutorials, and curriculum packages in American schools. I also recommend they look into suspending current contracts until there is full disclosure.
There is a national debate going on about the value of high stakes tests such as the ones designed and marketed by Pearson and these other companies. In an earlier post, I gave Pearson permission to reproduce my blogs on own their websites as part of this debate. This would afford them the opportunity to provide an extended response to my views. I also proposed that in the interest of expanding the discussion about education an agent for Pearson write a response to my concerns and we post them on Huffington as a joint blog.
In response to my email, Susan Aspey, Vice President of Media Relations for Pearson Public Affairs, wrote "The draft post is, in our opinion, a thinly veiled attempt to connect Pearson with the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools." She continued, "While we do not intend to rebut each of Mr. Singer's points in his current draft, we would like to make it clear that we categorically reject Mr. Singer's insinuations about Pearson and the Atlanta Public Schools. Mr. Singer notes multiple times in his post that Pearson was not the creator of the tests in question, but then goes on to demand accountability from Pearson for our work in Georgia. Pearson works with many states and schools districts across the country, including some schools in Atlanta. We are honored to serve these schools and look forward to maintaining a productive relationship with educators in Atlanta."
While Ms. Aspey did not address my questions about the checkpoints supposedly "built into the process to ensure consistent progress in achieving school improvement goals" or why the Pearson Achievement Solutions website was down for updating while the indictments were being released, I do welcome the opportunity to discuss my concerns about Pearson Educational with company representatives.