March 12th, 2007

Commentary: Our Children and Schools Deserve First-Rate Evaluations

Pet, Drug Products Are Tested Better Than Schoolkids

By John Merrow
Published: March 12, 2007 / San Jose Mercury News

The Aspen Commission on No Child Left Behind recently recommended that test scores
be given even more importance. It said they should be used to identify “failing” teachers,
not just “failing” students and “failing” schools. The announcement made me wonder
whether we care more about pets than we do about children. I realize that sounds silly,
but what if we found out that a leading pet company like Hartz was spending a greater
percentage of its revenue testing goldfish food, puppy toys and flea drops than we
devote to testing and measuring academic performance in school?

Pets vs. children

I figured the only way to find out was to call Hartz directly. I got one of the company’s
PR guys on the phone, but before I asked him how much it spent testing pet products, I
tried to soften him up. I told him that we use Hartz products (we have two cats in our
office and two Labrador retrievers at home). I said I knew that reliable companies like his
invested heavily in testing and evaluating. Here I cited Bristol-Myers Squibb, which
spends $16 out of every $100 of revenue testing products like Enfamil and the cancer
drug Erbitux and developing new ones. That’s a whopping 16 percent!
It was time to pop my question. Does Hartz spend a lot testing SpectraMax Goldfish
Food, Advanced Care 3 in 1 Flea & Tick Drops and other stuff? How much?
He buttoned up completely. “We’re a privately held company, and we don’t release that
kind of information.”

How about a ballpark figure, I suggested.

“We’re a privately held company,” he repeated, speaking a little more slowly this time in
case I hadn’t understood.

I decided to put my cards on the table. What I’m curious about, I said, is whether Hartz
spends more testing pet products than education spends testing students.

When he told me that his wife was an educator, I figured we were bonding. I offered to
trade information. I’ll tell you how much education spends on testing, I said, and then
you tell me if Hartz spends more that that. You don’t have to give me the amount, just
whether it’s more or less than education.

I took his silence as a tacit agreement, so I told him what percentage education spends.
“Is that true? You’ve got to be kidding,” he blurted out.

Your reaction suggests to me that Hartz spends a larger percentage, I said eagerly. Am I
right?

He flipped back into PR-speak. “We’re a privately held company, and we don’t release
financial information.”

Testing on the cheap

Truth is, it would be hard for Hartz to spend less, because public education does testing
on the cheap. In “Margins of Error: The Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era,”
Thomas Toch of Education Sector estimates that state spending on NCLB-related testing
is less than $750 million this year, out of total K-12 spending of more than $500 billion.
In other words, for every $100 we spend on K-12 education, we devote 15 cents to
testing and measuring. That’s one-tenth of 1 percent! Even Massachusetts, which takes
its responsibility as seriously as any state in the union, devotes less than 1 percent of its
education dollars to testing. That means that we are making all sorts of life-changing
decisions - who passes and who fails - based on the results of cheap tests.

Chemical engineering companies spend at least 4 percent on research and evaluation,
according to M. Blouke Carus, a chemical engineer who is better known for developing
the Open Court reading program and, with his wife, Marianne, the Cricket, Ladybug and
Spider magazines for children. And, as noted earlier, Bristol-Myers Squibb spends 16
percent.

So what should public education do? Let’s be clear that this is not an argument for more
testing - we’re doing too much right now, and today’s cheap tests may do more harm
than good. Setting higher standards or adopting a challenging curriculum won’t solve
the problem either.

Because testing drives curriculum, more money must be spent developing sophisticated
testing instruments. Unfortunately, education doesn’t have enough sophisticated test-
makers, so that, if more money does become available, the first step will be to hire first-
rate evaluators.

I can tell you where to find them: at Hartz, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gerber, Toyota and
other companies that take evaluation seriously.

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