Starting as soon as furor swelled over a prickly “Pineapple” test question, state education officials have maintained that they are confident in Pearson, their chosen test-maker. But speaking to legislators earlier this week, Commissioner John King said Pearson would have to shape up or face consequences.
Pearson defended the controversial reading passage on the eighth-grade exam, whose moral (“Pineapples don’t wear sleeves”) became a statewide punchline this spring. But it was too easy, King said. But it was just one of several sets of errors: In a presentation summarizing the state of New York’s testing program, King said Pearson had made typographical errors on .35 percent of test questions and scoring guides this year and mistranslated 20 items on foreign-language exams, for an error rate of .46 percent.
Next year, Pearson will have to change the way it picks reading passages, adopt a new writing and editing system to make sure errors are identified and corrected quickly, and hire an independent group to check the foreign-language translations it provides, King said.
Plus, the company will have to foot the bill for an “expert, independent review” of its test development process. And King said that amendments to Pearson’s $32 million contract would spell out penalties for “unacceptable items or translation errors” in the future.
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Pearson is one year into a five-year contract to produce New York State’s reading and math exams for grades three through eight and its high school English exam. The state is part of an 18-state coalition supporting the development of new tests that are aligned to new learning standards, known as the Common Core. But it has not committed to adopting the exams produced by that coalition. If the coalition tests go online for the 2014-2015 school year, Pearson could lose the last year of its contract.
Adopting new exams that are computer-based would eliminate a main reason that the state had to administer stand-alone “field tests” to try out future test questions this spring. Historically, New York State has printed its own testing materials — cutting costs but meaning that only four versions of each test can be printed. Other large states print 30 or more versions of their exams, King said, allowing more un-graded test items to be tried out during the regular test administration. Exams that do not have to be printed will not be subject to the same limitations.