U.S. Test Developers Cashing In on Markets Abroad

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 29, 2006 7 min read
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A heightened global interest in education standards and accountability is helping U.S.-based testing organizations expand overseas in both K-12 and higher education.

At the primary and secondary levels, international-development groups that underwrite education projects are pushing countries to establish academic standards, and the assessments to go with them. Increased globalization is also encouraging countries to pay closer attention to student performance as a measure of their countries’ economic competitiveness. In both cases, such countries are turning to U.S. expertise in student assessment.

Meanwhile, the increased sale and export of U.S. college-admissions tests is due to more movement of students across regions to attend school—and the goal of universities and students to legitimize their academic records with standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT, experts say.

Officials from American testing organizations decline to give dollar figures for the amount of their business overseas, but acknowledge that their international business is growing.

“We are moving in a much more concerted and deliberate way to create organizations to work with other organizations around the world,” said Richard L. Ferguson, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of ACT Inc., the nonprofit publisher of the ACT admissions test.

Precollegiate Focus

Much of the impetus for paying more attention to standards and assessments is coming from such major agencies as the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

Partly because of the encouragement of international funders, for instance, Egypt is moving away from giving one high-stakes examination at the end of secondary school and toward assessing learning several times before the end of high school, according to Frank Method, the senior adviser for the education and systems group of RTI International, a nonprofit international-development firm based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The push for more student assessment “certainly is coming from the funding agencies, who are beginning to put outcome measures in their program-management and -monitoring criteria,” said Mr. Method, who was the director of education for the USAID in the mid-1990s.

The Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, N.J., has been particularly active in working with foreign governments to devise K-12 tests.

In 2003, the nonprofit organization, best known for producing and administering the SAT admissions exam for the College Board, signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Middle Eastern country of Qatar to develop assessments for Arabic and for English as a second language for about 85,000 students in grades 1-12.

CTB-McGraw-Hill, a commercial testing company in Monterey, Calif., has a contract with Qatar for crafting tests in mathematics and science.

The tests in all four subjects were given for the first time in all grades in 2005, according to J. Enrique Froemel, the director of the office of student assessment for the Evaluation Institute of the Supreme Education Council in Qatar.

“There are no testing companies whatsoever in Qatar or the whole Arabic Gulf region, neither in the Arab world, and consequently ETS and CTB provided needed and nonexistent expertise,” Mr. Froemel wrote in an e-mail to Education Week, explaining why Qatar hired U.S.-based test developers. He said the assessments are part of a standards-based reform of the country’s school system.

The reform initiative was started in an effort to move away from rote learning and to help Qatari students become more competitive in the global arena, Mr. Froemel added.

In other countries as well, increased globalization has prompted closer examination of how education relates to economic competitiveness, according to Alan R. Ruby, a senior fellow for international education at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

As a result, some countries are becoming more concerned about their students’ performance on international achievement tests, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, he said.

“As governments look at their results on those kinds of tests, some say, ‘We’re not doing so well. We need to do better. We need better testing materials to see how our students are doing,’ ” Mr. Ruby added.

College Admissions

Meanwhile, the export of U.S.-made college-admissions tests is also growing as student mobility across regions increases, and as universities and students seek the academic legitimacy they believe such exams confer.

In the past two years, the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. has created two for-profit corporations—ACT Education Solutions Limited, with headquarters in Sydney, Australia, and ACT Business Solutions BV, in Madrid, Spain—to promote its products and expertise abroad.

ACT Education Solutions is working with 55 schools in 13 countries to deliver a course called the Global Assessment Certificate Program, which prepares young people in non-English-speaking countries to attend college in countries where English is the dominant language. The course culminates with the students taking the ACT.

Other testing organizations or companies that have had subsidiaries or branches operating abroad for decades are also expanding their reach.

The ETS, for example, has subsidiaries in Canada and the Netherlands. ETS Global BV, which is based in Amsterdam, has for a long time also had offices in Berlin and Paris. Last year, it opened offices in London, Warsaw, and Amman, Jordan. This year it opened offices in Beijing, Madrid, Seoul, Singapore, and Hyderabad, India. All market a new test called the Test of English for International Communication; some are involved in the development of large-scale assessments.

International Orders

More than 40 years ago, the New York City-based College Board began selling a college-admissions test in Spanish that was similar to the English-only SAT.

“We developed the test because colleges in Puerto Rico needed an instrument to systematize the admissions process,” said Janning Estrada, who directs the work of the College Board in Latin America out of an office in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Each university had its own test at that time, similar to what happened in the U.S. when the College Board began.”

Spanish Version

More than 40 years ago, the College Board started selling a college-admissions test in Spanish that was similar to the English-only SAT. While the test was initially devised for students in Puerto Rico, it is now used by universities in a number of Latin American countries.

• Bolivia
• Costa Rica
• El Salvador
• Guatemala
• Mexico
• Panama
• Uruguay

SOURCE: College Board

Today, Ms. Estrada works with universities all over Latin America that purchase and implement the Spanish-language admissions test each year.

The largest client for the test, Prueba de Aptitud Académica,is the University of Guadalajara, a public university in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, which administers it to more than 50,000 students each year.

Ms. Estrada said the test in Spanish has helped many institutions make their admissions process more fair. “Probably the most important contribution of this office,” she said, “is to make conscious that [universities] need something more structured to tell the student that you are admitted or not than only the perception that you are the son or daughter of X.”

The College Board also does a brisk business in selling the English version of the SAT abroad.

Canada buys the most English-language SAT exams, followed by Singapore, Egypt, and Lebanon, according to Brian O’Reilly, a College Board spokesman. “Lebanon is a small country and shouldn’t have more SAT-takers than in France or England, but it does,” he said. “That’s primarily because the colleges within Lebanon have an SAT requirement.”

The American University of Beirut, for example, has required the SAT in its admissions process since the early 1990s. The university has found that the combination of student grades and the SAT is the best predictor of how students will perform in college, said Salim Kanaan, the university’s director of admissions, who was interviewed before the recent conflict between the Lebanon-based Muslim group Hezbollah and Israel.

“The Lebanese baccalaureate tells us what the students know—what the schools are giving in terms of information,” Mr. Kanaan explained. The SAT helps, he said, because “we need more on the reasoning part of the students, how he thinks—this is where aptitude comes in.”

Mr. Kanaan added, though, that university officials put more stock in the math-reasoning part of the SAT than the verbal-reasoning section, particularly because of concerns over cultural bias on the verbal section, such as the use of unfamiliar English idioms.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Test Developers Cashing In on Markets Abroad


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