The next generation of NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests will transform the monitoring of students’ development of these key foundational skills. It will be 21st century assessment for 21st century young people and their families…Electronic delivery will bring major benefits. It will allow quicker turnaround of results and give schools a better opportunity to use the information diagnostically.”     Barry McGaw

Two years ago I noticed that an ‘Expert Advisory Group for Digital Education’ was established by the federal minister. I noted at the time that Mr David Barnett, Chief Executive Officer of Pearson Australiawas a member of the group. In a recent email from ACARA I noticed a development that many will wish to know more about:

ACARA has contracted Pearson Australia to administer and invigilate the trial of online tests in schools. The trial period will begin on 12 August and will end on 6 September. Pearson will contact you soon to obtain dates on which your students are available.

What does ‘administer’ mean? What data does Pearson collect and what are the rules this business must follow?

I read the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Act 2008with particular interest in the section on information collection, use and disclosureas well as the process of tendering for ‘Item and Test Creation, Review and Delivery System’, but was left none the wiser in regards to what data about Australian children Pearson will have at their disposal. I phoned ACARA and the very helpful staff explained that it is not possible for a small team of four to administer these online trials so Pearson is contracted to run these practically at the schools who volunteer to participate.

My questions are not really to do with this particular trial or process but the implications for future developments in an Australia that commences a new, centralised curriculum in 2014 and could potentially outsource online standardised testing to a company like Pearson, as happens in other countries.

Pearson in America

There are many concerns about Pearson and standardised testing in the USA. These concerns are often ideological; what part should corporations play in public education, the foundation of our democracies? There are also many other concerns that are practical, educational matters, as the validity of many tests (questions) are questioned. You can gain some idea of the kind of expenditure a state, like Texas, is making by reading this article. Testing is an incredibly lucrative industry for Pearson with many taxpayers wondering what are the educational benefits for their children? This satirical image is as good a summary as any.


How will this unfold in Australia over the next few years, as governments change and technology improves? What role does the state have to properly fund education? What is the role of educational businesses in standardised testing or data collection generally?

One wonders what advice the CEO of Pearson would have for the minister on these, and other digital matters?

Recent controversies in the USA, so coherently explained by explained by Congressman Grayson, are also to the forefront of my thinking about the uses, both positive and negative, of big data. Who owns the past? was a question often studied in history courses and now one can ask this about data. Who owns the children’s data? Them? Their parents? The state? A future employer? Do the Australian people wish for their taxes to fund a centralised curriculum, tested by business, that will collect data to be controversially published on a website?

How secure is the data, regardless of who owns it?


Your thoughts?


Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Kevin Chang:



  1. Winter is coming. Pearson are both supplier, examiner and quality assurance.

    At what point did our culture agree to our students being overseen by an American corporation I wonder.

    Comfortably numb or not, this is simply the after effect of a decade of focusing on ‘brands’ and commercialising education, despite scholarly advise to the contrary and appalling results elsewhere. Currently, with the hugh issues over the so called “Gonski” towards social inclusion and equity, it seems farcical for ACARA to suggest we can have national curriculum, when we have never been further away from it.

    • Stu

    • 10 years ago

    The lobbyists have a lot to answer for. There is no chance that the federal government started this whole push for an Australian Curriculum with a view to having Pearson drive it all. Or did they?

    • sonia

    • 10 years ago

    Ummm. Let me see if I get this? The company that sells parents “Learning Solutions” (to fill the gaps in obviousy inadequate teaching) using fear and misunderstanding of NAPLAN as their primary marketing strategy will be paid to administer it?

    • Paul

    • 10 years ago

    There are many layers to this story and it has taken me some time to sort them out into a coherent (hopefully!) response. As always, Darcy, you raise germane issues which should be raised elsewhere but which often aren’t.

    As soon as I read ‘Pearsons’ and ‘exams’ I realised I had seen this before. Let’s go back a bit. Pearsons is the last-publisher standing in the shakeout of smaller UK publishers. It took over several very good academic publishers including Longmans and as such, has a fine and well-deserved reputation. Their exam side is another matter. UK exams used to be set by universities or consortia of same. They were run by highly qualified personnel often helped by committees of experts for each subject. The one that matters is the University of London Exams Board (with whom I was, I must admit, for 18 years as a committee member, examiner etc.). The standard they set was of the highest, probity and security were paramount. The next I hear is that they’ve been merged into Edexcel which soon developed a poorer reputation. That organisation was itself taken over by Pearsons and that is where the fun begins.

    Type Edexcel, exam, crisis or somesuch combination into your favourite search engine and you’ll son find a heap of matches. The UK school exam scene has been riddled with errors, crises and all sort of difficulties. I had known nothing of the sort in the 25 years previously and now it’s virtually an annual event.

    I see five issues at least coming from this:

    1 – there are too many connections here to the one company. It would pay dividends to keep testing and sales of books and services separate. The organisations do not have a glowing record which doesn’t help;
    2 – I worry about storage of data not just privacy. There should be a requirement that data are stored on Australian machines with copies kept here. This means we can decide what happens later (I have the same issue about academic journals all owned by about 4 main companies – monopolies are never healthy);
    3 – what about the validity and quality of the tests? Can we be certain that shortfalls are genuine and not linked to further sales. I am sure that the companies will act honourably but separation makes it easier to check;
    4 – commercial conflicts are too easy if you have everything under one roof;
    5 – ownership of data. We already have enough issues with people mis-using NAPLAN data and that’s in the profession! I hate to think what might happen in a commercial setting. Again, it might be fine but there are too many cases of data being misused already (PRISM/GCHQ anyone?). This is a slightly easier issue to solve because we just need to get the law to keep up with digital change.

    Overall, I am not impressed, not because I am against change (and if ACARA is too small, get more staff!) but because I want transparent change where all factors are taken into account. This is not a small issue – this is the future of our children and we should get it right.

    • Darcy Moore

    • 10 years ago

    Thanks Dean, Stu and Sonia for your comments. It is all very worrying.

    Paul, your balanced, lengthy and insightful comment, citing the British experience, was particularly interesting. The 5 points you list make a great deal of sense and one wonders how this will pan out in Australia when we seem so keen to mirror the failed policies of larger countries.

  2. This development is fundamentally wrong. Education is a human activity. It is an act of nurturing entrusted to teachers by parents. The relationship between teacher and student is a key construct in our society. It is anthropological.

    Education should not be sullied and tarnished by the ministrations of company boards, the quest for profits and the shareholders’ desire for higher dividends.

    Commerce, business and education should not mix.

    Pearson should simply, I can think of no better way to put it, piss off and leave education in the hand of the practitioners entrusted to perform the role of nurturing each new generation.

    Don’t buy Pearson publications. If you have a Pearson publication copy it, bootleg it, share it, torrent it.

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