Product placement on standardized tests: a new low?

April 22, 2013

in ed news and trends, hot topics

Four years ago, I had an experience where I believed that there were advertisements on my students’ standardized tests. (Please, read that story. It’s one of my favorites.)

That nightmare actually came true this week. Yes, my friends. The new standardized tests in New York feature plugs for commercial products. Supposedly, none of the companies paid to have their names included in the assessments. But at least six products (including Mug Root Beer and LEGO) were mentioned by name as part of the test questions. We don’t have a lot of details at this point, as teachers were asked not to talk about the content of the tests, but a few specific example can be found in this article, including the following:

Students at JHS 190 in Queens said the inclusion of some of the brands both within and after the reading passages left them scratching their heads — particularly when the questions had nothing to do with them.

“For the root beer, they show you a waitress cleaning a table and the root beer fell on the floor and she forgets to clean it up. Underneath, they gave you the definition that it is a soda and then the trademark,” said Marco Salas, an eighth-grader at the Forest Hills middle school.

I’ve got so much to say about the difficulty level of these new assessments which are supposed aligned with the Common Core. I also have a post in progress about the latest pushback against the CCSS (several states have pending legislation to drop the standards altogether, after millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent but before the standards have even been fully implemented.) So many standards and assessment rants, so little time.

But I think the commercialization of standardized tests in the name of “authenticity” is heinous enough to deserve it’s very own blog post. Let’s just start with that.

Am I being irrational here? Don’t for-profit companies already have enough influence on education? Shouldn’t schools be a place where children are free from the distraction of commercial pitches and the pressures of consumerism?  I’d love to hear your thoughts–what’s happening with product placement and ads in your school district?

UPDATE: This anecdote was just shared on my Facebook page (and an updated version of the NY Post article linked to above confirms): “After hearing from another parent how her daughter mentioned that on the 8th grade NYS test there was a passage about the Teen Titans, I asked my son if he had it on his exam too, and he said yes. They actually referred to the Green Teen Titan (which is part of a series that was just reintroduced to the Cartoon Network about 2 weeks ago), not having seen the prior series I don’t know if they normally associate them by color, but my son said it was very blatant on how they were making the connection to this new cartoon. This leads me to believe that they are placing products into the exams. Our children are just a demographic for them to market to, and corporate America is hoping to continue to dumb us down. Worse yet, here in NYC (and I believe in the rest of NYS), teachers and administrators have been told that if they discuss the exams in any way, they can be written up or fired, and parents are not allowed to know what is on the exams!!! One of the reasons why I have opted my kids out from taking these exams!”


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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob April 22, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Why are you instantly viewing this as evil? Couldn’t this be the test makers trying to make the questions more relevant and engaging to the kids? Clearly this idea would be a more logical explanation for unpaid for advertisements than an evil plot to brainwash kids into drinking soda and buying LEGOS. Can you logical explain your hysteria?

Cheers,
Bob

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2 Angela Watson April 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm

I’m not sure I’d call it hysteria–more like cynicism–but sure, I’ll try. A huge team of people is responsible for creating state tests. Every word is carefully selected, edited, and run past a a group of “experts.” Questions are tested, thrown out, re-written, and so on. Nothing happens by accident. Keep in mind also that the tests are developed by Pearson, a for-profit company.

This group of test makers chose specific brands for a reason that we don’t yet know. Take the drinks example. (I’ll overlook the fact that Mayor Bloomberg has launched a massive campaign in NYC to discourage people from drinking soda, even trying to make 20 oz. sodas illegal.) If the test writers’ sole purpose was to create authentic texts, they could have used the word soda, or root beer. Why not coke, since people sometimes use that brand to mean soda? Instead they choose Mug (TM!) root beer. That’s not a particularly common drink, nor one that most kids are likely to have tried like Coke or Pepsi.

Why was Mug placed in the test? Was Pearson paid to include that brand? Are they affiliated in some way? Are they hoping to give free advertisement now in exchange for something else later? Are they hoping to charge for product placement later? We don’t know. And it’s clear that both Pearson and the state are hoping the public doesn’t ask, or care.

I don’t buy the idea of Pearson placing brand names in a test simply to be authentic. Someone has something to gain here, and it’s not the students. Including brand names in a test opens the door for all kinds of profit to be made down the road–for companies, not for schools or kids. I think it’s important for people to speak up and question this.

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3 Bob April 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Angela, Ken, and Cristal

My initial response lacked insight into the scenario. I will disclose that I am a chemical engineer PhD student and relatively naive about the process of making standardized tests and administrating education. Thank you for your excellent explanation. I still believe however, that advertising on standardized tests is not a serious issue. What sort of company wants a child to associate the company with a dreaded rigorous test.

However, I agree with you that youth are susceptible to advertisements. Would you say that the ideal solution would be a ban towards any sort of profiteering through the use of (or sale of) advertisements on these tests? Conversely Melissa mentioned that disclosure would be more acceptable. Do you agree with her?

At the end of your response, you speculated on the danger of opening a door to advertisements and I want to share my speculation. In the future I hope that there is an open and transparent market for marketing on school tests. You mentioned that there is an entire committee that reviews questions. Therefore I want to assume that the education quality of the test remains constant. Ideally, this marketing would happen at the state level. Now, here comes the ideal part… Transparent and legal advertisements proceeds would go towards the state’s education budget. Schools are constantly facing budget crises and its far more lucrative to commercialize an activity than to outlaw it. Similarly, with the assault of advertisements on a child, this would be a drop in the bucket. I feel like kids hear many more advertisements on the radio getting ready for school or see them on billboards driving to school. What do you think?

Thank you again for entertaining my question. I enjoyed reading your response and I hope that you did not mistake my curiosity for hostility.

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4 Angela Watson April 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

No, I understood, Bob, that you weren’t a teacher and weren’t familiar with all the ins and outs of the test creation process. I’m glad you’re participating in this conversation.

I think Melissa’s suggestion of disclosure is at least a step in the right direction–it’s the very least Pearson should be doing. And I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of transparent advertisements that benefit schools as you suggested. There are a lot of factors that would need to be considered, but I’d be less outraged if the Cartoon Network gave a few million dollars to NYS schools in exchange for including Teen Titans in the test. If they’re going to have their name in the test, anyway, then schools should be profiting from it, not Pearson.

I find it troubling that the state allowed these brand name placements without insisting on kickbacks for it. What did the state have to gain? We’re in a huge budget deficit right now where every dollar counts. The fact that they’re insisting they didn’t make money off of this at all makes me more suspicious that there’s something sinister happening here, and we’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg.

I feel compelled to speak out on this because I am not a DOE employee, and therefore, am not risking my job by questioning the state. I know there are many teachers who are outraged but fear termination if they say anything.

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5 ken April 23, 2013 at 3:51 am

bob, it makes no sense to be pushing any particular product. For one, it is not fair to other businesses to give a select few a leg up on the youth market (which really is ALL of the market, over time), and for another, it’s irrelevant to education, perhaps even a distraction. I think you fail to understand that as children grow up (you may have forgotten, or never noticed), they experience everything for the first time, and those first experiences are the most memorable — or at the very least end up shaping the child. It may seem subtle at first, but these things snowball! There is a reason that marketing firms like Google provide statistical analysis of web pages in terms of “impressions” among other things. Impressions on a young person are more valuable than those on an older person simply because the first impressions become ingrained more deeply than everything else. Haven’t you heard of themes like “old habits are hard to break?” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” There is truth behind these sayings.

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6 Cristal April 23, 2013 at 12:08 pm

A standardized test is no place for product placement, which is exactly what this is. If they wanted to make the tests more relevant for the children than they could just use the word soda without a product name or they could stop using confusing words that most minorities do not understand or a myriad of other things test makers could do, but instead they choose to market certain brands…. doesn’t sound like hysteria to me it sounds like common sense but perhaps those who have never experienced the discrimination that comes with public education would not understand.

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7 Melissa R April 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm

concerning, for sure. I’d like to know, from the test MAKERS, if they did or did not get paid to put brand names on the test. Shouldn’t they have to divulge that?

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8 Colette Bennett April 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I also wrote about this on my blog. Because so much attention is placed on the youth market, product placement on standardized testing could be a new marketing strategy. For example, corporations in the fashion industry could read this report and be inclined to offer some news stories or commission a short story that mentioned clothing brand names in the future to Pearson or another testing company in order to provide “authentic” passages. What better opportunity for corporations to build brand loyalty then to an audience, captive in a classroom during a state-mandated test?
Full post: http://usedbooksinclass.com/2013/04/22/pearsons-test-dilemma-is-a-text-authentic-because-of-product-placement/

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9 Angela Watson April 24, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Colette, thanks for chiming in. I read your article and am glad to see you also raising concerns publicly about the implication of what Pearson has done. I absolutely think Pearson is leaving the door open for kickbacks from companies for product placement within tests as well as in their textbooks, and that’s very concerning.

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10 Laura M. April 28, 2013 at 2:29 pm

My sister is a VP at Pearson, in charge of teams creating these standardized test. I forwarded the article to her, and below is her response:

–As is always the case, the “facts” are interpreted incorrectly to support the author’s views. For instance, it is true that passages used on some of our assessments do mention trademarked products. What is not mentioned is that this is because the client requires “authentic text” which are passages written and copyrighted by authors outside of Pearson and we canot change the contents. So we are doing what our clients tell us to do not the other way around.–

Just FYI :)

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11 Angela Watson April 28, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Thank you for sharing that, Laura. I appreciate it. Your sister raises an important point, which is that the state created the parameters for this test and approved its content before it was implemented. Ultimately, the state is responsible for the tests’ content, which is why I didn’t mention Pearson at all in the article.

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12 Krys May 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Angela,
I totally, whole heartedly agree with you, there is no place for this commercialization in education. Besides that, as a parent, I can’t help but disagree with Bob’s statements of making the tests more relevant and engaging to kids because a lot of parents might not choose to expose their children to some of the things included on the test~ and wouldn’t this cause anxiety to a student taking the test and coming across something unfamiliar to them? Unfamiliar and irrelevant to whatever the questions should really be getting at? I don’t let my son drink soda and he certainly doesn’t watch shows like Teen Titans (we don’t have cable for this reason) In summary, you hit the nail on the head and teachers everywhere are in agreement.

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