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State finds errors in LA schools' iPad math lessons

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The California Department of Education has held off complete state approval for global publishing giant Pearson's Common Core math curriculum until it corrects errors found in every grade. The lessons are the same that were loaded onto iPads purchased by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Among the mistakes in Pearson's Common Core System of Courses are misapplyied standards, software pathway inconsistencies and typos, according to state officials. The product otherwise meets Common Core standards, so it was given conditional approval.

Pearson officials declined an interview, but said in a statement the required changes "were minor in nature and for things like punctuation" and that "minor changes following submission is a standard practice among all publishers."

Among the errors found by state officials: One 3rd grade lesson tells students to "find the area of the green figure," but the figure appears blue. In a 6th grade lesson, students are asked to talk "about what Nana did wrong in the recipe, it was actually Dad that botched the recipe," officials point out.

Other first, second and seventh grade activities point to standards for which they don't apply.

"I think Pearson is over expanded," said Alan Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University who studies the London-based company. "They are trying to grab the market, and I don't think they are being very careful about what they are doing."

He said Pearson operates like many government contractors, securing bids before development is complete.

During the iPad purchasing process last summer, Pearson's submitted its software to L.A. Unified in a beta form. The district purchased the software as part of an Apple bundle. Other companies, including Apple, had also submitted bids for digital curriculum that was more fully developed and researched but the district rejected those options.

L.A. Unified officials said at a November board meeting that the software doesn't have to be complete until December 2014 - a year and half into the three-year product license with Pearson.

The California Department of Education is in the process of approving a slew of new learning materials this year as part of its transition to new Common Core learning standards adopted by more than 40 states.

Officials reviewed math lessons from 17 companies. Pearson was one of the only providers that had instances of having misapply some standards - though most providers reviewed had minor errors. Pearson competitor Houghton Mifflin Harcourt materials had several typos, other companies were asked to remove activities, and others had no corrections at all.

In all, a list of 31 instructional materials were approved and four were denied.

Pearson's corresponding K-8 English Language Arts software package and high school level coursework have yet to be reviewed and approved by the state. But the materials are currently loaded on 30,000  - soon to be 58,000 - iPads in L.A. Unified.

L.A. Unified board member Monica Ratliff has advocated allowing schools to opt out of the Pearson curriculum, iPads or both and be permitted to choose other devices and learning materials.

California schools have received an extra $1.25 billion to transition to the Common Core - money which can be spent on new curriculum. Principals report being bombarded with marketing and receiving little guidance from the state. 

Advocates of transitioning from text books to learning software say the customization features addressing the needs of different learners and real-time assessments allow teachers to quickly gauge each student's level of understanding.

California does credits Pearson's iPad software for its assessment instruments.

But other states have landed in hot water over flawed testing materials from the company.

In 2012, a testing error in Mississippi blocked the graduation of five students and inaccurately lowered scores for 121 others. Upon discovery, Pearson, which reported a profit of the equivalent of about $1.5 billion that year, offered the students college scholarships.

That same year, a media firestorm hit the New York State Education Department over an absurd Pearson test exercise involving a talking pineapple racing a hare. The state later threatened to impose fines if too many questions were flawed, according to the New York Daily News, and the test question was removed.

Wyoming replaced Pearson with another assessment contractor, but only after imposing a $5 million fine and scraping results for a year.