Parents were incensed on learning from their children that standardised tests in New York this year included brand names such as Nike, Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer, LEGO, IBM and Life Savers. Over a million children from grades 3 to 8 sat the tests, which will be the first not to be made public after marking.
The tests were written by the education arm of Pearson Inc., a London-based transnational corporation, which also owns Penguin and the Financial Times, and has sales of around $7 billion a year. The Pearson conglomerate includes various textbook and learning program brands including Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, Longman and PowerSchool.
Pearson claims to be "the leading pre K-12 curriculum, testing, and software company in the US" and its "largest provider of educational assessment services". It also provides education and assessment services in 70 other countries including Australia and the UK. In Australia Pearson marks the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Numeracy and Literacy) standardised tests in NSW and ACT. It also prints, packages, distributes and collects NAPLAN tests and results in South Australia.
Pearson claims that the product placements in the New York tests were not paid for. But this only invites speculation as to how and why they were included. The problem is that a company like Pearson has commercial ties with many other corporations and, being a for-profit company, it's commitment to those corporations may well trump its commitment to a commercial-free education environment. The various subsidiaries of Pearson have commercial ties to a number of the brands that appeared in the NY tests including LEGO, Nike and Apple (maker of iPod).
Administering and setting standardised tests gives Pearson a distinct commercial advantage in terms of its textbook sales. In New York last year, standardised tests used passages from Pearson textbooks, giving students who had bought the texts an unfair advantage. Pearson claimed the overlap was "unintentional".
The Pearson Foundation, a non-profit branch of Pearson Inc., settled a lawsuit in December 2013 for US$7.7 million in which the New York attorney-general claimed it had improperly influenced state education officials with perks such as overseas trips. The Foundation had also sponsored travel for education officials from other countries. When the lawsuit was launched Pearson Inc. had just won a $32 million contract to administer New York state standardised tests for five years. Similarly Illinois, Virginia and Kentucky, whose commissioners enjoyed Pearson sponsored conferences, now pay Pearson administer their standardised tests.
Australian education has adopted US-style standardised tests along with the practice of outsourcing selected aspects of administering these tests to for-profit companies. Standardised tests have long been advocated by business interests in an attempt to make schools more like businesses that view education as a commodity with a measurable output.
The push for standardised testing has created many business opportunities, as government funding is channelled into tests and texts rather than teacher training and reducing class sizes. The profits to be made from the testing industry ensure that apart from the general business support for testing there is also a dedicated band of business lobbyists who have their own vested interests in pushing standardised testing. Pearson alone spends around a million dollars a year on lobbying in the US. The market for school assessment, tutoring, test preparation services and supplemental content supplies was worth $25 billion in the US by 2006.
The first standardised NAPLAN tests were carried out in Australia in 2008 when Julia Gillard was Minister for Education. Julia Gillard was a strong supporter of the business model of education and oversaw the introduction of the My School website which is based on NAPLAN results. Following a visit to New York she welcomed New York City Chancellor of Education, Joel Klein, (who had been CEO of the transnational media company Bertelsmann) to Australia to spruik his key school 'reforms' - accountability, a focus on outcomes as measured by standardised tests, and increased autonomy for school principals, whom he wanted to turn into CEOs.
Julia Gillard's reputation for promoting business-friendly education 'reforms' no doubt helped with her appointment as chair of the Global Partnership for Education when she left Australian politics. GPE is a partnership of developing countries, wealthy donor countries, multilateral institutions, civil society organizations, private foundations and the private sector aiming to coordinate the delivery of education around the world.
The CEO of Global Partnerships is Alice Albright, formerly a senior banker with JPMorgan and daughter of former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. Representing the private sector on GPE's 19 person board is Amanda Gardiner, Head of International Affairs, Pearson. Australia's representative on the board is Chris Tinning, Minister Counsellor, Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The board has few educators.
Pearson is also one of the top corporate contributers to GPE. However the main contributers are nations, which have contributed $3 billion to date. Australia pledged $270 million to GPE over four years in November 2011 after Gillard became Prime Minister and had paid $145 million by the time Gillard took up her appointment with GPE. The US has surprisingly only contributed US$20 million, less than the combined contribution of Microsoft and Pearson.
It is clear that corporations like Pearson have much to gain from the corporate involvement in education. It is less clear that education will be improved by outsourcing educational activities to profit-making corporations. Nor is it clear that the best interests of students and future citizens are served by enabling business leaders to steer the educational agenda around the world.