Douglas McCollum, a senior vice president and general manager at education publishing giant Pearson, sat down with Education Week at ISTE to talk about how the company sees the future of K-12 assessment and instruction.
The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
What is assessment in K-12 schools going to look like in 5 years?
It’s really all about being able to demonstrate your process of thinking. It’s about types of assessments that don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers, but that ask that students be able to defend a position. We’re moving more towards performance tasks, higher-order thinking, synthesis, comparisons.
What does that look like in practice?
We have a new [product] offering for reading intervention called iLit. It’s in use in about 35 districts right now, including Miami-Dade, Austin, and New York City. It’s mobile, iPad-based, a complete digital solution with apps for students and teachers and interaction and data flowing among the different parts. It [uses diagnostic assessments to] help place students, then adapts and personalizes instruction. Teachers are fed data and warnings. It delivers whole-class assessments—the teacher sends the test, it appears on all student iPads, where the students respond. Then the system adapts whole-class instruction based on how the class responds and suggests students who need additional small group work. If additional remediation is needed, that’s provided.
It sounds like Pearson sees the relationship between assessment and instruction changing dramatically.
About six months ago, [Pearson] restructured and combined its assessment group with the instructional group. The whole point is that we see the two as inseparable in terms of student achievement. Formative assessment needs to be embedded in everything we do. If we’re doing it right, students don’t even know they’re being assessed.
What role does adaptive technology play in that shift?
What adaptivity allows for is a true personalization of instruction, and personalization is the central focus of what we’re about. All of our digital products have adaptivity built into them.
On the assessment side, it’s really about having passages and content that can truly measure where [students] are right now and allow for success where [they] are right now. If you’re giving students items that are way beyond their level, it’s demoralizing, and it’s not really giving you a lot of information. All you know is they can’t do what you’re giving them.
What’s wrong with the way that we do K-12 assessment now?
We are going from the world of No Child Left Behind, where all of the assessments were objective, multiple-choice items, very cut-and- dry. They really don’t demand as much from students. [They’re] not really demanding that you be able to write, demonstrate your thinking skills, and so forth.
Pearson plays a big role in the current high-stakes testing regime. Why should educators and the public have faith in the new assessments, in which you also play a big role?
What Pearson does on the assessment front is more a reflection of what we’re being asked to do.
Across the whole company, everyone really cares. This is not a group that is motivated by profit. The level of commitment and devotion of people doing assessment and instruction is just unparalleled.
Critics question whether the tail is wagging the dog—whether large companies like Pearson are playing too big a role in driving some of the big changes we’re seeing in K-12 assessment.
I don’t think that’s fair. Pearson and other companies did not develop the common core. I think there are thought leaders, the David Colemans of the world, who have played the primary role in shaping the direction of the common core. The assessments are really a tool developed in service of the common core.
What do you make of the growing backlash against the common core specifically and high-stakes testing in general?
The common-core standards are very challenging, and the assessments are very challenging. It’s a big shift. So I’m not surprised by backlash.
There is significant concern about the capacity of states, districts, and especially outside vendors to deliver them smoothly and effectively. Pearson has had its problems, especially in scoring exams accurately.
The assessments are truly high stakes. Any sort of problem can have a big impact, and we take that seriously. On all our efforts, there is an intensive focus on making sure the systems are up to scale. The level of support and testing that goes into making sure that systems are ready for prime-time is immense.
Pearson also came under fire for creating exams that replicated passages verbatim from your curriculum, appearing to give a leg up to schools and districts that purchase your products. Especially given the company’s recent restructuring, is that a concern internally?
Yes, very much so.
What kind of safeguards and processes are in place to make sure they’re separated appropriately?
There are materials and content that does not get shared. Where there needs to be a separation from the assessment world to the instructional world, we make sure that takes place. There are clear lines of separation.
Some parents and advocates are concerned that cash-strapped school districts, particularly in big urban centers, are choosing to devote scarce resources to your products and services rather than basics like guidance counselors. As a vendor, what’s your view those choices?
Our goal ultimately is to educate students in this country so we achieve a competitive position with students across the world. I can’t really comment on the budget piece of that. I think there are different choices districts and the government make, and again, that’s not up to us. We have to work within the budgetary realities that are laid out before us.
It’s no secret that Pearson has a very active lobbying presence and sales team. Aren’t you seeking to influence those policy and spending decisions?
I can’t really respond...I believe that support for education and educational funding as a whole should be a major priority. All of what’s being done is in service of higher achievement. The Common Core State Standards, the assessments, everything that goes along with them, these are complicated things to implement...I’ll leave it to the districts how they spend their money.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.