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The New York State Department of Education's new standardized tests were administered last week. The tests for grades 3-8 were developed by the educational testing company Pearson and contained new "authentic" passages aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. State tests might have been routine news had not several teachers also noticed that the English Language Arts "authentic" passages mentioned products and trademark names including Mug ©Root Beer and Lego ©.
Product placement on standardized tests in elementary schools is bigger news. The public has grown accustomed to advertisements on webpages, before videos, on scoreboards, and with the well-placed beverage during a movie. Subtle and direct advertising to the youth market to develop brand loyalty at an early age is the goal of almost every corporation.
Consider a survey by Piper Jaffray, a leading investment bank and asset management firm, the "Taking Stock With Teens" survey (taken March 1–April 3, 2013), that gathered input from approximately 5,200 teens (average age of 16.3 years). The survey is used to determine trends, and the most recent results note:
“Spending has moderated across discretionary categories for both upper-income and average-income teens when compared to the prior year and prior season. Yet nearly two-thirds of respondents view the economy as consistent to improving, and just over half signaled an intent to spend ‘more’ on key categories of interest, particularly fashion and status brand merchandise."
Much attention, therefore, is placed on the youth market, and product placement on standardized testing could be a new marketing strategy. For example, corporations in the fashion industry could read this report and be inclined to offer some news stories or commission a short story that mentioned clothing brand names in the future to Pearson or another testing company in order to provide "authentic" passages. What better opportunity for corporations to build brand loyalty then to an audience, captive in a classroom during a state-mandated test?
The education reporter for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, reported on the "authentic" passages that mentioned products as "author's choices"; Pearson's response to her query:
As part of our partnership with NYSED, Pearson searches for previously published passages that will support grade-level appropriate items for use in the 3-8 ELA assessments. The passages must meet certain criteria agreed upon by both NYSED and Pearson in order to best align to Common Core State Standards and be robust enough to support the development of items. Once passages are approved, Pearson follows legal protocols to procure the rights to use the published passages on the assessment on behalf of NYSED. If a fee is required to obtain permission, Pearson pays this fee. NYSED has ultimate approval of passages used on the assessment.
Strauss's report, "New Standardized Tests Feature Plugs for Commercial Products" also indicated that this practice is not exclusive to NY, and that "several different assessment programs have instances of brand names included due to use of authentic texts." There were no specifics mentioned.
Following up with the NY Department of Education, Beth Fertig from the blog Schoolbook (WNYC), Stories from the Front Line of Testing asked about the recent product placement:
“This is the first time we have had 100 percent authentic texts on the assessments,” said spokesman Tom Dunn. “They were selected as appropriate to measure the ELA standards. Any brand names that occurred in them were incidental and were cited according to publishing conventions. No one was paid for product placements.”
Perhaps no one was paid this year, but an unwritten taboo was broken with these standardized test. The New York Post reported one teacher response in the article "Learn ABC’s – & IBM’s: Products in Kid Exams" by Yoav Gonen and Georgett Roberts
“I’ve been giving this test for eight years and have never seen the test drop trademarked names in passages — let alone note the trademark at the bottom of the page,” said one teacher who administered the exam.
They also reported that other commercial enterprises including the TV show “Teen Titans” and the international soccer brand FIFA were also included on the tests.
While gaining the loyalty of the youth market is a necessary step for major corporations, the appearance of these brands on standardized tests brings our students one step closer to the future as envisioned by Stephen Spielberg in the film Minority Report. In one scene, the fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks along a corridor while animated billboards market directly to him by calling his name.
The possibility of this kind of marketing exists and perhaps personalized advertising will call to us everyday; a cacophony of advertisements designed to keep brand names in our consciousness. Similarly, even the youngest students are the target of marketing campaigns as part of any corporation's long term economic strategy; advertisements on multiple platforms are the "white noise" of their lives. So frequent are advertisements in students' lives that any product placement, paid or unpaid, on these standardized tests may contribute to the definition of what is "authentic." Students are exposed to ads so frequently and in so many genres that a text is not real without some brand name mentioned.
And if that product placement is a small part of what makes a passage "authentic" on a standardized test, can talking "authentic" billboards in the school hallways be far behind?