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What No One Said About NCLB Profiteering (Except the People Who Were Saying It)

New York Times columnist Gail Collins had a good critique of standardized testing and the No Child Left Behind law (4/28/12), weighing in on the "Pineapplegate" controversy about a bizarre question that appeared on a New York English exam.

She writes:

We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that's costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars.

Indeed. But then comes this:

This is the part of education reform nobody told you about. You heard about accountability, and choice, and innovation. But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago, do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector?

Me neither.

While it's good to see columnists use something in the news to talk about a larger political issue– that's what they do– Collins shouldn't pretend that no one was drawing a connection between a law that would require a massive increase in test taking and the financial interests of testing companies.

And in fact it was being written about. Just one example: Stephen Metcalf wrote an excellent piece in the Nation (1/10/02) — an article that so impressed the nobodies here at FAIR that we interviewed him  on CounterSpin.

Metcalf pointed out:

And, not surprisingly, the Bush legislation has ardent supporters in the testing and textbook publishing industries. Only days after the 2000 election, an executive for publishing giant NCS Pearson addressed a Waldorf ballroom filled with Wall Street analysts. According to Education Week, the executive displayed a quote from President-elect Bush calling for state testing and school-by-school report cards, and announced, "This almost reads like our business plan." The bill has allotted $387 million to get states up to speed; the National Association of State Boards of Education estimates that properly funding the testing mandate could cost anywhere from $2.7 billion to $7 billion. The bottom line? "This promises to be a bonanza for the testing companies," says Monte Neill of FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit. "Fifteen states now test in all the grades Bush wants. All the rest are going to have to increase the amount of testing they do." Testing was already big business: According to Peter Sacks, author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, between 1960 and 1989 sales of standardized tests to public schools more than doubled, while enrollment increased only 15 percent. Over the past five years alone, state testing expenditures have almost tripled, from $141 million to $390 million, according to Achieve Inc., a standards-movement group formed by governors and CEOs. Under the new legislation, as many as fifteen states might need to triple their testing budgets.

All of which has led to a feeding frenzy.

The big educational testing companies have thus dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill. Bruce Hunter, who represents the American Association of School Administrators, says, "I've been lobbying on education issues since 1982, but the test publishers have been active at a level I've never seen before. At every hearing, every discussion, the big test publishers are always present with at least one lobbyist, sometimes more." Both standardized testing and textbook publishing are dominated by the so-called Big Three–McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin and Harcourt General–all identified as "Bush stocks" by Wall Street analysts in the wake of the 2000 election.

It's all right there, a decade ago. Proof that reading independent media –  be it in the Nation or countless others – is essential for understanding the political debates of the present – and the future.

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