Critic Requests F.T.C. Probe of Test Publishers

By Robert Rothman — October 11, 1989 2 min read

John Jacob Cannell, the physician who revealed that the vast majority of pupils score above average on standardized achievement tests, has asked federal and state authorities to investigate whether leading test publishers engage in “unfair and deceptive trade practices.”

In letters sent late last month, Dr. Cannell, a New Mexico psychiatrist and president of Friends for Education Inc., a watchdog group, asked the Federal Trade Commission and the 50 state attorneys general to investigate the development, promotion, sale, and use of the tests.

In addition, he wrote to Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, requesting that the Education Department ask the publishers to comply with a set of guidelines “designed to assure that the selection, use, and reporting of norm-referenced achievement tests by America’s public schools will not misrepresent achievement gains, leave false impressions of relative achievement, or otherwise deceive the American public.”

Six Tests Cited

In his letters, Dr. Cannell cites the California Achievement Test and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, sold by ctb/McGraw-Hill; the Stanford Achievement Test and the Metropolitan Achievement Test, sold by the Psychological Corporation; the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, sold by the Riverside Publishing Company; and the Science Research Associates test, sold by Science Research Associates.

The McGraw-Hill tests and the sra exam are now published by the Chicago-based Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company.

These firms deceive the public, Dr. Cannell charges in the letters, because most students score “above average” on the tests, and because the publishers “have not taken even the most basic security precautions with their product.”

In a report issued last month, Dr. Cannell found that 48 of the 50 states report scores above the national average. He charged that the high scores have come about because educators “cheat” by allowing teachers to see test items and teach them to their pupils.

Paul L. Williams, director of research for ctb/McGraw-Hill, noted that Dr. Cannell filed similar consumer-fraud complaints against test publishers in 1988, and that no action had been taken.

He added that schools share responsibility in ensuring that tests are secure and that teachers do not teach test items to students to inflate average scores.

“All of us agree, and want to support, more security,” Mr. Williams said. “We have to look at where it leaves our purview and enters the purview of local education agencies.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Critic Requests F.T.C. Probe of Test Publishers