Sunday, March 22, 2015

Follow the Money in Pearson Tests

This blog was originally written on my personal blog in December 2014.

Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects (there are many) related to Pearson testing is the product placement that happens within exam questions.  On the 2013 NYS English Language Arts exam, for example, products mentioned included Mugs Root Beer (Pepsico), Melmac dinnerware, Lego/Mindstorms, IBM and FIFA.  I was curious about why these particular brand names showed up so I did a little digging.

After complaints occurred about the very conspicuous and seemingly unrelated-to-text product placement, Antonia Valentine at the New York State Department of Education stated that the product names occurred because of the fact that "authentic texts" were used by Pearson.  She was quoted as stating that "Any brand names that occurred (in them) were incidental..." See here for full article.  Actually, quick research on google reveals that the products mentioned were not so incidental.  Pearson itself, or a Pearson executive, had at least a cursory financial interest that can be tied to every mention.

1.  Mugs Root Beer It turns out that Rona A. Fairhead, who at the time the 2013 tests were published was the Executive Officer of the Financial Times Group division of Pearson, and had previously been their Chief Financial Officer, was elected to the Board of Directors at Pepsico in February, 2014. New Century Beverage Company, manufacturer of Mugs, is a subsidiary of Pepsico. This means that Ms. Fairhead would have had direct and continuing business dealings with Pepsico at least as early as 2013.  Did the product placement improve her standing with the company, and if so, did she pull strings at her workplace to make that happen?  Granted, this is a weak link - why not just mention Pepsi?  But perhaps they were hoping a product a bit removed would not connect back so easily to her work at Pepsico.

2.  IBM - There is a stronger link between IBM and Pearson.  The companies have had a business relationship since at least 2007, when they announced a five year $128 million IT agreement between the two companies.  See the article here.  In 2014, after the product placement, IBM dumped Prometrics, the company that administered IBM professional certification exams.  Who did they give that business to?  Pearson.

3.  Lego/Mindstorms - In 2013, Pearson already had an agreement with LEGO that allowed them to publish curriculum on how to build and program Mindstorms robots.  In June of 2014, Lego and Pearson gleefully announced a partnership that would produce and sell lesson plans and manipulatives (the LEGOEducation StoryTales) for enhancing ELA curriculum. See article here.

4.  FIFA - Even the World Cups Games are not immune to Pearson's reach.  It turns out that Pearson franchises e-learning centers in Brazil and has helped to teach English to over 500,000 Brazilian students.  In December 2013, Pearson announced that they had made a major acquisition of a Brazilian English Language Training (ELT) company named GrupoMulti.  Their press release boasts that the demand for ELT services will accelerate in the future, due to the FIFA World Cup.  (See article here.)

So though we have been assured by our New York State Education Department, that no money changed hands in return for the product placements on the tests, it does seem that there was at least a tit-for-tat going on and that the placements were, at the very least, beneficial to Pearson financial interests.  In the meantime, our children were subjected to nothing less than shameful brand advertising during mandatory standardized tests, all paid for courtesy of the New York State taxpayers.

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