ALBANY — State education officials expressed doubt today about whether the testing firm Pearson, which has several contracts in New York, can handle its expanding workload.
"Obviously, the public is starting to question, I think, very aggressively with us whether or not they're able to manage all of the things they've taken on," New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said of Pearson, whose subsidiary testing company NCS Pearson, Inc. has a five-year, $32 million contract to create tests for the state.
Tisch, who has criticized the testing company before, was responding to Pearson's latest misstep in test administration. On Friday, the New York City Department of Education said nearly 5,000 students were told they were ineligible for the city's Gifted & Talented programs when they actually should have made the cut. Three separate errors took place during test grading, which Pearson oversaw, department and company officials both said.
Nearly a year after Pearson, the testing company, took a public beating for mistakes on the exams it produced for New York State, state education officials are piling on.
Today, the State Education Department announced that the state will forgo a new high school equivalency exam made by Pearson in favor of its own exam, which the publishing company McGraw-Hill will produce.
The state announced that it would consider other vendors to create an equivalency test after Pearson partnered with the non-profit group that had previously produced the GED, which people who have not graduated from high school can take to show they are prepared for college, work, or the military. Cost was a major concern: Pearson's test will cost $120 to start, twice what the current exam costs.
"While the GED was run by a not-for-profit, the system worked fairly well. But a Pearson GED monopoly would put our students at the mercy of Pearson’s pricing," Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement today. "We can’t let price deny anyone the opportunity for success. That’s why, rather than pay Pearson twice the current cost or limit the number of students who can take the exam, the Regents approved a competitive process to develop a new assessment."
According to this weekend's lead New York Times Magazine story, teachers would probably be doing students a favor by pitting them against each other more often.
The story, "Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?", surveys neuroscience research to try to figure out why top students sometimes freeze up on high-stakes exams. One answer, researchers say, is that people who usually have an optimal level of a neurotransmitter called dopamine go into overload in stressful settings, while others only reach the optimal level in those settings.
Simply put, one researcher told the Times, "The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress." It's a lesson educators know through experience, confirmed through cutting-edge neuroscience.
Critics of high-stakes tests tend to argue that when schools prepare students for tests by giving practice exams and emphasizing the exams’ importance, they stress students out even more.
But researchers say there's value in test prep:
This week's issue of New York Magazine has an in-depth profile of Nayeem Ahsan, the 16-year-old Stuyvesant High School student who helmed the school's recent cheating scandal.
Last June, school officials caught Ahsan using his cell phone to help dozens of students cheat on Regents exams, which students must take before graduating. Since then, the city has launched an investigation and threatened many of the students involved with lengthy suspensions. And the school's principal has retired, to be replaced by a former network leader who is also a Stuyvesant parent.
In the wake of these events, many GothamSchools readers told us that cheating is more widespread than officials would admit, and expressed suspicions of Principal Jie Zhang's suggestion that the cheating ring was an isolated incident.
“I have not been made aware … or have a reason to believe that there is ongoing cheating there," Zhang told reporters in a phone call shortly after being appointed.
The magazine piece also suggests otherwise. In addition to detailing Ahsan's methods, which included sharing homework answers, procuring exams given by teachers in previous years, and texting students photos of entire exam booklets during last spring's Regents exams, it describes a culture that encouraged cheating among many.
Ahsan said Stuyvesant's educational environment put a premium on high-performance and competition. The structure of his classes often presented opportunities to game the system: