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Pearson monitoring social media for security breaches during PARCC testing

PARCC practice tests. (Ty Wright/AP)
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Updated with response from superintendent; Pearson revises statement to make clear it is working with PARCC states; more about social media monitoring during testing.

Pearson, the world’s largest education company, is monitoring social media during the administration of the new PARCC Common Core test to detect any security breaches, and a spokeswoman said that it was “obligated” to alert authorities when any problems were discovered.

The superintendent of a New Jersey school district wrote an e-mail to colleagues (see below) about the monitoring, saying that she found the practice “a bit disturbing.”

Students in New Jersey are now taking the PARCC, a Common Core test created by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two multi-state consortia given $360 million in federal funds to design new standardized tests that align with the Common Core State Standards. PARCC testing is underway in several other states amid a growing opt-out movement by parents who are refusing to allow their children to take the test. Pearson has a contract of more than $100 million to administer the PARCC in New Jersey.

News of the monitoring of social media was revealed in a message that Superintendent Elizabeth C. Jewett of Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey sent to colleagues about a disturbing episode that she was made aware of by her district’s testing coordinator. It was posted on the Web site of Bob Braun, a former reporter, education editor and senior columnist at the Star-Ledger, who called the monitoring of social media nothing less than “spying.”

Asked for a comment about the monitoring of social media during the PARCC administration, Pearson spokeswoman Stacy Skelly said in an e-mail:

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.
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 states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.
We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

Jewett responded to an e-mail with a link to a letter that she posted on the district’s Web site. It says:

Dear Watchung Hills Regional High School Learning Community,
On Friday, March 13, 2015, published a story referencing an email I had sent to other superintendents about issues regarding PARCC testing and Pearson’s monitoring of social media. The email shown in his article is authentic. It was an email I sent on March 10, 2015 at approximately 10:00AM to a group of superintendents to share my concerns and to see if other schools had a similar experience. I did not authorize the release of this email nor am I aware of who did release it. I am also not aware of the motives they may have had behind the release. That said, I completely stand behind my comments as they represent not only my views and concerns; they also represent the views and concerns of our Board of Education.
The article references instances involving students during PARCC testing and any related disciplinary action. For student privacy issues, we cannot comment on any of the specific students or discipline referred to in the article. What I am able to share is that all issues have been dealt with in accordance with our Code of Conduct, Academic Integrity and Acceptable Use of Technology Policies.
Our main concern is, and will always remain, supporting the educational, social and emotional needs of our students. The privacy and security of student information remains the utmost priority for our district.
The district will have no further comment on this matter at this time.
Elizabeth C. Jewett

The New Jersey Education Department did not respond to inquiries.

Here’s Jewett’s original e-mail to her colleagues:

This is not the only instance in which social media has been monitored by testing companies or state authorities during student standardized testing. Such monitoring is seen by authorities as an extension of classroom monitoring for cheating, while seen by some parents and educators as a violation of a students’ privacy.

The California Department of Education has had test monitoring for years. A 2013 release from the department on its Web site, titled “California Department of Education Monitors Social Media During STAR Tests,” says in part:

SACRAMENTO — Heightened monitoring and reporting of California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments this year identified 242 schools where social media postings occurred during administration of the tests, only 16 of which included postings of test questions or answers.
None of the postings affected school test results. As in 2012, when similar numbers of social media postings occurred, the majority involved students posing with the covers of test booklets or with materials that were not legible. The California Department of Education (CDE) placed a cautionary flag on the publicly posted test results for all schools where a posting occurred.