Educational Testing giant Pearson Education PLC is under fire for yet another scoring error that affected student outcomes. This time, the erroneous scoring occurred in Mississippi, when scorers used the incorrect table to score standardized history exams that are used to confirm that students have gained the knowledge they need to graduate. 27,000 students took this test this past academic year. Approximately 1000 students are affected, either by unearned passing grades, or undeserved failing scores.
The megacorporation Pearson, which has focused its resources on the high-stakes testing market, has a troubled history with Mississippi – and in fact in many states where it has had a testing presence. This time Mississippi has cancelled its contract, in effect firing Pearson from its role as test administrator in the state, and has awarded the contract to a Minnesota-based firm, Questar. Questar will be paid $2.2 million to provide the 2017-18 U.S. history exam and a number of science assessments.
The increased focus on high-stakes testing – mission-critical tests that are given almost every year to students in many U.S. states – has received a great deal of criticism, as parents and educators describe the creation of an environment in which teachers must “teach to the test” rather than convey knowledge. This problem becomes even more acute when tests are scored inaccurately, potentially leading to negative student and teacher outcomes. Many states are even tying teacher pay to test outcomes, an association which Kathy Bradshaw, former special education teacher in Florida’s Polk County, points out will harm the students most in need of help: “The merit pay bill….disproportionately hurt[s] our students with the highest needs [special education students] by punishing good teachers for working with them… As a special education teacher…my students had to work far below the grade level.” Protests from students, parents, and educators increase yearly as testing problems combine with a test-focused educational approach; protestors claim that a flawed philosophy is further complicated by flawed methodology.
When criticism of the test culture meets substandard scoring practices, parents and educators reasonably question the premise of administering these tests at all, and Pearson’s record has not been a help in promoting testing as an accurate assessment of student and teacher progress. Previous issues in testing in Mississippi include scoring errors in 2012 that denied deserving students of their diplomas or earned rankings. In 2015, the test platform crashed entirely on a critical testing day, causing havoc with scheduling and basic planning.
Pearson’s problems are not limited to Mississippi. In Indiana this year, ISTEP math scores will be thrown out because Pearson was unable to clarify for the schools which sections permitted calculator use and which didn’t, resulting in unequal testing conditions across the state. In 2013 in New York, exams for admission to gifted student programs were mis-scored, shutting approximately 2,700 students out of programs for which they should have qualified. The organization FairTest.org has documented dozens of cases of Pearson testing errors, some of the most egregious of which include misgrading of 12,000 tests in Arizona, 204,000 writing exams needing to be rescored in Washington, and over 45,000 erroneously tests in Minnesota, all in 2000; 4,400 SAT college admissions tests graded incorrectly in 2005-2006; and in 2012, errors were found in the scoring of tests administered in New York, Oklahoma, Florida, and Virginia.
Pearson spokeswoman Laura Howe apologized on behalf of the company, which is also known as a textbook publisher of such well-known imprints as Prentice-Hall, Benjamin Cummings, Addison-Wesley, and others.