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Profiting from the Tests

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Panelists Peter Jovanovich and John Katzman discuss high stakes testing at NCSPE event.

Panelists Peter Jovanovich and John Katzman discuss high stakes testing at NCSPE event.

With school districts putting more importance on test scores, educational publishing and test preparation companies are in a position to make a large profit.

On November 12th, the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education presented a panel discussion called, "Profiting on the Test: How Businesses Translate High Stakes Testing into Commercial Opportunity" to discuss these and other issues.

The panel consisted of Peter Jovanovich, CEO of Pearson Education; John Katzman, CEO of the Princeton Review; and Gary Natriello, TC Professor of Sociology and Education. With moderator Matthew Pittinsky, Chairman of Blackboard Inc. and Ph.D. candidate, the speakers talked about the current state of mandatory testing as a school reform, the business implications, and the potential pitfalls and opportunities that lie ahead.

There are "fears, real fears, pitfalls and opportunities with private testing companies and the increased use of testing," said Natriello. One fear is that when private entities go into the testing business, there is the issue of "profit." People get anxious and worry that these profit-makers will take money away from the enterprise and make the overall enterprise weaker. However, he said there is no logic to this fear. The businesses would invest in testing sufficiently enough to grow and develop it. In addition, for-profit companies might be in a better position to get new technology than non-profits would be.

One pitfall is that private companies would be developing a line of products with a small number of large customers who are conservative. The buyers will be there, but there will be no pressure for innovation.

On the other hand, there are some other aspects of testing for these businesses to explore. "This could be an opportunity to develop testing products for individuals, a way for someone to test him or herself and make decisions on future education," said Natriello. "It could be a counterweight to government control."

Katzman focused on the types and structure of tests and what they measure. The three types of tests-summative tests, benchmark tests, formative tests or quizzes-need to work together. State tests may not really be encouraging things that people want their kids to learn. However, they are generally better than aptitude tests. States are giving tests to get out of high schools, but then kids take a different test for college. "We are misaligning interests with kids, parents and schools," said Katzman.

"One of the problems of tests such as the S.A.T. is that the teacher has to teach things that do not matter," he said. "They could be teaching Trigonometry or Shakespeare, but instead they have to squander that opportunity."

However, tests aren't going to go away because people like the numbers. Even real estate agents use the test scores to help sell houses in certain neighborhoods. Tests might be replaced with other steps, but they won't go completely away, he said.

Jovanovich agreed and said the political aspect of testing can't be ignored. Although the testing movement has gone in and out of favor over the years, tests are here to stay because both Democrats and Republicans at the state level want accountability. "The pendulum keeps swinging but it's gotten stuck [in testing] by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)," he said. "Funding will keep it there beyond the cycle of testing enthusiasm."

Besides funding, the aggregation of data will keep testing in favor. The truth is hard to take, he said. One of the things NCLB provides is the truth that schools aren't doing such a great job. The fundamental issue is, how are our disadvantaged children doing? He said that the answer is not well.

Irving Hamer, Jr., Professor of Practice in Education, asked the panel what corporate leaders could do to push educational innovation and influence testing and assessment all over the country. Jovanovich said that since he sells educational products to the schools, no one really asks for his opinions. "No one in America wants to listen to corporate leaders about this," he said.

"There's no magic formula to make everyone learn," said Jovanovich. "We are trying to link assessment and instruction in a limited way-we just sell tools, not the classroom."

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