BREAKING: Pearson, NJ, spying on social media of students taking PARCC tests

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BLOGPEARSON
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 website discovered the unauthorized and hidden spying thanks to educators who informed it of the practice–a practice happening throughout the state and apparently throughout the country.

Elizabeth Jewett
Elizabeth Jewett

The spying–or “monitoring,” to use Pearson’s word–was confirmed at one school district–the Watchung Hills Regional High School district in Warren by its superintendent, Elizabeth Jewett. Jewett sent out an e-mail–posted here– to her colleagues expressing concern about the unauthorized spying on students.

She said parents are upset and added that she thought Pearson’s behavior would contribute to the growing “opt out” movement. So far, thousands of parents have kept their children away from the tests–and one of the reasons is the fear that Pearson might abuse its access to student data, something it has denied it would do.

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. That was not true. It turned out the student had posted–at 3:18 pm, well after testing was over–a tweet about one of the items with no picture. Jewett does not say the student revealed a question. There is no evidence of any attempt at cheating.

Jewett continues: “The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent–who was obviously highly concerned as to her child’s tweets being monitored by the DOE (state education department).

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

Jewett continued: “I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing–and if our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all of the student data, I am sure I will be receiving more letters of refusal once this gets out.”

The school superintendent also expressed concern about “the fact that the DOE wanted us to also issue discipline to the student.” Clearly, if Pearson insists on claiming test security as a justification for its spying on young people, that reasoning is vitiated by its cooperation with the state education department in trying to punish students who are merely expressing their First Amendment right to comment on the tests.

I contacted Jewett by email. By that time she had discovered not one but three instances in which Pearson notified the state education department of the results of its spying. In her email to me, Jewett was vague about the role of Pearson and the education department.

She wrote: “In reference to the issue of PARCC infractions and DOE/Pearson monitoring social media, we have had three incidents over the past week. All situations have been dealt with in accordance with our Watchung Hills Regional High School code of conduct and academic integrity policy. Watchung Hills Regional High School is a relatively small district and a close-knit community; therefore, I am very concerned that whatever details your sources are providing may cause unnecessary labeling and hardship to students who are learning the consequences of their behavior.”

Jewett acted professionally, I believe, but I must point out the irony of her lecturing me about protecting the identity of students when she has just dealt with both an inexcusable breach of privacy involving minors and an attempt by state government to punish dissent. I made it clear to her I have no intention of revealing names of students–but I would be more than happy to speak with their parents.

The state education department official identified as the person cooperating with Pearson is Veronica Orsi, who is in charge of assessment for grades 9-12 in the department. She refused to answer this website’s questions about her involvement and passed them on to superiors who also did not answer.

Neither the state education department nor Pearson’s would respond to my emails on the company’s spying on students. New Jersey is paying $108 million to run its PARCC testing program, an enterprise that has engendered opposition throughout New Jersey–and that was before the spying was revealed.

One motivation is clear–the more students who take the test, the more Pearson gets paid. This explains a lot about the state’s and the company’s aggressiveness in ensuring as many students as possible take the test.

But what isn’t explained is the willingness of the state education department to punish New Jersey children on behalf of a private company. According to sources–and not denied by Jewett–state officials tried to have the students involved suspended.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe spent hours testifying before the Legislature’s Senate Education Committee Thursday but did not once mention the possibility that the London-based Pearson would be “monitoring” the social media accounts of students taking the test. Jewett’s email, however, indicated the department–presumably including Hespe–were well aware of the practice.

A few days earlier, state education department officials–including Orsi–held a background briefing for some media–Bob Braun’s Ledger was not invited–and none of the mainstream media accounts of the session revealed the Pearson spying program.

Testing is scheduled for this month and May. Passing or failing the test has no consequence for the students who take it. PARCC does not serve as a graduation test. It can, however, be used in the evaluation of teachers.

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss picked up the story and managed to get Pearson to comment:

“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.”

The Washington Post also posted a letter written by Jewett:

Dear Watchung Hills Regional High School Learning Community,

On Friday, March 13, 2015, Bobbraunsledger.com 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.

 

This site also has learned that at least one of the three students at Watchung Hills Regional was suspended. It should be kept in mind that there are no consequences to students for this test–and students everywhere are smart enough to know when there are no consequences and they act accordingly–as they do when a sub shows up. 

That one or more students may have been suspended for treating PARCC like the bad joke it has become shows how sad–and maybe scary–this cooperation between government and the private testing industry has become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

93 comments

    • ccckma

      Big Brother’s name is Pearson.
      .
      Spam Pearson’s email system.
      .
      Use the term “PARCC” in some of your social media posts and act as if you are giving away information about test items.
      .
      There are two ways to DESTROY systems like Pearson. The first is to feed it too much information to handle. The second is to feed it false information.

  1. Michelle Hofmann

    I have to say I’m very thankful that my children are grown and this is an issue that will not enter my home any time soon, if ever. I hope my grandchildren, should I have any, will not have to deal with this in the future. It disturbs me greatly that privacy is breached and compromised by a corporation and government, united together, against the people – underage or not. IF parents do not take a stand, future generations will learn to accept a way of life that previous generations did not face. When I say learn to accept, realize this – our children are being spoon-fed on the idea of and are living with a lack of privacy and much government interference. The problem with this is that they will be apathetic to the increasing infringements of civil rights and will generally come to accept that this is a way of life. Is this what we want for our future?! I enjoy social media, I love the freedom of having so much knowledge at my immediate fingertips with the way the internet has progressed, but it comes at a price. I think we’ve missed the boat on what the price, in reality, really is. Scary times. As parents, you must take a stand.

  2. Chris

    That Superintendent is correct. I am very glad we refused the tests and more determined to do so the next round. What other social media are they monitoring and how?

  3. Super Mom

    And why are social media sites accessible to kids taking PARCC? Oh, right, because it’s a big waste of time to answer 10 questions, then sit around for another 100 minutes and kids need something to do.

  4. Pingback: SHOCK CLAIM: Allegation of NJDOE/Pearson monitoring PARCC test takers’ social media activity goes viral | The Save Jersey Blog
  5. Peter Sigrist

    I’m sure this post and the cited email are well-meant but it’s important to acknowledge Twitter is a completely public platform. You can’t call it “spying” to look out for people tweeting things. Full disclosure: I have worked with Pesrson in the past. But mainly, I try to stop people misunderstanding social media.

    • Grumpy

      Yep, that’s correct, as far as it goes..

      But when you add government aiding in the spying, it becomes something a little different. There’s a little thing called the 4th Amendment the Brits who own Pearson may not fully understand.

      Yeah I know, lawyers and the courts have played around with the legal definition, so what Pearson’s doing is legal, possibly even marginally legal with government involvement.. But Ordinary American’s understand the plain language of the Constitution and it’s original intent. They don’t like domestic corporations spying on their children, they don’t like government spying on their children.

      They especially won’t like the idea that the people they trust to educate their children conspiring with a foreign owned corporation to spy on their children.

      Trust me on this, Pearson may have just turned millions of ordinary moms into very angry Mamma Grizzly Bears

      Not Smart

      • JSamJr

        What has the 4th Amendment have to do with this issue? The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Twitter is often a public forum. No Warrant needed. If you demand privacy, then keep your thoughts private and off SOCIAL media.

    • Dave

      It’s not the “spying” allegation that bothers me so much; it’s the fact that Pearson, a private company, is insisting that schools punish the student for talking about the test; remember the final report was that no test information was released in the tweet, just a comment about it several hours later. What school rules or policy was exactly broken and deserved punishment for that?

    • Nancy

      To read social media is one thing. However, for a contractor (Pearson) to tie a social media account to an individual who is a client of the one issuing the contract and then tie that individual to a specific high school and then to contact the person issuing the contract is completely unacceptable unless the one issuing the contract did in fact contract out these ‘monitoring services,’ which would even be more disturbing.

    • Lee

      “Watching out” for public posts on social media is one thing.
      Pearson using their relationship with the State Department of Education as both a means to report students, and to have them punished by their own school district for exercising their right to free speech, is an entirely different story.

    • Mac

      To my mind, it’s only spying IF they used their database of kids taking the test to seek out their social media accounts. If they were doing a general keyword search for test questions, that’s one thing, but if they were searching by student’s names, that’s another.

  6. Tricia

    I find it troubling that Jewett stated that the children were, “students who are learning the consequences of their behavior.” I don’t see that the children did anything for which they should have consequences. Talking with friends about questions on a test that day seems well within a child’s rights, and has been done since schooling began. If my children were still in school, I would be opting them out of every testing session the school threw at them.

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  8. Galton

    Let us ponder….. Is it against the law for a student to post a detailed recap of the PARCC test after he/she has taken it and gone home?
    Does anyone know? Are students allowed to discuss the test item specifics after taking the test? Can they discuss particulars with their parents?
    Wow……

    • Matt

      Teachers and school staff are not allowed to talk about it, but students? The second they get together your hear, “Did you have that problem about blah blah blah? Yeah that was hard, I put…….what did you answer?” It’s human nature, and it’s against their rights to stop them from discussing it.

  9. Mr. Outside

    So many questions.

    How is Pearson getting such detailed information from social media to pinpoint who’s account in which schools, and in which district this “breach” occurred? Did they have to read all of the student’s tweets to determine who this student is?

    What are the international implications? This isn’t the first time a UK based, Rupert Murdoch initiative exploited a minor’s privacy.

    Does the PARCC give Pearson greater data on individuals (i.e., behavioral, emotional, etc) which can be used in more subversive means to persecute supporters of the anti-reform movement or other “anti-establishment” movements?

    As a corporation, recognized by the law, at least in The United States, as a person, can Pearson’s “monitoring” of students’ (minors’) social media be considered as harassment, predatory, and breach of privacy or student information?

    Is there a responsibility on Pearson’s part, to exercise good corporate citizenship, and to safeguard student information, wherever, and on whatever platform, online or otherwise it may encounter it?

    If the State Department of Education was aware that the monitoring was going to be taking place, does that suggest they agreed to monitoring as a condition of accepting the PARCC EULA (end user license agreement)? And if so or not, who is considered the End User? The State, to whom the PARCC is licensed for administration, or the student who is actually taking the test? If the student is the end user, as a minor, are parents made aware of the terms and conditions of the EULA before students take the test? If the state us the end user, with multiple license on PARCC, does the the EULA automatically extend to each student? Are students required to physically demonstrate an understanding and acceptance of the EULA?

    Besides issues of privacy, harassment, and overreach, are there concerns about theft by deception? Is there a basis on theft by deception and the scale of the monitoring that could be considered grand larceny?

    • LHP

      Good questions. Could Pearson, as a person, be charged with stalking by the parents of the students who were stalked?

      • Mr. Outside

        Great job pointing this out, Shelley. Though they include this as part of their privacy policy, they are totally in breach of third party sites’ privacy policies, and therefore could substantiate complaining to twitter and having Pearson’s social media account(s) revoked in addition to real legal damages.

        I think a class action lawsuit is in order. If not for damages, then at least to make an example of companies who abuse privacy and threaten free speech.

  10. DeeplyConcerned

    How exactly is this “monitoring” being done? Does Pearson eavesdrop on the social media accounts of every student taking the PARCC (disturbing and creepy), or does the company monitor social media for any PARCC-related “chatter” (sounds like an NSA counterterrorism program).

  11. Source1

    I wonder what Christie is thinking?

    Having one’s State Department of Education as an active co-conspirator in a Big Brother is Watching conspiracy doesn’t play very well in a Republican Primary. Generally speaking, republicans don’t even want a big brother, let alone a big brother who is actually watching.

    I hope Christie is enjoying his heart healthy breakfast of nachos with extra cheese and jalapeños….talk about agita…

    Bob Braun: The great irony is that the only radio station that reached out to interview me overnight was a conservative medium called “Liberty Live.” I was on its overnight talk show for a while. I had absolutely nothing in common with these people–except this: private, multinational (and, therefore, unaccountable) corporations should not be conspiring with state government to track what students are saying about testing programs and then punish them.

    • Tom2

      Governor Christie now has two pieces of toilet paper suck on the heals of his shoes.

      Christie appointed State Commissioner of Education Hespe is stuck on one heal, with the Pearson/NJDOE student spying scandal. On the other heal is Christie appointed Newark Public School Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson, with the fraudulent reporting of student attendance in Newark.

      Amazing how you posted these exposes in back to back blogs….Pulitzer Prize worthy stuff…

  12. Outsider

    Does anyone realize who else is involved here? My understanding is that Google products were used to actually take the test. Think of the search algorithms required and decide for yourself if Pearson is acting alone in this.

  13. Joe

    One of the commenters noted that Twitter is open to the public, to any person or entity to observe or participate in. But that still does not answer why Pearson is following kids’ tweets on the social media? Is Pearson worried about cheating during the test? However, if the kids are tweeting after the test, then tough luck to Pearson. This is why I don’t participate in the publically accessible social media. There are too many trolls and sociopaths out there. I can access anyone’s Facebook page and find out a hell of a lot about their lives and families. And I am not a techno-nerd or hacker. I have not been nor am I now a troll.

  14. Joe

    From Diane Ravitch’s blog: It turns out that Pearson is not alone in monitoring students’ social media accounts at testing time.
    The California Department of Education does it too, to determine whether students are photographing test questions and sharing them online.

    What’s the lesson? I think we must teach our children (and remember ourselves) that anything online is public information. There is no privacy on the Internet. If you have a secret, whisper it in someone’s ear. Don’t write it in an email or on social media; don’t say it on the telephone. Save it for personal conversations. Or consider it public.
    http://dianeravitch.net/2015/03/14/california-monitors-students-social-media-to-protect-test-security/#comments

  15. Rosa

    The lack of understanding of what exactly “the social media” is is stunning. You cannot “spy” on things that are out in the open. The whole reason the kid tweeted was for anyone and everyone to see it, he/she wanted it to be public. If the kid was posting answers, and not everyone has taken the test yet, that’s actually bad. It’s no different if a kid stole a test and passed out copies of it before the test is given –right? I mean, we still punish kids for that, right?? But whether that even happened, however, is unknown. We just don’t know what the kid tweeted about because no one’s telling. This blogger says there’s no evidence that cheating was attempted, but there’s no evidence that cheating wasn’t attempted. In fact, there’s no hint at what the tweet talked about at all. But with all the controversy surrounding this test the last few months, I somehow doubt that there has only been 3 identifiable kids who’ve tweeted simply negative things about it. Seriously, why else would DOE want to suspend a kid? Really? Just because they said something anti-PARCC? Get real. People spew the nastiest stuff about Chris Christie every day–sometimes right to his face– has anyone been fired or disappeared from their homes in the middle of the night? This isn’t a 1st amendment issue, everyone just needs to stop and ask questions and think. Companies monitor Tweeter to see what people are saying about them — which is totally valuable when you’ve had a bad experience, by the way.

    • A

      Ok

      Pearson “cannot ‘spy’ on things that are out in the open.” But they did track down the student, call a school administrator at 10pm, and apparently wanted the student to be disciplined. Sounds icky to me.

  16. 500 Words

    (Full disclosure: I’ve worked in test prep in the past, including in creation of test questions, but I’ve never been associated with Pearson.)

    While I realize that people are disturbed by this, I have no problem with Pearson’s attempts to control their intellectual property and maintain the integrity of the tests. If the PARCC Is as important as we’ve been told it is — and I clearly don’t believe this — and the state of NJ is spending $108 million on the administration of this test, I’d want to be certain that the test is not compromised in any manner.

    Also, test question writing is an expensive and lengthy process. The tests are calibrated in a manner that they wouldn’t be compromised if one question had to be tossed, but it certainly could be if a number of questions were compromised. Again, considering that the state already pissed $108 million away on this test, is it unfair to assume that the parents of the children taking the test at least want this testing to be less a waste of their kids’ time than it already is?

  17. steve light

    If the issue is rooted in the attack on public education and its privatization for profits and control to the interests of big business, then the solution must be the abolition of the profit system and the political system used to defend it. How about “US education secretary promises no let-up in standardized testing” at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/20/dunc-j20.html. BTW, it is the same capitalist system that is driving the world toward a new world war.

  18. Steve Light

    The issue of standardized testing here is that it is part of the attack on the public schools so that big business interests gain: in the creation of a docile, not thoughtfully educated, work force; increased profits; outright privatization of schools and the services to them. Just government surveillance that grows a police state is based in fear of the working class, the corporate wealthy – Pearson in this case – feel democratic rights count less than their control and profits. They are backed by a political structure (Democrats as well as Republicans) that also works in the same capitalist interests and exhibit the same arrogance as they do in the drive for profits and control globally that is pushing toward another world war. If you agree with that analysis, then the solution from this logic is the abolition of the profit system and its government and its replacement by a workers government and socialism. Try “US education secretary promises no let-up in standardized testing” at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/20/dunc-j20.html .

  19. Jake

    Monitoring the social media accounts of children and having the DOE demand that a kid who mentions the test be punished is almost the very definition of corporate overreach. And expecting kids who are forced to take a test of this nature to keep their mouths shut is completely delusional.

  20. Tim

    Referring to the monitoring of public tweets as “spying” show a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works.

  21. Ellen

    What have these students done that would be classified as illegal or unethical? Students haven’t signed confidentiality agreements nor was a verbal implied and if they did, agreements couldn’t be enforced because students are minors. And since parents haven’t signed confidentiality agreements either there should be no disciplinary action against students or parents for ‘perceived’ breaches of PARCC confidentiality. Pearson and DOE need a crash course on due process and individual rights. Yes, this also includes students–they have rights too.

  22. Pat A

    My question is if this is all legal have Pearson or any of their other companies disclosed that student’s social media will be monitored? Did they inform parents or students before the field and actual testing?

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  52. Cranston Dize

    I great appreciate your efforts to clarify this little morality tale. Modern digital resources expose deep, dark secrets–even those closely held behind corporate firewalls. Even children know it and master the means.

    In the end only surveillance and ever harsher punishment can keep the lid on.

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  62. from Texas

    Certainly we should have no expectation that Pearson would care a whit about what the rest of us might think one way or the other about their use of legally available tools to find instances of where their items are shared on social media. For me, privacy is a separate, but important, issue for all of us. My more immediate concern is centered on how, and under what pretexts, we allow the information gathered in this way to be used to initiate school-level disciplinary actions against minors for merely posting the images (what gives this Big Brother his teeth).

    Schools can be shown to have an interest in preventing cheating and if it could be shown that students x, y, and z benefited unfairly from access to these images then schools might be obliged to respond. A student who posts an image presumably didn’t cheat on the test (i.e., I don’t see how taking a picture of test items would have any impact on his/her score) and the burden would then have to be on Pearson (or school officials) to show that other students did use the information to cheat. I can imagine a lot of possible motivations, other than cheating, for posting items (e.g., “Wow, question 32 is pretty ridiculous…”) that might, nonetheless, provoke Pearson’s IP (copyright) interests. And Pearson would then have well-established legal avenues for taking action relative to protecting their IP. What I don’t see as following from this is an obligation for schools to participate in protecting their IP unless, or until, instances of (or clear intent for) cheating could be demonstrated.

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