Pearson is a London-based corporation, which also owns Penguin and the Financial Times, and turns over £5 billion a year. It includes various text book and learning program brands including Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, Longman and PowerSchool.
Pearson claims to be “the leading pre K-12 curriculum, testing, and software company in the US, reaching every student and teacher in that country with one or more of our products and services”. It also marks the SAT exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam in the US as well as school examinations in thousands of UK schools. It claims to educate 100 million people worldwide.
In Australia Pearson marks the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Numeracy and Literacy) standardised tests in NSW and ACT. It also prints, packages, distributes and collects NAPLAN tests and results in South Australia.
In 2005 Pearson’s sales of school products worldwide increased from the previous year by 16 percent (to over US2 billion) and its profits from these increased by 29 percent with the help of the NCLB legislation, which boosted school testing sales by more than 20%. The company claims:
Through acquisitions, strategic alliances, and organic growth, we have put in place all the pieces necessary to create the world’s leading learning company. These pieces include the most comprehensive range of educational programmes; leadership in testing, assessment, and enterprise software; and the very best in online consumer and professional learning. We are engaged in these activities for every age and level of student – from pre-school through kindergarten, primary and secondary school, college and university and on into professional life. Pearson Education’s international business has been growing rapidly in recent years, and we now have a presence in over 110 countries.
Administering and setting standardised tests gives Pearson a distinct commercial advantage in terms of its textbook sales. In New York last year, standardised tests used passages from Pearson textbooks, giving students who had bought the texts an unfair advantage. Pearson claimed the overlap was “unintentional”.
The Pearson Foundation, a non-profit charity, settled a lawsuit in December 2013 for US$7.7 million in which the New York attorney-general claimed it had improperly assisted its for-profit parent, Pearson Inc.
The attorney-general alleged that Pearson Foundation had developed educational materials for sale by Pearson Inc and had influenced state education officials with perks such as overseas trips. The Foundation had also sponsored travel for education officials from other countries. When the lawsuit was launched Pearson Inc. had just won a $32 million contract to administer New York state standardised tests for five years.
In 2011 the New York Times reported:
Since 2008, the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers, has financed free international trips — some have called them junkets — for education commissioners whose states do business with the company. When the state commissioners are asked about these trips — to Rio de Janeiro; London; Singapore; and Helsinki, Finland — they emphasize the time they spend with educators from around the world to get ideas for improving American public schools. Rarely do they mention that they also meet with top executives of the Pearson company...
Illinois is paying Pearson $138 million to administer the state’s standardized testing program; Virginia is paying $110 million and Kentucky $57 million. All three of their commissioners have attended the conferences.
Parents were incensed on learning from their children that standardised tests in New York in 2014 included brand names such as Nike, Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer, LEGO, IBM and Life Savers. Over a million children from grades 3 to 8 sat the tests, which will be the first not to be made public after marking.
Pearson, the developer of the tests, claims that the product placements in the New York tests were not paid for. But this only invites speculation as to how and why they were included. The problem is that a company like Pearson has commercial ties with many other corporations and, being a for-profit company, it’s commitment to those corporations may well trump its commitment to a commercial-free education environment. The various subsidiaries of Pearson have commercial ties to a number of the brands that appeared in the NY tests (see for example LEGO, Nike, Apple - maker of iPod).
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