Common Core Testing: Creating New Consumers

From the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet, a guest column by an 8th grader, Isaiah Schrader, in New York (he is a gifted student so the essay reads very well).

Guess what kids?  The new Common Core assessments developed by the mega-uber education group Pearson?  Contains brand-names (complete with trademark logos) in test questions. 

What does Isaiah have to say (bold mine)?

The “busboy” passage in the eighth grade test I took was fictional, written about a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant. In it, the busboy neglects to notice a large puddle of root beer under a table that he clears. His irate employer notifies him about the mess, and he cleans it up. It seems alright at first glace. However, the root beer was referred to at one point as Mug™ Root Beer. It was followed by a footnote, which informed test-takers that Mug™ was a registered trademark of PepsiCo. The brand of soda, the type of soda, and, come to think of it, the exact beverage was not necessary to the development of the story, nor was it mentioned in any of the confusing and analytical questions following the passage.

Non-fictional passages in the test I took included an article about robots, where the brands IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™ popped up, each explained with a footnote.  I cannot speak for all test takers, but I found the trademark references and their associated footnotes very distracting and troubling.

According to Barbara Kolson, an intellectual property lawyer for Stuart Weitzman Shoes, “The fact that the brands did not pay Pearson for the ‘product placement’ does not mean that the use is not product placement.” To the test-takers subjected to hidden advertising, it made no difference whether or not it was paid for. The only conclusion they (and this test-taker) made is that they could not be coincidental.

And, you might even wonder if students taking the test who are not so savvy might not just get confused at what the trademark logo might mean and/or the footnotes.

About taking the test:

Not only were students subjected to hidden advertising on this test, the new common core exam was much longer and more difficult than the old state assessments. The old tests, created by the McGraw Hill Company, were administered over a period of about two hours (per day) and included about forty questions over the course of three days. The new assessments were administered over the course of ninety minutes per day, with forty multiple choice questions per day on the first two days, and ten short and long response questions as well as an essay on the third day. By decreasing the time, and increasing the content in volume and difficulty, completing the exam was impossible for many students.

And this is a gifted student saying this.  More questions, less time.  

His final assessment (sorry for the pun):

Taken together, the subjective and even nonsensical nature of questions and answers, product placement, and more time-consuming test format made the state assessments the most frustrating and unpleasant standardized test I have ever taken.

Pearson would not answer his e-mail but in a general statement says this (partial):

As one of the main shifts of the Common Core State Standards is to help students read and analyze more authentic literature and workplace documents, brand names are referenced occasionally in the passages. Neither Pearson nor NYSED request that these brand names be added, eliminated, or changed. The brand names are not selected, but exist as part of previously published passages due to choices made by authors. Pearson and NYSED do not receive any financial compensation for product branding that is included in a passage or an item.

Authentic?  That's the reason for brand names in test questions.  More than ever ed reform IS corporate ed reform.

This is what is coming to a school near you.


Anonymous said…
Give me a break. No one talks like that. They say, 'Wipe up the root beer', 'wipe up the pop/soda', they don't say 'wipe up the Mug Root Beer'.

Anonymous said…
Perhaps another reason why it is apparently so difficult (impossible?) for parents to gain access to the test questions after the test. And I wonder if this student signed a confidentiality agreement before taking the test, and is now in violation of the agreement for divulging the contents.

Is it too early to organize a boycott of the Common Core tests? All tests?

- Measure for Measure
n said…
There has to be a reason Pearson included these irrelevant details. There's more to come. Either they are setting the foundation for future benefit or Pearson itself has some current interest in those brand names.

Ah, the legacy of George W. Bush.
Anonymous said…
Did people read the article or only Melissa's summary? Pearson explained that the reading passages are drawn verbatim from copyrighted material and that the copyright holders don't provide the authority to modify these passages.

What Pearson acknowledges is that they draw reading passages from copyrighted fiction and non-fiction materials that we written by actually authors. Using authentic passages from "real" authors is preferable to using passages written by vendors, teachers, or state assessment staff. This is not really debatable. I would rather use a passage written by Hemingway than one written by some fan of Hemingway.

And sometimes these copyrighted passages have trademarked brand names embedded within them. Pearson, nor any other testing company, is NOT drafting reading passages with brand names. The passages come with the brand names already embedded.

So, the real and legitimate questions are: Why are these reading passages included in the test? Should states adopt policies that require no trademarked brand names be used in copyrighted reading passages when these passages are used in test questions?

Whether or not a testing company or a state is receiving payment for 'product placement' seems an illegitimate question. This seems like a stretch and really a matter of folks grasping for further evidence that testing companies and their supporters are up to nefarious activities.

This reminds me of the saying: "When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

--- someone who knows
Someone, then get materials that DON'T have a copyright.

That is nonsense to say they can't find any suitable passages that don't have copyrights.

And what?! on your "product placement." Yes, testing companies are greedy bastards and you bet they are making a buck every way you can.
Anonymous said…
Melissa, you mean passages should be found that don't have trademarked brand names and not copyrighted material. Using well-written copyrighted material is highly preferable to poems, prose, etc. written by amateurs.

And, your 'testing companies are greedy bastards' is wrong. You don't know what you are talking about. How many people from testing companies have you met and talked with? Further, it is just this kind of statement and lashing out that keeps you from being the advocate for education that I think you want to be (and many of us wish you to be). Once again, you shortchange the argument by being lazy and resorting to hyperbole and charged rhetoric based on your own biases and fears. That's too bad.

--- someone who knows
Patrick said…
Someone Who Knows, I've read a fair amount of literature and I don't remember all that many passages that have trademarked names in them. It shouldn't be hard at all to avoid them.
Using well-written copyrighted material is highly preferable to poems, prose, etc. written by amateurs.

Pearson is an education company, filled with professionals. They don't need to hire amateurs.

You keep killing your arguments.

Sorry, on this one I stand my ground. This is about money. Ed reform IS corporate ed reform.
Anonymous said…
Even bad literature like Twilight doesn't have Mug Root Beer etc in it.

Benjamin Leis said…
As an aside Pearson also completely messed up their application of the advanced learning tests they ran for New York City schools recently. They literally failed to correctly compute percentiles in the results causing a fair amount of chaos. I'm a bit more suspicious of their professionalism. I completely agree with Melissa, its easily possible to find copyrighted material suitable for a test like this without trademarks embedded within it.


Anonymous said…
Not sure from what story the passage is excerpted but here is the part with the rootbeer.

"Look," Aaron said, pointing.
> Look. That one syllable crushed whatever confidence I had as I saw and
> understood. Sure, the table was clean; it was the lake beneath that was the
> problem. A nearly full cup of Mug root beer had tipped over on the brick
> floor. Aaron stood at my shoulder, apologizing to the elderly couple waiting
> for their table. Another wave of guilt-bigger than the first-slammed into
> me. I had so messed up.
> Aaron glared.
> "I'll take care of it," I muttered.
> "Yes, you will," he agreed.
> With that motivating statement, Aaron turned, apologized once more to the
> couple, and stormed off to the front of the restaurant. Avoiding the older
> couple's gaze, I dropped down to clean up the root beer.

Seems OK to me. Pearson just has jumpy lawyers. It costs a lot of money to reprint tests because Pepsico threatens to sue for not acknowledging trademark.

Eric B said…
Presumably, Pearson has to get permission from the copyright holders to reprint the text. One would assume that if they have jumpy lawyers, it would be easier to ask if they could delete the brand name rather than footnoting. Or find excerpts that don't have brand names, for that matter. A person could even argue that lack of brand names might be a marker for better writing, although Twilight would be a counterexample.

I think that I shall never shrug
At a frosty glass of Mug.
Who cares about the pretty tree
When my thirst is well past me?

(now you can see why I'm an engineer not a writer, and apologies to Joyce Kilmer)

One wonders if the "we don't get money for product placement now" also means that they won't start asking for money later.
Patrick said…
Through the Power of Google, here is a link to the whole essay:

It's a pretty good story, yet it wouldn't have been such a huge loss to pass it up because of the trademarks. Also, I note that Cicada doesn't feel the need to put (TM) and footnotes about the trademarks on their web site.
Anonymous said…
So here is the link to Cicada magazine and the original article. It was apparently written by a young person and submitted for publication. It speaks for itself and seems pretty harmless. The author is not a pro, by any means, however it is authentic kid written lit, whether that type of material is suitable for a state test, I can't see why not.
The student who who wrote the op-ed about the test is a very talented and fortunate young man. I just read about the high school scholarship he received. He should go far and is already showing skill as a manipulator of public opinion.

Carol Simmons said…
Dear Someone who knows,

Melissa is one of the strongest advocates for education I know.
TechyMom said…
An article on robotics targeted at kids that didn't mention Lego Mindstorms would not be a very good article. Mindstorms changed the game in robotics.

Similarly, in other technical articles, the organizations that made innovations in the field will be mentioned. Sometimes that's IBM and sometimes it's MIT or UW. An awful lot of technological research and advancement happens in the private sector. Leaving out references to it would make the article incomplete.

Personally, I think it's good that the tests are using real-world content. I also think it's good that there's a better balance between fiction and non-fiction. There are a lot of kids who prefer reading non-fiction. There should be content in the standards for them too.
Techy, I absolutely support more non-fiction reading in testing. Our children need to know how to read articles, instructions, etc. BUT they don't need any kind of trademarking in them. There is no good reason for it.
mirmac1 said…
Those footnotes would confuse the heck outa me. Like, uh, do I have to care if MegaCorp owns iWidgets?
Eric B said…
@TechyMom, I completely agree with you for an article that is intended to teach students something about robotics. A classroom discussion like that would need to mention the Mindstorms. Where I have trouble is use of the trademarks on tests. If you're testing reading comprehension, it seems like you don't need all of the background and context that you would need to be learning about the subject.

I see the difference as being between

"I built a rocket from a kit. I didn't glue the fins on straight, so it crashed."


"I built a rocket from an Estes Skyraider kit. I didn't glue the fins on straight, so it crashed."

An article for classwork about model rocketry probably needs to talk about Estes, but reading comprehension about cause and effect doesn't need it. It's the same thing with the root beer in the initial example--the brand name adds nothing substantive to the story.
TechyMom said…
Eric, I do see the issue with the footnotes being distracting. I suspect, as someone said upthread, that the lawyers won an argument with the content people, or that a style guide was applied at the last phase of editing. That part should be revisited.

I think it's a good goal to use real-world content as test passages. I remember being distracted during testing (PSAT maybe?) by how dumb the passages were. I would expect a real world article about robotics to mention Mindstorms. Brands in fiction aren't new. What about John Updike's "A&P". The mention of the brand of root beer in the story passage is funny. It makes the situation more ridiculous. I don't think mentioning brands is a big deal. They're part of our culture.

The footnotes, I could do without.

Anonymous said…
I'm having a hard time getting worked up about the exposure to a few brand names, but this does have me concerned:

Machine-Scored Writing

Anonymous said…
Some of the homework my 4th grader gets has passages from literature that is in the public domain (expired copyright). I haven't seen any brand names or trademarks in these passages...and I think Mark Twain (for example) was a fine writer, although he'd probably turn in his grave at the thought of his stuff in a standardized test.

- Measure for Measure
Unknown said…
I understand why some would think this is a tempest in a teapot. In our everyday life we are constantly referencing brands. What's the big deal? It's all innocent enough, and as some have pointed out, it's hard to avoid if you want your content to reflect the real world.

But here's the thing: Anybody who has spent even a little bit of time researching what's going on in the education world understands that education is the next big domestic mass market for many private sector parties who are drooling over the potential it offers.

Traditional mass marketing has lost its power in an increasingly fragmented market. Tests and Textbook offer excellent potential as mass market vehicles, and companies are looking for any angle they can to get in front of as many impressionable minds as they can, especially young ones, to stake out their brand claim in the kid mind-scape.

This is not something sensible people can have a discussion about on a case by case basis. We have to say No to it tout court. We can't say It's ok to talk about Lego Mindstorm but not ok to talk about Coke or Fritos. You can't open the door to this kind of thing even a crack because the next thing you know we're all--especially our kids--being trampled in a Black Friday type stampede. We just have to say No to any kind of commercial advertising in our education materials, even when it can be reasonably argued that it is innocent.

And no, I wouldn't ban a novel in a lit class because it references Coke or Shell Oil or Krispy Kreme donuts. It's a question of understanding how incentive structures work, and we need to be sure that there are no incentives for testing and textbook companies to do product placements in their materials.
Thanks, Jack. Ever the better explanation than my own.
Anonymous said…
Jack's comment triggered a memory about the Joe Camel ads - some doctor was driving his kids and some of their little friends around, and the kids were blabbing about Joe Camel, which the dad had barely noticed or not noticed. "Why do the kids notice ... " thinks the parent.

"someone who knows" - there is exactly 1 difference between the thieving managements of "health" care, security, energy, finance-banking-racketeering, ... and the incompetents running education - the thieves get to steal way more than the incompetents could ever dream of. Both groups excel at getting to the top and staying on top, both groups excel at blaming underlings for systemic failures underlings didn't cause.

Because of inheritance laws, back in the days of the empire the oldest son got to be Lord. The next went into the military, the third son got the clergy. The bandits out to wreck education are going to turn into 6 figure a year employment for their kids who aren't ruthless enough for the big leagues with exxon, haliburton, AIG, goldman, wellpoint ...

but, if you put your hands over your ears and hum and close your eyes

Anonymous said…
Jack, I am in 100% agreement with your point of view. I too question the use of trademarked brand names in reading passages on high-stakes test. To that end, I've begun a little inquiry into the pervasiveness of their usage.

ItWillAllGoAway, your comments don't warrant a response.

--- someone who knows
TechyMom said…
Jack, I get what you're saying, and I agree with you on many ed reform topics. But, I've worked in a big company long enough to know that no matter what sort of lobbying is going on, there are different people in different departments working on products and trying to make them good. There are also people whose job is to apply company-wide rules to keep the lawyers happy. It seems pretty clear to me that the two of these collided to produce a poor user experience in this case. Real-world articles are good, trademarks must be footnoted. Oops, footnoted trademarks in reading comprehension passages are bad.

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
Napoleon Bonaparte
Unknown said…
The information about the Common Core Testing: Creating New Consumers is good.
new hire restaurant

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