The Brave New World of testing expands

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BLOGHANOVERTwo other New Jersey school districts–Hanover Park Regional in East Hanover and South Orange-Maplewood–were notified by state officials that “monitoring”–spying?– Twitter traffic revealed students  had used social media accounts to post a forbidden messages regarding the  PARCC tests.  No surprise, really–it’s happening everywhere, including Maryland where a state official said he gets daily reports from Pearson, the publisher of the standardized tests. on what students are saying about testing on their internet accounts.

“PARCC has a very sophisticated system that closely monitors social media for pretty much everything (comments like the one you shared, test item questions that students use cell phones cameras and take),” said Henry Johnson, the state assistant education commissioner in Maryland. The state, like New Jersey, has a contract with Pearson.

Henry R. Johnson, Jr.
Henry R. Johnson, Jr.

“We get those reports daily.”

Let’s run that one by you again:

“PARCC has a very sophisticated system that closely monitors social media for pretty much everything….”

The phrase “pretty much everything” aptly describes the broad reach of how this brave new world of testing and cooperation with government works. Pearson will say–as it told the Washington Post–that it is doing it for “security” reasons.

But security is itself a broad term. Here is what the State of New Jersey and Pearson agreed encompassed the idea of security and its possible breach–it’s codified in the testing manual developed by the state and sent out to all the districts:

“Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication.”

Another opportunity for repetition for emphasis here–discussing? Any other form of communication?

So, if children come home from school and their parents ask–“How was your day, sweetheart?” and the children talk about a really dumb question on the PARCC, they will be violating  the rules and be subject to whatever punishment is meted out for cheating–as a blogger did who learned from a child who hadn’t taken the test that there was a passage on it about The Wizard of Oz.

At the Watchung Hills Regional High School district in Warren, three students were caught up in the “monitoring” and at least one of them was suspended. Elizabeth Jewett, the district’s superintendent, won’t say exactly what the students did to violate the rules so we don’t know what the students said and to whom.

Here’s the rub–school officials invoke student privacy concerns to prevent parents from finding out how the privacy of children is violated.

Jewett did write, in a private email to her colleagues, that one of the students singled out for special treatment by the New Jersey Department of Education/Pearson testing police, had twittered about the test  after the end of the school day and had not taken a picture of the test question.

How is that a security breach? Well, the vastly inclusive scope of monitoring can include virtually anything.

Consider that breadth and scope here–any discussion of any aspect of testing by anyone can, if detected by the “sophisticated” methods employed by government and a private, profit-making foreign corporation, could get children into serious trouble. It’s less dangerous, apparently, to opt out of the test than to take it and talk about it.

Little is known of the incidents at Hanover Park Regional, a district with two high schools, Whippany Park and Hanover Park, that together enroll some 1,500 students. But it was apparently handled the same way. A state testing official–identified as Veronica Orsi–was notified by Pearson that something  happened at one of the high schools and Orsi then directed the district to take action against the offenders.

Less is known about what happened at Columbia High School, the high school in the South Orange-Maplewood consolidated district. Sources say a student was disciplined for what appeared in a Twitter account but they could not his identification to Pearson’s monitoring program.

Hanover Park and Watchung Hills are high school-only districts in some of the most affluent areas of New Jersey,  wealthy suburbs where children regularly score well on all sorts of tests and whose graduates are recruited by Ivy League and other selective colleges. Columbia also has a strong academic reputation. These students aren’t afraid of tests and, according to one source (who cannot be further identified), mocked the PARCC because they believed it was a useless waste of time–just as students who sit and take the SAT often mock it.

“There was no question of cheating to gain an advantage,” said the source. “Nothing happens whether they pass or fail and so they don’t take it seriously. It’s like dealing with a substitute teacher.”

But parents–especially in less affluent areas– should  prepare themselves for negative consequences of dealing with the test in ways thought inappropriate by the Testing Police–like, for example, refusing to allow children to take it.

In Newark, a state-operated district, one school principal threated to cancel a boys’ basketball season because their parents wanted the children to opt out of the tests. The children, students at the Camden Street School, caved in to save their sports season and agreed to take the test. In Paterson, also a state-operated district, parents were “persuaded” to change their minds about opting out when they were told recommendations for college admissions would depend on it.

Let’s be clear: The $108 million contract between the state and Pearson is a complicated document, but this is true: The more students tested, the more Pearson gets paid. Whatever else children are, in the world of corporate testing and big government contracts, they also are potential profit centers.

So, like the official from Maryland said, the testing powers have “pretty sophisticated” ways of watching students when they take tests.

But they also can use plain, ordinary clubs.

 

What follows is the text of my first blog on Pearson/state spying. It is presented here because so many readers have had difficulty calling up the original blog:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

41 comments

  1. Pingback: Bob Braun: The Brave Néw World of Testing and Spying | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Pingback: High Stakes Testing Makes Surveillance Necessary - Living in Dialogue
  3. Tim

    The “reformers” or the oligarchy corporate muggers have had at least a decade to prepare their ALEC Bills for their purposes. Now that they are putting their plan into action we see the effects of these Bills. They have structured the tax policies to increase their profits. They have written the laws to secure their profits of public monies and keep it as private information.
    Even if you peruse the FERPA, it looks like something designed by the corporations, giving them the rights of an Education institution with its ability to collect data and oversee students with in loco parentis.

  4. Ann Inquirer

    I hope a (constitutional) lawyer shows up for the parents that were bullied by the schools. SCOTUS says that is Conspiracy to Oppress Parental Rights, a 14th Amendment violation. This is a parental rights issue, supported by the SCOTUS Parental Rights Doctrine. It is not an educational issue of state laws or school rules. Fed. trumps state with a parent refusing that their minor do not test.

  5. Viv Barker

    It was confirmed in April 2014 that NSA has the legal right to surveil content of all US citizens’ email and phone calls. Haven’t seen any change in that law, which is all about uncovering possible in-house terrorist schemes. That breach of civil rights occurred as a consequence of 9/11 & the subsequent Patriot Act. We voters let that slide by, perhaps thinking it was an acceptable trade-off. After all, practically, how much of that overwhelming amount of data can they actually USE?

    A year-&-a-half ago, my sis, an asst-princ at a prestigious upstate-NY HS, told me [triumphantly] that Big Bro had saved the day: within three mins of a FB post by one of her high-schoolers– threatening suicide by violence– she received an alert from the FBI, which had intercepted the post. The school intervened successfully. By her sights, this was a good thing. All I could think was: somehow one violent school episode every year or two among 50million public school students makes it OK to monitor everybody just in case??

    We voters– who have done absolutely NADA, have made our concerns about trampled civil rights & privacy known to NOBODY– should not be surprised to learn that some Brit company who now runs our state DOE standardized tests is perfectly free to listen in on student conversations about their tests– & reach out via our TAXPAID state DOE to demand suspensions for students– MINORS– who are not party to any contract with them– for supposed breaches to their ‘testing security’– which info is gleaned imperfectly by them & pertains only to their trademarks, copyrights, et al money-making contracts.

    • James Grenewicz

      Dear Viv, “We voters let that slide by” suggests that individuals actually had an opportunity to vote on whether or not government should have the authority and consent to collect all email and phone conversations of all men and women without probable cause. Unfortunately, 9/11 and terrorism has little to do with these policies. While I do not disagree with the entirety of your post, please consider checking out this interview https://vimeo.com/117440574 (The Future of Freedom, A Feature Interview with NSA Whistleblower William Binney), as I think it will introduce a much broader, and revealing context to the ongoing surveillance you speak of.

  6. Pingback: Pearson and SBAC monitoring of social media – “spying” or infringement of free speech? | Jolyn's Education Corner
  7. MarquinhoGaucho

    Control of social media is nothing new as I found out the hard way. Print the truth about Governor Christie , Cami, Pink Hulahoop, Bennet Barlyn in the comments section on YouTube or NJ.com and your comments magically disappear when you log out and magically reappear when you log in. Orwell is turning in his grave. The corpo-fascist state has taken over .

  8. Leila

    Dear Mr. Braun,

    I am a retired teacher. When school book publishers include “blackline masters” (written in extra dark ink, intended for use with the school copy machine) of tests, it is standard practice to have an “A” and a “B” version of the test. This means that on test day, the teacher gives the “A” test, and absent students get the “B” tests another day. There is no need to tell students, “Do not talk about this test!” with their friends or parents. In fact, most of the time in my class, after the tests were graded, we would go over the tests in class, and review the material.

    As part of their business, Pearson publishes books, so it is unlikely that they don’t know about creating alternate versions of tests. The whole practice of having teachers sign off that they will not look at the tests, and students admonished not to talk about the test, on pain of punishment, is because Pearson does not want to pay to develop alternate versions of the test. It is clear that these “security” measures are intended to make it possible to give the same test to every state, for years, while charging states every year.

    Pearson is getting billions to create these tests.This is an on-line test. Instead of suppressing information through intimidation, there should be enough versions of the test to cover every day that test would be given, and at the end of each test day for that particular test, another version of the test could be loaded on to the site. Teachers could review the previous test with the class because it would not be giving answers to anybody else.

    Pearson might complain about the cost of preparing so many versions, to which I say: let the monitors go, and hire more test preparers with that money. See? A simple solution which does not involve punishing children for talking about their school day.

    Thank you,

    Leila

  9. Jacob Ryan

    In an attempt for clarification here…do the students (minors) who are posting PARCC information to Twitter have public accounts? Has that information been made public yet, or will it ever? If their accounts are not private then the information they are sharing goes on to a public forum and then is picked up by a company attempted to protect the integrity of their product by monitoring what anyone puts out on a public forum like the internet. Post something to Twitter about how the Subway employee disregarded your food allergy and see how quickly someone from Subway reaches out to you because they have a team of people monitoring their product. How is that any different from Pearson? Is it because Pearson supposedly requested discipline for the student involved? Do we know for sure what type of discipline the student received?

    The term “spying” needs to stop being used in these discussions. As for monitoring, parents of any minors should be more closely monitoring what their children are doing on social media, or at least teaching them better digital citizenship. As a parent you’re concerned that your child is being “spied” on by an educational assessment company? If your child has a public profile, Pearson is the least of your worries when it comes to who could be, or is, monitoring or interacting with your CHILD through social media.

    Complain about PARCC because you do not agree with standardized testing, outsourcing to foreign companies, politically driven contracts, compromising of funding, or some other valid reason. Don’t complain because you don’t have accurate factual information about a fictional “spying” conspiracy based in SOCIAL media. The time you are taking tweeting, Facebooking, or blogging about this distorted topic could be better spent talking to your children about their digital selves.

    • Mr. Outside

      Salient. But unlike Pearson, Subway doesn’t make recommendations to the government on how to penalize you because of your criticisms, or observations of their product.

    • booklady

      JR, Did you know that “spy” does not necessarily mean cloak-and-dagger efforts? It can also mean “investigate” or “search carefully.” PARCC certainly investigated to track twitter messages back to specific districts.

  10. Janet Christman

    Do we think that the $108 million could be spent for something more constructive than retesting the students that the teachers have already been charged with instructing/testing. Once upon a time when the teachers were trusted to follow the curriculum and even had the time to add some strategies that were enjoyable for both the students and the instructors, there was very little emphasis put on standardized testing! Who is the monster who decided that every child should be retested?

  11. jebnifer

    I find it interesting that Pearson defends in the name of fairness. Is it fair that there are some students taking this test on updated preprogrammed desktops, and some on old slow desktops. Some on iPads and some on Chromebooks. Some on laptops of different ages. If this fair? Schools forced to spend what they can, with little or no assistance for the tests they are mandating. If Pearson is going to demand fair..they need to start each school off on equal ground

  12. Pingback: Spying on students? Education publisher Pearson monitoring social media activity - AllNews24
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  14. booklady

    After Bob’s own version of March Madness started, I did something old-fashioned. I picked up two print dictionaries and looked up the word “spy.” Among the multiple definitions I found “investigate” and “search extensively.”

    Those meanings seem apt for Pearson’s “monitoring”; the folks quibbling over use of the word “spy” might reconsider.

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  23. Phylllis

    My state is using a Pearson product this year; I emailed our state Dept of Ed regarding this story asking if Pearson is doing this here with our testing, so we can inform parents. Haven’t heard back.

    Bob Braun: We know it’s going on in Maryland and NJ; there is no reason to believe it’s not going on elsewhere. Please let me know if you ever get an answer.

    • Phylllis

      I did get a response late yesterday. To give some context, my state dept is not thrilled about using ACT/Pearson. Our legislature got us into this mess, and the state dept folks are doing their best to get districts through testing season as unscathed as possible. I’d have to describe their response as ‘carefully worded’. But they did indicate they planned to ask Pearson outright if social media monitoring was going on, and would alert districts accordingly.

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