The chief testing officer for the New Jersey education department is blaming others–particularly parents and educators–for the uproar about a private company’s monitoring of the social media accounts of children taking state, standardized tests known as PARCC.
“The last several days have made evident that a large number of both educators and parents do not understand the nature of social media,” wrote Bari Anhalt Erlichson, in a memo sent to school superintendents and other educators throughout New Jersey. Erlichson is an assistant education commissioner.
Her memorandum, dated March 17, ends with a lecture to parents about what they should do:
“Parents should make informed decisions as to whether to permit their child to have an online presence and to work with their child in establishing the privacy settings for various applications, such as Facebook. It is my hope that by working together – parents, students and schools – that we further our students’ understanding of how to participate in social media responsibly, safely, and in ways that further their development as curious, self-directed learners.”
The memorandum clearly shows how she–or her boss, state Education Commissioner David Hespe–will try to explain away the monitoring of children’s social media by Pearson, the multi-billion-dollar international corporation that has a $108 million contract with New Jersey to provide statewide PARCC testing to the state’s school children, from third grade up. Hespe has been called to explain the spying–or monitoring–to the Assembly Education Committee.
Erlichson tries hard to argue that the hiring of corporations to conduct massive, deep, and broad surveillance of social media is nothing new and nothing complicated. Why, after all, she argues, “If a student hands out a teacher’s test questions on the front steps of the school, educators need to respond. “
Well, the cyberworld is really no different. “As the schoolhouse steps have gone virtual, so have our efforts to ensure that our tests are secure,” Erlichson wrote.
She uses the example of a teacher or a staff member of the state education department inadvertently coming across a Twitter or Facebook posting that contains a secure question. That person would have a responsibility of letting state officials now.
“If an educator in a local district or staff from NJDOE observes a public, online posting by anyone, be it an adult or a student, that wrongfully releases test content, we must take action to ensure the fairness and security of our statewide assessment programs,” she wrote.
Pick your analogy. Comparing a teacher observing a student hand out copies of a test–or even a teacher inadvertently seeing a test question on-line– to hiring cyber investigators to track down and identify the source of test leaks by surveilling hundreds of thousands of social media postings is like comparing a pop-gun to a Howitzer for fire power or a pair of binoculars to a radio telescope operated by Stanford University for the ability to search the heavens.
Despite Erlichson’s oft-mentioned concern for children and parents, her two-page memorandum, leaves out some very important concerns that parents might have about their kids.
For example, it sounds so reasonable that test security is nothing new, but, if so, why weren’t parents–or the public generally–informed that the state would be hiring cyber-spies to ensure no one was leaking information about the test? Not Erlichson–no one–can argue that there hasn’t been much interest in the administration of the PARCC–it has been a controversy building for years.
The revelation about the cyber-monitoring went viral–no one disputes that–and so how does Erlichson explain that? Teachers and parents are just dumb about the internet? Come on–parents throughout the United States and the world were taken aback by the disclosures of what happened at the Watchung Hills Regional High School district last week. They were shocked.
Hey, Dr. Erlichson–since you’re such a scholar about social media, Google “Pearson spying” and see the stories from across the country and across the world that were a consequence of the surprise we all felt. Just because New Jersey’s largest newspaper ignored the story doesn’t mean anyone else did.
Here’s another question–one your contractors won’t answer either: How does one of your cyber-vigilantes connect a Tweet to a specific student and to a specific school with such pinpoint accuracy that your office can call a testing coordinator at 10 pm and demand something be done?
As you must know, many Twitter accounts use pseudonyms. How do your spies get behind the fake handle to learn the identity of the person who sent the Tweet–or the Facebook posting? How do you learn the IP addresses of the tweets so the sender can be tracked down?
You write in your memorandum that the employees of Pearson or its subcontractor, Caveon Test Security, “are not monitoring student’s opinions about the test, but rather any posts that jeopardize the fairness and security of the administration of the test. Their work does not involve tracking students nor invading anyone’s privacy.”
What? How do you unread something you have just read, Dr. Erlichson? How do you not invade someone’s privacy by reading what they have written? It is simply disingenuous for you to suggest that, while trolling for cheaters, your hired “monitors” don’t pick up a few things about these boys and girls. Are they, like priests in a confessional, bound not to reveal what they’ve read?
And your memorandum also fails to address this question:
Just who, Dr. Erlichson, is sitting behind computer screens trolling through the children’s social media? Were they vetted–like, say, teachers or school bus drivers or aides? Did they go through police checks? What were they paid?
Finally, Where is the data you’ve scarfed up by the millions of lines now? Has it been stored? Where? Who has access? Will it be deleted? Or will it be–has it already been–matched up with student social security numbers and other private data schools are so good at collecting?
Women and men with far more knowledge and experience with the Internet will be able to come up with far more sophisticated questions than I can. I was 40 years old before I gave up my typewriter and learned typing would be called “keyboarding.”
But here’s what gets me–and should get everyone–the angriest about your calm, reasoned memorandum. You write your concern is based on what you call “fairness” when, tell the truth, Dr. Erlichson, we know your concern and the concern of Pearson and the concern of Pearson’s subcontractor, is money.
Money. Money because compromised test questions need to be replaced and that will cost Pearson money. Spying on children is an investment in making sure test manufacturers won’t have to write a lot more questions.
You write–and I’m sure you or Hespe will be saying this on Thursday before the Assembly Education Committee–that you are predominantly concerned about “the fairness and security of the administration of the test.”
Fairness–are you aware, Dr. Erlichson, that students in Newark and other cities never got the chance to practice with Chromebooks before the tests were administered? Are you aware of the number of children in Newark and other cities who don’t have computers? Are you aware that students were threatened with the loss of their ability to participate in sports if they refused to take the test? Are you aware parents were told their children would not get recommendations for college if they refused to take the test? Are you aware students who refused to take the test were forced to sit and stare for up to seven hours?
And this whole ideological superstructure about test fairness is nonsense–you know and, more importantly, the kids through New Jersey who have to waste their time with these tests know, that the tests mean nothing to them. It won’t affect them. And, as a consequence, school employees throughout New Jersey have to make up lies about why kids have to sit for these exams and teachers have to waste time preparing them for the tests.
Don’t talk to me about fairness, Dr. Erlichson, when people like you throughout the country are helping corporations like Pearson to maximize their profits from taxpayer dollars by ensuring they don’t have to write more questions. When you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars when attendance counselors are laid off in big cities and kids go to school in dilapidated buildings.
I am providing a link to your memorandum. I am sure there will be some readers who will respond to your arguments.
But I think even you couldn’t possibly believe some of the nonsense you’ve written here.