In an Academic-Testing Frenzy, Who Really Scores the Highest?

In May, the Florida Department of Education released preliminary scores on a new writing test administered to 4th graders in the state. Only 27% received a passing score. Parents were furious and state educators scrambled to reevaluate the grading on the standardized test, called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. The solution to the crisis, decided by the Florida Board of Education, was to lower the passing score on the exam, which boosted the percentage of those who passed back up to 81% (which was the previously held percentage prior to the new test this year). So, while the situation was temporarily resolved, the incident highlights the broader debate over the validity of these types of standardized tests and whether they really help kids become "college ready"-- a status so many public-school students are not yet attaining. Many politicians, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are proposing more tests to ensure that kids are getting the education they need. And that means, among other things, more business for testing companies. Pearson (NYSE:PSO), the contractor behind FCAT, is the world's largest for-profit education business. It administers over 40 million tests every year, and in 2011 scored more than 124 million of them (that number includes tests not created by Pearson). Pearson spokesman Jason Gaber said the company embraces fair competition, public accountability, and transparency and it seems to consider these numbers an achievement. "We consider it a privilege to serve students across K-12 and higher education," said Gaber. But critics say the academic-testing industry, with Pearson as its most powerful player, has turned into a huge corporate profit machine that isn't helping students achieve.

"Test companies are profiting off the political mania of more testing,"

- Monty Neill, executive director of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing

In all, Pearson works with 18 states across the U.S. as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. In New York, Pearson has a $32 million, five-year contract to produce standardized tests -- which is nothing compared with its five-year testing contract with Texas, which costs Texas taxpayers nearly a half-billion dollars.

In a statement ahead of its annual shareholder meeting in April, Pearson said that its educational market isn't as strong as others make it out to be. Still, its education business accounts for more than 60% of earnings and sales and the company's total revenue is up 12% this year to $1.16 billion. Opponents of more standardized testing believe the quest for corporate profits is at the root of the call for more tests.

"We can look at what [testing companies] are paying in lobbying fees," said Linda Kolbert, co-founder of Fund Education Now, a non-profit advocacy group based in Orlando, Florida. "And I am sure you will see this as a big driver in the trend toward more testing,"

Politicians like Gov. Christie ardently disagree with Kolbert's assessment. Christie says his focus is on getting all children, regardless of zip code, a good education and this fight is a personal one.

"I was born in Newark but my parents left when I was five-years-old because of the school system," said at a forum on education in May. "I often think now as governor how many children sitting in classrooms today in Newark, Trenton, Patterson... who have all the God-given gifts to someday be governor of New Jersey but never will be. And they won't be because we didn't have the guts and the will to stand up to a moneyed status quo." (Christie was referring to state  teachers unions like The New Jersey Education Association, which vehemently disagrees with his education reform policies and has spent millions in anti-Christie campaigns this past year.)

But the governor says he won't back down. Recently, he has put his support behind a new federally mandated method for calculating graduation rates -- and he is not concerned that dropout rates are actually rising in the Garden State.

"In one day we just lowered our graduation rates by 11% statewide. And you know why that happened? Because we are finally telling the truth," said Christie. "We are not using phony exams to try and give people comfort that they are actually achieving something when they are not."

To make sure New Jersey diplomas are meaningful, Christie said a new program will require graduates-to-be to pass as many as 12 end-of-the-year tests. The proposal calls for a multi-year phase in of the tests, which will be given to 9th, 10th and 11th graders and start to "count" for students now in the 4th grade.

Illinois is another state that is making sweeping and controversial reforms in education. If a proposal there is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, beginning next spring, more testing than ever will be put in place, with mandated testing in grades 3 to 11.

Still many believe big players like Pearson, along with publishers McGraw-Hill (NYSE:MHP) and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are the real benefactors in this debate, not the children.

"Test companies are profiting off the political mania of more testing," said Monty Neill, executive director of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "The theory that you test more and more so you can do better on your end-of-year tests is flawed." Neill says these year-end tests aren't very effective because of biases, inaccuracies, and their limited ability to measure real aptitude. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was not immediately available for comment and a spokesperson from CTB/McGraw-Hill said their tests are meant to be part of a child’s assessment.

“The main purpose of assessment is to deliver accurate and reliable information about student performance. It is one important and objective tool in an educator’s toolbox,” said the spokesperson. “A test is a measurement tool that reflects, but is not expected to drive achievement—we need good teachers and good schools to enable students to learn.”

Yet Neill said many times the schools wind up drilling students on how to do well on what he thinks are low-quality tests-- instead of teaching a rich curriculum that makes kids think and solve problems.

And with over 85% of jobs in four of the fastest-growing industries requiring a post secondary degree in the coming years, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, graduating high school continues to become more important--as the stakes get higher.