The US market for standardized student testing is BIG business. Connecting school funding to test scores through legislation has allowed large multinational corporations to cash in on a $2.5 billion industry. That figure may be an underestimate, as testing companies that design and grade tests also sell curriculum to “improve school performance” on the tests.

One of the biggest testing companies in the world is Pearson, a huge multinational corporation that, in spite of problems with testing worldwide, and a history of unethical behaviour, control a large share of the US testing market.

Advocates of standardized testing in Canada have long maintained that criticisms of US testing don’t apply to Canada. After all, educational testing in Canada isn’t done by “for profit” corporations, but by Ministries of Education or “arms length” agencies such as EQAO in Ontario. That argument seems less plausible, however, since Canadian students will soon be writing tests designed by Pearson.

Students in all ten Canadian provinces participate in the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA tests though an agreement with The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). PISA are the international tests that set off a “national crisis” in math education in Canada when the 2013 results were released.

Diane Ravitch’s recent blog reminded me that the 2015 PISA test will be designed by Pearson. That’s right, the multi-billion dollar international corporation that’s messed up testing all over the globe and broken US laws to get contracts, is responsible for the tests Canadian children will write, all with the approval and cooperation of Canadian educators.

How did we get here?

Canada was one of the original participants in PISA in 2000, under the encouragement and guidance of CMEC. The Director General of CMEC was Dr. Paul Cappon, an academic, who left the CMEC in 2004 under questionable circumstances to become the President and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). The CCL worked on many initiatives, including collaborating with provinces and territories on education until it was “shut down” in 2011.

While President and CEO of the CCL Dr. Cappon was a vocal advocate for a national strategy on education and for the use of standardized tests in education. Dr. Cappon is the lone Canadian representative on the seven member advisory panel for Pearson.

Also on The Pearson Advisory Panel with Dr. Cappon are two very prominent names from the world of the Global Education Reform Movement, Andreas Schleicher and Sir. Michael Barber.

  • Andreas Schleicher is a German statistician and researcher in the field of education. He is also the head of PISA!! That’s right, the head of PISA is on Pearson’s advisory board. Gee, I wonder how Pearson got the PISA contract?
  • Sir Michael Barber is the Chief Education Advisor to Pearson. He is a British educationist and also served as an education advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is also listed as number 7 in “The Top Ten Scariest People in Education Reform“.

Sir Michael Barber, CEA to Pearson, also has a strong Canadian connection, “education guru” Michael Fullan. Mr. Fullan, special advisor to the Premier of Ontario on education, lists Sir Michael Barber as a partner on his website. Barber also wrote the foreword on Fullan’s 2014, Pearson published paper, “A Rich Seam“, and in 2010 Fullan and Barber co-chaired “Building Blocks for Education” an “education reform summit” that was hosted by then premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty.

All of this makes me very uncomfortable. To summarize:

  • The person directing CMEC, when we committed to PISA, and an influential figure in Canadian education policy is advising Pearson.
  • The head of PISA is also advising Pearson.
  • The Chief Education Advisor for Pearson is partners with the special advisor to the Premier of Ontario on Education.
  • Pearson is now designing tests for Canadian students.

We need greater transparency and more discussion around standardized testing in Canada. We need to know who is doing what, how they’re doing it and why. The participation of Canadian students in international tests and their influence on education policy is growing exponentially.

Do we want an education system where our decisions on curriculum are in response to test scores? Do we want our schools to be part of Pearson’s strategy to sell learning materials to our students?

Head in the clouds

Just as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano signal the start of spring, high school students visiting their elementary school teacher marks the start of the school year. Their first year in high school they come back en masse to reassure themselves you’re still there.

Several years ago, in early September, I was talking to an agitated former student. He was a bright and enthusiastic math student who flourished in a math program that emphasized high order thinking skills. He was excited by the challenge of a high school math program full of creative collaborative problem solving.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t what his high school math teacher had in mind. Rather than exploring advanced concepts he was handed worksheets with hundreds of simple computation questions and told to quietly and independently solve them. This continued every day the first week of school. My student was beside himself with frustration.

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Teacher Looking at Filmstrip by Projector

The sound of the stampede to put educational technology (EdTech) in every classroom is deafening. Teachers who don’t thrust students in front of screens are treated with the disdain reserved for smokers or disgraced radio hosts. Meanwhile, teachers who integrate technology into every corner of their classroom are revered and treated like rock stars at conferences.

Unfortunately, the cacophony of EdTech is drowning out the voices of anyone calling for caution or critical analysis. EdTech is an echo chamber, an alternate reality where everyone agrees we need more technology in classrooms and that teachers who aren’t on the EdTech bandwagon are bad. Critical thinking about technology in the classroom is in short supply.

I advocate the use of EdTech, but nothing, not even iPads, are all good. In our rush to embrace digital technology we’ve dismissed some serious issues caused or made worse by the adoption of EdTech.

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Sad teacher

A social media interaction with a school board trustee clarified for me why we need teachers who fail. I suggested that we should be encouraging a more innovative culture in our schools. The trustee snarled “Parents don’t send their children to school to be experimented on” at me. “We need to use proven methods, not just make it up”.

His attitude symbolizes a significant contradiction in schools today. We want schools to be world leaders, and use the latest most effective methods. Simultaneously, we don’t want educators to take chances, to try something new and unproven. However risk and failure are essential for learning.

We know intuitively that failure is necessary for learning. The first time a child tries to walk, they fail. After repeated failures they take their first step. “Iterative learning” is evident in everything babies do. Through repeated trial and failure they learn how to feed themselves, control their impulses, communicate and thousands of other tasks.

Eventually we understand that failure means a lack of mastery, and we start to feel shamed and to hide our failures. Students don’t raise their hands in class because they’re afraid of looking incompetent. The older a child gets, the more they work to hide their failures.

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If you just woke up to the impending student data crisis…welcome. It’s good to have you aboard. What may surprise many is that the issues raised by the NY Times article about Class Dojo aren’t new. They’ve been around for a while and a few individuals have been trying in vain to sound the alarm.

Schools have been slow to respond to the changes brought on by the digitization of education. Information about and generated by students is increasingly recorded and stored digitally but many schools aren’t ready for this. Students and parents are not aware that data is being collected and stored, informed consent isn’t asked for required and the data is often not secure.

The writings of Audrey Watters informed my early misgiving about these issues, and more recently Jessy Irwin and Bill Fitzgerald have flagged more and more concerns.

Ontario teacher Heidi Siwak raised similar concerns two and a half years ago and in response heard, in her words “crickets”. Royan Lee and Tim King both wrote extensively about the need for greater discussion about student data and The Association for Media Literacy supported dialogue and critical thought. I added my voice, writing about my concerns here and here. None of this had any noticeable effect.

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