The Company Behind a Big Common Core–Aligned Test Is in Trouble. Here’s Why.

Are Pearson’s PARCC woes at all responsible for the job cuts it just announced?


The motto of British publishing giant Pearson Education is “Always Learning,” and indeed, for the past nearly three-quarters of a century the company has been involved in just about every aspect of learning imaginable, from books (Penguin, which Pearson merged with Random House in 2013) to newspapers and magazines (the company sold the Financial Times in July, and its 50 percent stake in the Economist Group the following month) to educational services (textbooks, software, and lots and lots of standardized tests).

And now comes the next step in the restructuring the conglomerate has been undertaking over the past several years: On Thursday, Pearson announced plans to cut 4,000 jobs, or about 10 percent of its total workforce. From the New York Times report on the announcement:

The move comes as Pearson, which makes the bulk of its sales from its educational-testing activities in the United States, warned of weaker profit as an improving American job market slows college enrollments. That, by extension, has slowed demand for its textbooks and standardized testing services, which are the most commonly used for higher education admissions in the United States. The group also pointed to falling university enrollments in other major English-language markets, including Britain and South Africa.

Fair enough, but one problem that has gone unmentioned in reports of Pearson’s troubles is the expensive and much-reported-on challenges facing its Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exam.

In 2010, with the debut of Common Core–aligned assessments for third- through eighth-graders, PARCC participation peaked with 26 states. But the past several years haven’t been kind to Pearson on these shores, with one state after another dropping the tests, along with the attendant multimillion-dollar multiyear contracts. By the 2014–15 school year, there were only 10 (plus the District of Columbia) PARCC states left.

This school year, that number is down to six: Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, plus D.C. (Louisiana will be using selections of PARCC in its extremely confused and confusing test rewrite.) In the fall, the Department of Defense Education Activity announced that it would administer the PARCC at its 172 schools for military families, but this boon was surely not sufficient to offset the loss of testing revenue from big states like Massachusetts.

What does the fate of Pearson signify for education-watchers in the United States? Well, for many parents in the opt-out movement and Common Core opponents in general, Pearson (“always earning”) has long represented the big bad corporate wolf of high-stakes testing—a foreign company making a lot of money imposing flawed, one-size-fits-none tests on students all over the country. This cohort will surely applaud this week’s continued streamlining.