Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Corporation that Tests our Students

A post I've been intending to write for some time now, and this wait for the details of Governor Patrick's "Readiness Project" is as good a time as any to talk about the company Measured Progress, a corporation of over 400 people based in New Hampshire that calls the shots in public education here in Massachusetts.

Imagine that Big Pharma could tell your doctor how much of its medication you should take. That's what Measured Progress, Inc. does in education. Unsurprisingly, Measured Progress prescribes a lot of its product; Massachusetts kids need a lot of help, and the best way to obtain said help is by shipping more money up to...Measured Progress, Inc. This crew of former bureaucrats makes money on writing tests that are designed to fail students, and making money on the other end by selling services on how to beat the test -- all with the benign sufferance, if not ignorance, of our government.

A "highlighted member" of American Test Publishers, Measured Progress is the New Hampshire company that is best known round here for "writing the MCAS". The MCAS, the formal assessment used to measure students' progress here in Massachusetts, was originally written in-house by personnel of the Massachusetts Department of Education. For various reasons, the government soon privatized the job, awarding it to Measured Progress. Oddly enough, that company had recently bulked up by hiring many workers late of the Massachusetts Department of Education. So the test was written by the same people as always; now they were just doing it out-of-state, and for more money. (As the company has expanded, they've added education bureaucrats from other states as they pursue contracts elsewhere.) In 2000, they declared themselves a "non-profit," but this interview in Bloomberg Magazine wherein their CFO talks about "tripling margins" demonstrates the superficiality of such a change...you can still make six figures in a "non-profit".

As with all privatizations, this government function now passed to an entity with entirely different motivations. As we saw with the Big Dig, private companies will do the minimal job for maximum profit, and Measured Progress is no exception. More insidious, still, is the fact that the fortunes of Measured Progress depend on students failing their tests. And the choice between corporate financial health and students' education appears to be an easy one.

For the real money in education is in consulting. While Measured Progress makes a lot of scratch selling and correcting the MCAS and similar papers, the growing part of its business model is "consultants". The Department of Education demands more and more engagement of consultants by local districts. Meanwhile, Measured Progress and others have stepped in to take advantage of this forced spending by districts that can't buy their own paper. For prices that range upward of $10,000, a consultant will come on in and tell you how to beat the test that the company writes! So when you think of the budget troubles in your district, do not forget that the state is forcing many of these towns to pad Measured Progress's bottom line by shipping in consultants who just as often tell staff what they already know. Of course, the MCAS has proven to be a boon to private industry, as many companies have gotten into the act.

Paranoid ravings? Well, Measured Progress is very aggressive in keeping the MCAS secret. For a taxpayer-funded document, taxpayers have little access to the fruits of their money. As a teacher I am not allowed to look at the exams as students take them, or even reveal the questions for one year. Losing a question booklet occasions investigations and fines much worse than those following the loss of students' personal information. However, I've been through enough cycles, and discussed the test with enough students, that I have collected some examples of Measured Progress's choices. In the MCAS itself:

  • One common tactic is to ask a question about the very last line on the curriculum. Given that the MCAS is given in two phases in March and May, the test is always administered before the curriculum is finished. Thus, Measured Progress keeps the scores low by asking questions about material students have yet to see.

  • Another tactic is the old cultural bias routine. Science and mathematical questions abound with cabinetry, gardening, and other manner of suburban pursuits irrelevant to urban youth.

  • Finally, some questions are outright not in the curriculum. There are many cases of questions post facto not counting toward scores upon protest, but come next year there are still out-of-curriculum questions.

It bears mentioning that Measured Progress takes a "trust us" approach to scoring. Answer booklets are never returned, just a sheet of what the company says were the correct answers, and which answers the student chose. The veracity of these, in many circles, is considered suspect.

Finally, there is a strong disconnect between the scores of Massachusetts students on national tests and the MCAS. Bay State students score among the tops in the nation on the SAT or the NAEP, yet fail their in-state standardized tests at a high rate. I'm all for tough standards, and I want Massachusetts to demand a lot of its schools and its students. However, this is just another item in this trend toward finding ways to make students fail.

(Of course, when things get really bad, you can just have your friends in the Department of Education suddenly and arbitrarily move the goalposts so more students fail.)

How much of this is a conscious effort to low-ball our students for revenue? Only the company elders know for certain. However, Measured Progress is at best a company whose incompetence in writing tests have led them to stumble into a very lucrative fleecing of the state of Massachusetts. At worst, they have a conscious policy to enrichen the company at the expense of the students of Massachusetts.

I would hope that Deval's new "Readiness Project" will address the fact that our understanding of student performance is held by a company that stands to win as our students fail. However, in my conversations with the staff of this project, I've been disappointed with their ignorance of this situation -- some Readiness staffers were surprised that the MCAS is given by a private company.

(Cross-posted at Blue Mass Group)

1 comment:

Devin said...

This is stuff that sickens me. Now look at it on the national level. NCLB was a corporate gold mine. It was policy pushed by lobbyists (masquerading as education "experts") that represent these companies. McGraw-Hill (the McGraws and the Bush's are old family friends) dominates the test writing market nationally. There is always a profit motive. I didn't know about this company in New Hamshire. Thank you for writing this.