Monday, March 16, 2015

High Stakes Testing Company Spying On Students

Last week journalist Bob Braun broke a story about high stakes standardized testing in America:

Pearson, the multinational testing and publishing company, is spying on the social media posts of students -- including those from New Jersey -- while the children are taking their PARCC, statewide tests, this site has learned exclusively. The state education department is cooperating with this spying and has asked at least one school district to discipline students who may have said something inappropriate about the tests.

This was confirmed in an email from one district superintendent, Elizabeth Jewett, that became public:

In her email, Jewett said the district's testing coordinator received a late night call from the state education department saying that Pearson had "initiated a Priority 1 Alert for an item breach within our school." The unnamed state education department employee contended a student took a picture of a test item and tweeted it. But it turned out the student had posted -- at 3:18 pm, after the testing was over -- a tweet about on of the items with no picture. Jewett does not say the student revealed a question.

And then, Jewett writes, chillingly:

"The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during the PARCC testing."

Here is a link to Bob Braun's website, but I've not been able to get the page to load. Apparently, once this story went up, the site was shut down by a DDoS attack from unidentified sources. Mr. Braun reports the site is up and running again on a limited basis, but when I tried to go there it was loading very slowly. Here is the Washington Post's version.

Pearson defends itself by insisting that this "monitoring" of students' social media activity is necessary to ensure the "validity" and "integrity" of their tests. In other words, they've cast a very wide net in their quest to prevent cheating, including chasing down a kid, late at night, through the department of education, who clearly was not cheating. It may be legal, because, after all, social media activity is public information, but it sure is creepy. Superintendent Jewett worries in her email that when parents learn about this sort of intrustive, "Big Brother" style behavior it will add further fuel to the growing movement by parents and students to "opt out" of these high stakes tests.

I suspect she's right. I mean, Pearson tests are being administered nationwide to millions of K-12 students, and their "monitoring" regime is so pervasive that they are able to identify a single Tweet from a single kid who posted it after the test was done without revealing any of their "proprietary" information, then manage to get the state, through the department of education, to enforce a corporate gag order on other people's children? It may be legal, but it's awfully creepy.

Pearson is a secretive, shady operation from top to bottom. The mysterious and perfectly timed attack on Mr. Braun's site is certainly suspicious. But more to the point Pearson has been known to attempt to destroy the careers of those who speak out against them. They spend millions each year on lobbying governmental bodies to impose ever more test-based curricula on our students. Their tests are used to collect data on students which is then sold to the highest bidder. They maintain strict secrecy of their tests and test questions before, during, and even after tests have been taken, forbidding teachers and students from even discussing the tests after the fact, robbing us of one of the few educational aspects of any testing, the discussion afterwords.

There are already plenty of reasons to opt your child out of these destructive high stakes tests, but I hope Ms. Jewett is right that this revelation of intrusive spying on our children adds more fuel to the growing opt out fire.

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Christi said...

You have GOT to be kidding me! Yet again, I'm glad we homeschool. While I agree that there's a huge need for education reform and I'm thankful for those like you and your hard work - I'm that (often perceived as narrow minded - which couldn't be further from the truth) parent who thinks that it shouldn't come at the expense of my own children. We do what we can from the outside, but I'm SO happy not to be on the inside!

Luba Vangelova said...

It's also worth adding that this issue of surveillance goes way beyond Pearson. See for example And surveillance of students is one manifestation of bigger societal trends.

As for testing, this also just came out today, and might interest you -- education professor Yong Zhao's take on more meaningful forms of assessment and accountability:

Anonymous said...

This is scary. Are Pearsons the same as the publishers too?
Glad I live in N.Z.

Jenny said...

I find this monitoring quite disturbing. As teachers we are required to sign confidentiality agreements when administering tests. That's part of our job, whether we like it or not. But kids don't. They should be able to talk about whatever they want to talk about. They have to take the dang test, they should be able to talk about it.

As for Bob Braun's website, it appears what actually happened wasn't an attack of any sort, but simply such a significant amount of traffic that the site couldn't handle it. Given how many people were sending others to the site, that isn't too surprising.

Teacher Tom said...

@Jenny . . . This is from Braun's FB page: "I got an email from my webhost saying the site was under a "denial of service" attack.
The webhost itself then suspended the site to stop the attacks and to give it time to repair the problem and install fixes to prevent future attacks."

Jenny said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I clearly missed it.

Dave said...

If a test's effectiveness can be undermined by sharing less than 140 characters of information, how effective is it?