Inside the multimillion-dollar essay-scoring business

Behind the scenes of standardized testing

Inside the multimillion-dollar essay-scoring business
Mike Kooiman

Dan DiMaggio was blown away the first time he heard his boss say it.

The pensive, bespectacled 25-year-old had been coming to his new job in the Comcast building in downtown St. Paul for only about a week. Naturally, he had lots of questions.

At one point, DiMaggio approached his increasingly red-faced supervisor at his desk with another question. Instead of answering, the man just hissed at him.

After three years working as a scorer, Dan DiMaggio says he's a skimming machine. "It's ugly," he says. "You just go as fast as possible."
Tony Nelson
After three years working as a scorer, Dan DiMaggio says he's a skimming machine. "It's ugly," he says. "You just go as fast as possible."

"You know this stuff better than I do!" he said. "Stop asking me questions!"

DiMaggio was struck dumb.

"I definitely didn't feel like I knew what was going on at all," he remembers. "Your supervisor has to at least pretend to know what's going on or everything falls apart."

DiMaggio's question concerned an essay titled, "What's your goal in life?" The answer for a surprising number of seventh-graders was to lift 200 pounds.

Although DiMaggio had been through a training process, he found himself tripped up as he began scoring the essays. What made the organization "good" as opposed to "excellent"? What happens when the kid doesn't answer the question at all, but writes with excellent organization about whatever the hell he wants? Did it matter that it was insane for seventh-graders to think they'd be benching 200 pounds?

DiMaggio had good reason to worry. His score could determine whether the school was deemed adequate or failing—whether it received government funding or got shut down.

DiMaggio soon learned that his boss was a temp like him. In fact, the boss was only the team leader because he'd once managed a Target store.

DiMaggio found out that the human resources woman who'd hired them both was a temp. He realized that their office space—filled with long tables lined with several hundred computer monitors and generic office chairs—was rented.

Eventually, DiMaggio got used to not asking questions. He got used to skimming the essays as fast as possible, glancing over the responses for about two minutes apiece before clicking a score.

Every so often, though, his thoughts would drift to the school in Arkansas or Ohio or Pennsylvania. If they only knew what was going on behind the scenes.

"The legitimacy of testing is being taken for granted," he says. "It's a farce."

  

THOUGH THE EFFICACY of standardized testing has been hotly debated for decades, one thing has become crystal clear: It's big business.

In 2002, President George Bush signed the infamous No Child Left Behind Act. While testing around the country had been on the rise for decades, NCLB tripled it.

"The amount of testing that was being done mushroomed," says Kathy Mickey, a senior education analyst at Simba Information. "Every state had new contracts. There was a lot of spending."

The companies that create and score tests saw profits skyrocket. In 2009, K-12 testing was estimated to be a $2.7 billion industry.

The Twin Cities were early beneficiaries of the gold rush. Minnesota's history as an early computer hardware hotbed led to the creation of some of the earliest data-scanning and numbers-crunching businesses here, including Scantron and National Computer Systems. By the '90s, NCS was grading 85 percent of the standardized tests for the nation's largest school districts.

In 2000, NCS was bought by Pearson, a multinational corporation based in London, making it a part of the largest education company in the world. In 2009, it posted $652 million in profits.

Today, tens of thousands of temporary scorers are employed to correct essay questions. This year, Maple Grove-based Data Recognition Corporation will take on 4,000 temporary scorers, Questar Assessment will hire 1,000, and Pearson will take on thousands more. From March through May, hundreds of thousands of standardized test essays will pour into the Twin Cities to be scored by summer.

The boom in testing has come with several notable catastrophes. The most famous happened in 2000, when NCS Pearson incorrectly failed 8,000 Minnesota students on a math test. Pearson shelled out a $7 million settlement to the students, and Gov. Jesse Ventura participated in a makeup graduation for students who were wrongly denied their diplomas. In 2010, Pearson again miss-scored two questions on Minnesota's fifth- and eighth-grade tests. Delays in its Florida scoring resulted in a $3 million fine and glitches in Wyoming led the company to offer a $5.8 million settlement.

But while a mistake on a bubble form is a black-and-white problem, few scandals have broken on the essay side of the test-scoring business.

"It requires human judgment," says Michael Rodriguez, of the University of Minnesota's educational psychology department. "There is no way to standardize that."

Now scorers from local companies are drawing back the curtain on the clandestine business of grading student essays, a process they say goes too fast; relies on cheap, inexperienced labor; and does not accurately assess student learning.

"The entire testing system in the U.S. needs to be restructured," says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest. "That would likely result in the disappearance of these essay-scoring sweatshops."

  

DANI INDOVINO DIDN'T want to score tests. She wanted to work in nonprofit administration.

But she was fresh out of school in September 2008, just as the economy was entering its freefall. Desperate to get out of her parents' house, she perked up when some friends told her about becoming a "reader" for one of the local test companies. It was easy work to get and there was lots of it. All you needed was a college diploma.

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