Test-security companies are monitoring social media to see whether students are sharing answers with their peers. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A New Jersey student’s tweet about a question on new Common Core tests was deleted after it was flagged by a testing company, spurring a national debate about how to balance children’s privacy with test security in the age of social media.

Many parents and Common Core critics accused Pearson, the publisher of the new exams, of spying on the nation’s children. But for Pearson and other major test publishers — including ACT and SAT, which administer college entrance exams — watching public conversations on the Web has become a fundamental part of combating cheating and ensuring fairness.

“Sharing images of test questions on social media is the 2015 equivalent of a student copying test items and handing them out,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for PARCC, whose new Common Core tests are being administered for the first time this year in the District, Maryland and 10 other states. “Protecting students and teachers from breaches — which are a violation of testing policies — is the right thing to do.”

Test-security handbooks say that looking in on social media is not only acceptable but is a best practice, and such monitoring has become commonplace on professional licensure exams, college-entrance tests and many other assessments that can elicit a temptation to cheat. It is so widespread that there are companies dedicated to such data mining.

ETS, which administers exams such as the GRE and the SAT, has been scanning the Internet for 18 years, said Ray Nicosia, head of test security for the company. He said test security has evolved alongside technology, adding that he can remember cheating scams involving fax machines in the late 1990s.

“So when the Internet came along, then we started seeing potential for the Internet to be used” to cheat, he said.

But scanning social media has been less necessary on standardized tests administered to schoolchildren, according to Gregory Cizek, a testing expert at the University of North Carolina. That is, until now.

It used to be that all students across a state took a paper-and-pencil test on the same day or days. Now children are taking the same Common Core tests in multiple states during a period lasting longer than a month. That has created a more intense test security problem for K-12 standardized exams: If a student from New Jersey reveals questions via Twitter — or even just the name of a poem that appears on the exam to test reading comprehension — it could give an advantage to students in New Mexico who are still preparing to take the test.

“It’s a very, very long testing window, which means those questions are being exposed for a long time,” Cizek said, adding that by scanning the Internet for leaked questions and answers, testing companies are doing what they must do to ensure valid, fair results. “The folks at SAT and ACT do the same kind of thing.”

Rachel Schoenig, head of test security at ACT, agreed.

“People just look at it as a matter of good testing hygiene,” she said. “You certainly don’t want somebody who’s been able to buy their way into a score to get a leg up on someone who’s worked really hard and done it a fair way.”

But some parents find the whole thing creepy, especially the idea that someone is not only watching online conversations but also is able to figure out which children are publishing particular posts. Others say the prospect of a student being disciplined for discussing a mandatory test raises questions about free speech and the power of for-profit test publishers.

And some say the social-media monitoring is a sign that the country has become too fixated on using standardized tests to judge teachers and schools.

“We built a system where so much weight is put on test scores that, to be fair, the tests have to be state-secret secure, and that’s impossible,” said Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a nonprofit group that has been working to support parents who are pulling their children out of this year’s Common Core tests. “It’s taking testing to an illogical extreme.”

Firms accused of ‘spying’

The debate erupted last week after New Jersey blogger and former newspaper reporter Bob Braun published an e-mail written by the superintendent of New Jersey’s Watchung Hills Regional High School. The superintendent, Elizabeth Jewett, said state education officials contacted her staff after Pearson “initiated a Priority 1 action alert for an item breach at our school.”

Jewett’s e-mail said state officials urged her to discipline the child and informed her that Pearson was monitoring all social media during testing. “I have to say I find that a bit disturbing,” Jewett said, predicting it would inflame parents’ concerns about the privacy of student data.

Jewett declined to comment, but she confirmed that the e-mail was real in a letter posted on her school’s Web site.

As the news spread quickly on social media with the hashtag #pearsoniswatching, Pearson issued a statement. “The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid,” the statement said. “We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC and our state customers.”

Pearson and New Jersey state officials said decisions about discipline would be left up to schools and school districts. But parents were unsettled.

“I think that’s deeply disturbing that they could track a student back to where they go to school,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Princeton parent and volunteer with the organization Save our Schools New Jersey, a grass-roots group that has been outspoken in criticizing PARCC testing.

Rubin, who is also a professor at Rutgers University, said the revelations about social-media monitoring blew up in part because so many parents are already angry about PARCC and are suspicious of Pearson.

“It was just fertile ground,” she said.

This isn’t the first time that testing companies have monitored the Web during K-12 standardized testing. California’s Education Department announced in a 2013 news release that Web monitoring had turned up nearly 250 schools where students had posted to social media during state testing. Sixteen of those posts included test questions or answers.

The American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union with more than 1.6 million members nationwide, also entered the fray, circulating an online petition calling for Pearson to stop “spying.”

Pearson subcontracts its ­social-media tracking to Utah-based Caveon Test Security. According to a Pearson spokesman, the company has turned up 76 test-security breaches in six states since PARCC testing began in February.

Steve Addicott, a Caveon vice president, emphasized that the company doesn’t track specific individuals but uses general search terms to monitor publicly available Web sites. Caveon’s job, Addicott said, is to filter out the noise and find postings that pose a real threat to a test company’s property by revealing questions or answers.

Caveon flags the concerning posts and hands them over to Pearson, and it’s up to Pearson to identify who wrote the posts. Through a spokesman, the company said it uses only publicly available information to make those identifications.

Pearson had been comparing names of social-media offenders to rosters of test-takers to confirm where they attended school. But that policy changed last week amid the backlash over privacy. Now, Pearson turns over the name to the state department of education, which contacts the school.

‘Not an evil conspiracy’

Marc J. Weinstein, a lawyer who represents publishing companies and sometimes works with Caveon to investigate ­test-security breaches, said copyright law is a powerful weapon for companies seeking to protect questions from being spread on the Internet.

If individuals refuse to remove social-media posts that include test questions, then companies can go straight to Twitter and Facebook or other sites to request that the content be removed.

Weinstein acknowledged that such vigilance protects his clients’ bottom line by ensuring that their products — test questions — remain secret and therefore retain their value. But he said that quashing leaks also ensures that parents and policymakers have a valid gauge of school performance.

“The testing is here, and particularly when it’s for a public institution that’s funded by taxpayer dollars, that only sort of raises the bar in terms of ensuring that the public is getting what it pays for,” Weinstein said.

“This is not an evil conspiracy by a wealthy publishing company,” he said. “This is about a bunch of academics who put their heads together and said, ‘How can we do this to make sure that test results are valid?’ ”