“Organizationally orchestrated propaganda” at ETS

With the testing opt-out movement growing in popularity in 2016, Common Core’s profiteers began to worry. Lower participation enough and the entire enterprise could be threatened: with meaningless aggregate scores; compromised test statistics vital to quality control; and a strong signal that many citizens no longer believe the Common Core sales pitch.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) was established decades ago by the Carnegie Foundation to serve as an apolitical research laboratory for psychometric work. For a while, ETS played that role well, producing some of the world’s highest-quality, most objective measurement research.

In fits and starts over the past quarter century, however, ETS has commercialized. At this point, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that ETS is a business–a business that relies on contracts and a business that aims to please those who can pay for its services.

Some would argue, with some justification, that ETS had no choice but to change with the times. Formerly guaranteed contracts were no longer guaranteed, and the organization needed either to pay its researchers or let them go.

Instead of now presenting itself honestly to the public as a commercial enterprise seeking profits, however, ETS continues to prominently display the trappings of a neutral research laboratory seeking truths. Top employees are awarded lofty academic titles and research “chairs”. Whether the awards derive from good research work or success in courting new business is open to question.

I perceive that ETS at least attempts something like an even split between valid research and faux-research pandering. The awarding of ETS’s most prestigious honor bestowed upon outsiders–the Angoff Award–for example, takes turns between psychometricians conducting high-quality, non-political technical work one year, and high-profile gatekeepers conducting highly suspicious research the next. Members of the latter group can be found participating in, or awarding, ETS commercial contracts.

With their “research” on the Common Core test opt-out movement, ETS blew away any credible pretense that it conducts objective research where its profits are threatened. Opt-out leaders are portrayed by ETS as simple-minded, misinformed, parents of poor students, …you name it. And, of course, they are protesting against “innovative, rigorous, high quality” tests they are too dumb to appreciate.

Common Core testing, in case you didn’t know and haven’t guessed from that written above, represents a substantial share of ETS’s work. Pearson holds the largest share of work for the PARCC exams, but ETS holds the second largest.

The most ethical way for ETS to have handled the issue of Common Core opt-outs would have been to say nothing. After all, it is, supposedly, a research laboratory of apolitical test developers. They are statistical experts at developing assessment instruments, not at citizen movements, education administration, or public behavior.

Choosing to disregard the most ethical choice, ETS could have at least made it abundantly clear that it retains a large self-interest in the success of PARCC testing.

Instead, ETS continues to wrap itself in its old research laboratory coat and condemns opt-out movement leaders and sympathizers as ignorant and ill-motivated. Never mind that the opt-out leaders receive not a dime for their efforts, and ETS’s celebrity researchers are remunerated abundantly for communicating the company line.

Four months ago, I responded to one of these ETS anti-opt-out propaganda pieces, written by Randy E. Bennett, the “Norman O. Frederiksen Chair in Assessment Innovation at Educational Testing Service.” It took a few weeks, but ETS, in the person of Mr. Bennett, responded to my comment questioning ETS’s objectivity in the matter.

He asserted, “There’s a lot less organizationally orchestrated propaganda, and a lot more academic freedom, here than you might think!”

To which I replied, “The many psychometricians working at ETS with a starkly different vision of what constitutes “high quality” in assessment are allowed to publish purely technical pieces. But, IMHO, the PR road show predominantly panders to power and profit. ETS’s former reputation for scholarly integrity took decades to accumulate. To my observation, it seems to be taking less time to dissemble. RP”

My return comment, however, was blocked. All comments have now been removed from the relevant ETS web page. All comments remain available to read at the Disqus comments manager site, though. The vertical orange bar next to the Nonpartisan Education logo is Disqus’ indication that the comment was blocked by ETS at its web site.

 

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