New York Standardized Tests Mention Nike, Barbie, and Other Brand Names
Brand names including Nike, Barbie, iPod, Life Savers and Mug Root Beer have appeared in New York State’s Common Core standardized English tests, prompting some teachers, students, and academics to criticize the tests for being commercialized.
Responding to suggestions that the brand names may have been a form of paid “product placement,” state education officials and test publisher Pearson denied that any money had changed hands. Tom Dunn, Director of Communications at the New York State Education Department, said “There are no product placement deals between us, Pearson or anyone else… No deals. No money. We use authentic texts [from previously published sources]. If the author chose to use a brand name in the original, we don’t edit.”
Two of the companies whose brands are mentioned in the tests, Wrigley (manufacturer of Life Savers) and Nike, stated that they had no knowledge of their inclusion, according to Associated Press, which was unable to obtain comments from the other companies.
The test questions have remained confidential, and teachers are bound by a “gag order” not to discuss their contents. However, some parents and students revealed how at least two of the brand names were used. In a question about a busboy spilling root beer, the beverage was specifically described as Mug Root Beer (a PepsiCo product). A parent commented that her eighth grade son thought “it was almost like a commercial.”
A question regarding risk taking apparently incorporated the sentence: “‘Just Do It’ is a registered trademark of Nike.” L. Jon Wertheim, Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, tweeted on Apr. 9, 2014: “My 10-year-old daughter claims there was a Nike logo on her NY state test and a passage about ‘Just Do It.’ This can’t be right, can it?” Stacy Skelly, Pearson’s Director of Media Relations, said that any time a brand name is mentioned in a test question, “the trademark symbol is included in order to follow rights and permission laws and procedures.” Pearson has a $32 million, five-year contract to produce standardized tests for New York State.
Alan Adamson, Managing Director of brand consulting company Landor Associates, did not see a problem with the use of brand names in standardized tests, stating that “Brands are part of our lives… To say they don’t belong in academia is unrealistic.” However, Kelly O’Keefe, Professor of Creative Brand Management at Virginia Commonwealth University, was critical of the use of brand names: “Education, religion and civic life are places where brands are unwelcome… It would be wise for Pearson to avoid using brands in their testing even if they’re not paid for by the brand itself.”
Since 2013, New York’s standardized tests have been aligned with the Common Core (“a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics,” according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative) and have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, stated on Apr. 1, 2014 that Common Core tests in New York and other states “are utterly useless and they should all be boycotted.” In an op-ed published by the New York Times on Apr. 9, 2014, Elizabeth Phillips, principal of Brooklyn’s Public School 321, stated that “the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.” Expressing concern about educators “teaching to the test,” she wrote: “Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education.” Phillips held a protest on Apr. 11, 2014, which attracted “hundreds of slogan-toting principals, teachers, parents, and students,” according to New York Magazine.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York State Commissioner of Education John B. King Jr. defended the Common Core Assessments during a forum at New York University on Apr. 10, 2014. Duncan described the movement building in opposition to the tests as “lots of drama, lots of noise” and said New York could “help lead the country where we need to go.” Responding to reports of parents opting their students out of standardized tests, King said, “They made their voices heard, even if they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”
Al Baker, “Common Core Gets Strong Defense from State Education Chief,” nytimes.com, Apr. 10, 2014
Common Core State Standards Initiative, “Frequently Asked Questions,” corestandards.org (accessed Apr. 23, 2014)
Karen Matthews, “Brand Names in NY Standardized Tests Vex Parents,” ap.org, Apr. 20, 2014
Elizabeth Phillips, “We Need to Talk About the Test,” nytimes.com, Apr. 9, 2014
Paul Riede, “Diane Ravitch Lauds Teachers, Advises Opting Out of State Tests at Syracuse University Lecture,” syracuse.com, Apr. 1, 2014
S. Jhoanna Robledo, “The Backlash against New York’s Standardized Tests Is Getting Serious,” nymag.com, Apr. 11, 2014
Valerie Strauss, “Arne Duncan Dismisses Critics: ‘Lots of Drama, Lots of Noise,'” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 18, 2014
L. Jon Wertheim, Twitter post, twitter.com/jon_wertheim, Apr. 9, 2014