behind the scenes

What a day is like inside Pearson’s test scoring facility

Facing widespread backlash after years of controversies and testing glitches, one of the world’s largest testing companies is taking an unusual approach to quieting critics: It’s opening its doors.

Pearson, a British-based testing conglomerate that recently signed on for a two-year contract to aid in writing and administering Indiana’s ISTEP test, today invited Indianapolis reporters to its north side scoring facility in an effort to reveal how the company hand-scores questions on hundreds of thousands of student exams.

It’s part of a charm offensive from a company that depends on public contracts but is often at the center of public debate over testing in schools.

“We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t pull back the curtain,” said Scott Overland, Pearson’s new director of media.

With parents and educators often skeptical about how exams are made and scored at a time when test scores can influence everything from teacher bonuses to whether schools are allowed to continue to operate, Pearson is hoping to allay fears by better explaining its work.

“We completely understand how this whole assessment process, the knowledge that parents and educators and the public has about that is limited,” Overland said as he led reporters through Pearson’s scoring facility on the third floor of a mid-sized office building.

The tour featured a short walk through the floor, which consisted of three large rooms and several small offices and conference rooms. Pearson executives and officials in charge of the scoring process explained how scorers, who must have a four-year college degrees, are recruited by reaching out to retired teachers, tutors and other educators. They receive about seven hours of in-person or online training and most learn to score just one open-ended question — including essays and math problems that require students to show their work to demonstrate that they understand the concept.

Multiple choice questions are graded by machine at Pearson’s main scoring facility in Iowa.

Pearson execs on the tour showed reporters how scorers log onto a computer platform where they see scanned images of student papers they must assess and grade. Their work is tested by “validity” questions that supervisors use to test their scorers for accuracy.

Scoring supervisors sit quietly at rows of tables in front of boxy computers in the scoring center. They’re in regular communication with the scorers themselves, who typically work from home across Indiana. Because scorers and supervisors don’t necessarily work regular business hours, many tables were sparsely filled Thursday morning.

Allison Tucker, a scoring supervisor for fourth-grade reading who’s been working with Pearson for more than 10 years, said one of her graders might do 70 questions in an hour. If a scorer gets off track and starts grading incorrectly, Tucker said that’s where the supervisors can step in.

“That’s one of the things that we really take seriously,” Tucker said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem for us.”

Few businesses in the education world are under as much day-to-day scrutiny as testing giants like Pearson, since just a handful of companies compete for lucrative state testing contracts and the chance to sell associated test prep materials for those exams.

Pearson is the largest education company in the world and a leader in standardized test development, having nabbed a contract for the multistate, Common Core-linked PARCC exam and one to handle the scoring for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Yet it’s an industry frequently under fire when errors are discovered among millions of test questions or when problems arise with scoring or computer testing platforms. Every few weeks during standardized testing season, critics can seize on headlines reporting computer malfunctions or other testing disruptions.

Just yesterday, an employee error caused widespread test cancellation of New Jersey’s PARCC exam.

The problems aren’t limited to Pearson. Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP test, which was haunted by glitches and scoring delays was administered by California-based CTB, a Pearson competitor. CTB also ran into problems in 2013 when about 78,000 Indiana students taking the test on computers were interrupted over the course of several days — an error that forced CTB to pay $13 million in damages to the state.

Indiana then dumped CTB and hired Pearson last year with a more than $30 million contract to administer the 2016 and 2017 ISTEP exams, but the state is now looking to create yet another new exam for 2018.

The new exam will surely generate another a sought-after testing contract. So Pearson could be treating the ISTEP as something of an audition, trying to make a good impression in hopes of ongoing work.

“We recognize very much that this is critically important work we are doing,” said Melodie Jurgens, who oversees the general scoring process. “Our scorers are quite passionate, and they care a lot about how students do. They want to get it right because they know it’s important.”

Indiana is one of the first states where Pearson has invited reporters to tour its facilities, though earlier this week Overland said some national news outlets were given tours of the Iowa facility. The company hasn’t used such strategies in the past, he said, but plans to open up tours in other states going forward.

Granting this level of access to reporters isn’t a common move for testing companies, said Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an organization that acts as a testing watchdog. He said he’d been contacted by another reporter about a similar tour this past week but had never heard of this approach before.

But given the challenges Pearson has faced recently — including the loss of three major testing contracts in Florida, Texas and New York — it’s not necessarily a surprise.

“All the major testing companies have had computer testing failures,” Schaeffer said. “It shows an incredible pattern of technological failure that is more than the isolated glitch that they like to make it seem.”

Since Indiana switched to Pearson this year, things have gone relatively smoothly. The state officially started its second round of 2016 ISTEP tests this week, and few problems have been reported.

But Schaeffer said Indiana has “jumped from the frying pan into the incinerator” by making its test vendor switch.

“It’s a perverse game of musical chairs in which a state might reject a contract with a vendor for doing a bad job and hires a new vendor who has time available because they just got fired from another job,” Schaeffer said.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.