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Parents Complain About Brand Placement in State English Tests

By Amy Zimmer | April 16, 2015 5:41pm
 A student at P.S. 107 in Park Slope at the March 12, 2015 protest against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed teacher evaluation system, which would give more weight to standardized test scores.
A student at P.S. 107 in Park Slope at the March 12, 2015 protest against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed teacher evaluation system, which would give more weight to standardized test scores.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

BROOKLYN — As soon as Park Slope mom Joanna Smith picked up her sixth grade son from school after taking the state English Language Arts exam this week, he whipped out his cellphone to look up a new thing he'd learned in school that day.

But it wasn't a great author or book or even a vocabulary word. It was Barricade Fire Gel — a trademarked gel made in Florida that featured prominently in one of his test passages.

"He knows all about the president of the company and the benefits of the gel," Smith said of her son, Jasper, who attends the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a gifted and talented program in Bensonhurst.

It felt like blatant product placement to Smith.

The complaint was familiar.

Parents last year criticized the test's use of commercial brand names like Nike, Life Savers and Barbie. Their concerns, however, don't seem to have changed the approach of the highly-secretive test, created by testing giant Pearson, parents said.

It's hard to know how pervasive brand names are on the tests since they are shrouded in secrecy. Teachers and principals aren't allowed to look at the tests or speak about them. According to state Education Department rules, school staffers cannot "read, reveal, review, or duplicate the contents of secure test material before, during, or after a test administration."

But that hasn't stopped kids from telling their parents what they've seen.

Leonie Haimson, of the advocacy group Class Size Matters and long-time critic of high stakes testing, believes that using brand names with their trademark symbols only diminishes the credibility of the controversial exams with parents even further.

"It’s distracting and reprehensible to use commercial product placements in any text assigned to school kids," she said. "It should not be allowed."

If a brand is trademarked, the trademark symbol must be included in the text on exams, explained New York State Education Department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie.

"We use authentic texts. If the author chose to use a brand name in the original we don't edit," Beattie said. "When passages from authentic texts are selected for use on the Common Core English Language Arts Tests include brand names, the department must include the trademark symbol."

She added that companies don't pay to be included in the tests: "There are no product placement deals between us, Pearson or anyone else. No deals. No money."

Critics, however, noted that many of the original texts used, like newspaper articles, do not contain the trademark symbol when company names are mentioned.

Smith said her son found the use of the trademarked company somewhat "humorous."

"Even he at 12 years old, he responded to how ridiculous it was to have a copyright symbol scattered throughout the block of text," said Smith, noting that while the tests are "supposed to be assessing critical thinking," her son "came up with his own critical analysis [using] his awareness of our consumer society and how it percolates every level of society."

Parents questioned other content on the exam.

Last year, many took to the streets, protesting the tests for including age-inappropriate content and poorly-explained multiple-choice questions.

Families complained about a fifth grade passage that apparently mentioned steroids in a simile about how strong something was. Some were miffed about a confusing passage about animals on the seventh grade exam, which reportedly had the following text: "'Yis, your honor. Come out o' this, b'y, till I show ye the bastes'."

Another passage on the sixth grade exam contained a passage about how Confucius was credited with creating the exam system in China and how those that did well received positions in government based on the results, parents said.

Given the political climate surrounding the tests — Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to give test scores more weight for teacher evaluations while a growing number of families across the city are opting out — the passage felt like propaganda, said Megan Devir, a public school parent and advocate with NYC Opt Out.

"I really think that it's actually 'The Onion' who is writing these tests," Devir said.

The state plans to release 50 percent of the test questions to the public after the exam period, school officials said.