Pearson Tells State: We'll Do Better

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Once again, the state math and English tests created by Pearson are in the news, with a report that the educational company is feeling the pressure stemming from test errors that have caused 29 questions to be struck from the exams so far.

NY1 reported on Wednesday that Pearson seemed to be aware that it has put its reputation, if not its $32 million contract with the state, in jeopardy.

NY1 obtained a memo that an executive vice president at the company sent to the head of the state's testing program. The executive wrote, "We are committed to eliminating any gaps identified by the New York State Education Department between expectation and our performance."

The news station went on to report that the company sent the memo after "unhappy state officials had called" on the Sunday after third-to-eighth-grade students in the state had completed the exams.

The Pearson executive wrote that an investigation is underway but said many errors seemed to result from a lack of proofreading rather than a translation issue. He mentions a math question where a negative sign somehow became a positive sign in a translated version. In another case, the translators seem to have confused common middle-school math terminology, replacing the term “mean” with a translation of the term “median.”

The memo lays out steps Pearson might take to prevent similar errors in the future and is peppered with sheepish yet eager phrases, like: "Pearson agrees that we need to work diligently to improve" and "we strive for continuous improvement and pledge to continue to learn and improve as we work together."

The executive also promises to present the state with “a more comprehensive plan with timelines, tasks, responsibilities and outcomes clearly articulated and documented.”

The memo seems to be more contrite than a letter that Jon S. Twing, Pearson’s executive vice president and chief measurement officer, wrote to State Education Department officials on April 22, in response to complaints about problems with a nonsensical passage related to a race between a talking pineapple and a hare.

“Pearson is confident” that the tests it prepared in both reading and math “have been developed to support valid and reliable interpretations of scores for their intended uses,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, spoke on Wednesday at a Crain's New York Business breakfast, and said Pearson's mistakes were "really disturbing," Crain's reported.

The chancellor said the mistakes, which she called inexcusable, “make the public at large question the efficacy of the state test.” Still, she said, a panel of experts had concluded the exam scores were “not contaminated” and could be used as part of a new system to evaluate teachers. “I would suggest to Pearson that they take this really seriously because next year we are moving to common core standards, and those tests are going to be harder still,” Ms. Tisch said.

Gotham Schools also reports on the Crain's breakfast, providing more of Ms. Tisch's comments:

“The psychometricians have assured us that the reliability and validity of the exams … is not contaminated by these errors,” she said. “What does drive my anxiety is [test-maker Pearson's] ability to deliver on the contract. The mistakes that have been revealed are really disturbing. I don’t think children should sit in an exam and be confused about the exam. I think testing needs to be as straightforward as possible.”

Tisch said she has warned Pearson officials to consider how this year’s exam snafus have eroded the general public’s confidence in the tests at a critical time.

“I would suggest to Pearson that they take this very seriously, because next year we are moving to the Common Core standards and those tests are going to be harder still,” she said. “What happens here as a result of these mistakes is that it makes the public at large question the efficacy of the state testing system.”

Speaking of the Common Core, SchoolBook reported on Wednesday about the city's move toward further implementation of the learning standards, which emphasize critical thinking and analysis.

At the Crain's breakfast, Ms. Tisch was again asked whether she would run for mayor in 2013. As Gotham reports, her answers to that question have not been entirely consistent. But, Gotham reported, she also took the occasion to offer advice to those committed to running:

“I would say to anyone who runs for mayor that the education system is something that they’d better know inside out — first of all because it is the heart of economic development for this city, second of all because a huge part of the city budget goes towards it, and third of all because the public is paying attention to education and its outcomes as never before in our history. Study up, guys.”

Following up on SchoolBook's reports about the opening of a new Children’s Aid Society charter school in the South Bronx -- the Children's Aid College Prep school -- Elbert Chu reports that the society released details about the 507 students who applied to the school for next fall.

Those children who had challenges to learning, like being from a low-income household or being an English language learner, were given additional spots in the charter school's lottery, which was held to fill 63 spots in kindergarten and 63 in first grade. (See our post in April about two homeless children who were given spots.)

According to a news release from the society: more than 100 students received four extra chances each; more than 90 percent of student applicants are already involved with The Children’s Aid Society services for needy children; roughly 70 percent of the applicants’ families required public financial assistance, and the same percentage of children don’t speak English; and about two-thirds live in the South Bronx. The society mailed letters for 126 students to begin the enrollment process. We will report back on the final enrollment figures when they are available.

And here's another tidbit of news: Public School 111 Adolph S. Ochs in Manhattan was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Leonore Annenberg School Fund for Children to establish an Educational Theater and Literacy Program. Congratulations.

Here are some of the education-related events going on around the city on Thursday:

At 8 a.m., Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott attends the New York Women’s Foundation 25th Anniversary Celebrating Women Breakfast at the Marriott Marquis on Eighth Avenue.

He then joins Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at Public School 91 Richard Arkwright in Glendale, Queens, at 11:45 a.m. to announce the "Nation’s Largest Ad Campaign to Fight Chronic Absenteeism and New Resources to Help Parents Improve Student Attendance."

At 1 p.m., child care advocates will gather on the City Hall steps for a news conference denouncing the city's contracts for EarlyLearn NYC, which will restructure the subsidized child care system for a loss of 6,671 slots for low-income children. "Combined with the loss of 7,700 vouchers outlined in the cuts, a total of 14,371 fewer children will have access to these essential early education programs," a news release says.

The nonprofit organization Pencil, which matches corporate partners with schools and sponsors the annual "Principal for a Day" event, will hold its annual gala for business experts and school leaders, called Imagine What We Can Do, at 6:30 p.m., at the American Museum of Natural History. According to a news release: "This year’s PENCIL Public School Champion Award will be given to Stephen J. Meringoff, Chairman, Himmel + Meringoff Properties for his extraordinary commitment to improving public education in New York City. Recipients of this year’s PENCIL Partnership Award include: Arup, the School of Integrated Learning (in Brooklyn) and the International High School at Prospect Heights (in Brooklyn)."

From 6:30 to 8 p.m., Public School 321 William Penn in Park Slope, Brooklyn, hosts a forum on high-stakes testing. The forum, which is free, features Aaron Pallas, an expert in schools data at Teachers College; Elizabeth Phillips, P.S. 321's principal; Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher; and Martha Foote, a parent.