Parents just don’t get social media, chief NJ testing officer says

Erlichson, third from left, with friends from the NJ School Boards Association, which supports PARCC

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.”

bloghespeThe 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.





  1. Too bad she won’t pay any attention to you. Of course they have the student data. Many districts use Power School, a student data system which records grades, attendance and has every bit of personal information about the student. It even has the student picture. A good pedophile with minimal hacking ability can access any school systems data while trolling for Pearson and its cohort companies. As a retired teacher and a parent, this whole situation has me on red alert. Especially since Pearson hires people to do these tasks through venues such as Craigs List. Really? Craigs list? $11.50 per hour

    1. Teachers in Newark have no supplies. We are scrounging for pencils and dry erase markers. Field trips have become a rarity. Libraries have no budgets. Imagine what $108 million could have purchased. Is the NJDOE a subsidiary of Pearson or do they work for the people of New Jersey?

    2. Debbie,

      Pearson is looking to sell PowerSchool. The info is on the website. It just keeps getting creepier and creepier!

    3. Debbie, Maybe “a determined pedophile w. minimal hacking skills” would be better word choice than “a good pedophile …” Sorry for gallows humor–reaction to infuriating events.

      Thank you for insights re Power School.

  2. I can’t believe my tax dollars are paying someone to write and distribute such condescending crap. The again, the fish has been stinking from the head for about seven years now.

  3. Actually Pearson runs PowerSchool- so they can very easily access student information. Which makes me wonder- if this child’s school had PowerSchool, did Pearson go into the PowerSchool system itself to get this child’s information?

  4. Nice try, Bari, but the immunity to Ad Hominem attacks, Red Herrings, and Sweeping Generalizations has risen significantly in New Jersey. (No, really, thousands upon thousands of NJ parents and guardians have been exposed to this list of rhetorical and logical fallacies for a while now. It’s very educational. You should check it out.)

    The relentless emphasis on test security is a major, major red flag.

    As Paul Murphy so insightfully tweeted: “So the tests which make possible the entire reform agenda can be invalidated by a handful of teenagers’ tweets? Well then.”

    Well then, indeed.

  5. Mr. Braun,

    Thank you!

  6. I don’t have kids, Twitter or Facebook accounts, so here’s a techno-dinosaur query:
    Is the implication of what Dr. Ehrlichson wrote that a Twitter message re PARCC test items posted to an account w. privacy settings could be accessed by approved individuals but not Pearson monitors? E.g., Tom, Dick, & Harry are on Student X’s approved list and they are out sick first test week. They can see X’s Tweets re test before make-up test days. (Yes, we know there are multiple versions.)

    Is the take-away message that teens should have two Twitter accounts–one w. privacy settings–and post accordingly?

  7. Dr. Ehrlichson writes, “Test security measures to identify test breaches are not new, nor are they unique to PARCC. They have been used in the past when NJ had paper tests. It (sic) is done in other states, and it (sic) is done with other tests.”
    1. Philosophy 101 professors teach that it is not valid to argue from what is to what ought to be.
    2. Was online surveillance performed “when NJ had paper tests”? If yes, please give us relevant details.
    3. Which “other tests” is NJ DoE monitoring? If she is referring to AP or SAT tests, many have noted since Bob Braun’s 3-13 post that those are tests students elect to take.

  8. Bob,

    According to last night’s NY Times article, Pearson used its testing database to identify the students on social media:

    “Some parents and privacy advocates contended that using personal information collected about students in an educational context to covertly monitor them on social media was an unfair practice.

    “How did they figure out what district the kid who tweeted was in?” Allison White, a parent of a high school student in Port Washington, N.Y., said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Did they use any of the personal information they had access to in the testing database?”

    The answer, apparently, was yes — at least until I contacted state education officials in Massachusetts on Monday evening.

    “Previously, Pearson would take the knowledge that they found from public postings — the student’s state, name and school — and check it against its list of students registered to take PARCC at that school to see if that person was actually scheduled to take the test,” Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, wrote in an email on Tuesday afternoon.

    But she said the consortium of states had asked Pearson to stop checking names against its own list of students.

    Although the company’s social media monitoring will continue, Ms. Reis wrote, “as of today, Pearson will forward what they found online to the state education department without checking to see whether the student is registered to take the test.”

    That may alleviate some parents’ concerns about the secondary use of their children’s personal details by private companies. But it is unlikely to solve the fairness and accuracy issues raised by surveillance of students on social media.”


  9. Well, as you state in your article, I guess we know how the DOE Iis going to spin this one.

    Interesting how they put Erlichson out there to be the voice of reason. Hespe and Christie need cover on this one….but they can’t run far. I have a feeling the Assembly Committee is not going to let Hespe off the hook.

  10. You could cut the condescension with a knife. So parents concerned about a multinational corporation and a governmental agency collaborating in surveillance of their children’s social media accounts “just don’t understand?” I suspect Pearson’s problem will be that they understand all too well what’s going on here…

  11. And there you have it. Parents are stupid and uninvolved in their kids’ lives. If they weren’t so stupid, and ignorant, why they would have DEMANDED Parcc testing years ago. And Common Core. And surveillance. And the end to teachers unions and the constant churn of teachers, TFA, and charters. We just don’t know what is good for our kids. Didn’t we see this coming? They will defend all the bullcrap they put out there because someone pays them to do it. How can we argue with them? We’re just stupid and ignorant parents.

  12. Dear Dr. Erlichson:
    (1) So students are being disciplined under local policies? Gee, thanks. The point is where the impetus for discipline comes from in the first place. Are private contractors now essential players in individual student disciplinary decisions, and on what basis?
    (2) Parents and students do indeed know “we are what we tweet,” to quote your condescending memo. But we don’t know who’s on Twitter for Pearson, targeting our kids as individuals, whenever Pearson sees fit. If a random person were doing this, it would be stalking, but when a corporate heavy-hitter does it, they’re “ensuring integrity.”
    Tell you what: I’ll go home and review how Twitter works, and you guys go home and review the bits in the Constitution about searches and seizures.

  13. She also mentions the need to highlight the issue of “responsible digital citizenship” as students take the new assessment. Gee, that’s interesting coming from someone who’s defending the behavior of a multibillion dollar international corporation that’s busily scanning the digital globe for the social media postings of children.

  14. So if teachers and superintendents don’t understand social media- why are we pushing for future ready? You have administrators and teachers encouraging twitter and google hangouts in classrooms with people they have never met. Encouraging contact with who could be pediphiles? Some principal in NJ dresses up like a pirate and interacts with a crazy bipolar tech teacher in Colorado and he has kids google hangout with her? She was removed from classroom and blogs negatively about school system. Why? How is this necessary for education. A bunch of nonsense to kill time and not actually teach, but play with technology. THIS HAS GONE TOO FAR!

  15. ” Their work does not involve tracking students nor invading anyone’s privacy. And none of NJDOE’s processes have changed, either. Once notified of a post by Pearson, we work directly with school districts to have them contact the student to remove the post and we leave it to school districts to follow their own discipline policies and practices as appropriate.”

    Umm… So… They don’t track students. But they do find out who the student is (somehow, using methods that nobody wants to discuss, which inspires all kinds of confidence) and where that student goes to school. I don’t think that “track” means what they think it means.

  16. You clearly don’t understand social media either.

    When children (or anyone else) make a PUBLIC post to a social network that mentions a company or product, the people who monitor that company’s social media presence will find that public post. They are not “monitoring children’s accounts” – they are monitoring their brand and product presence on social media – searching for mentions of the company name, product name, and hashtags that may have been developed to mention the company or its products. If a child does not mention the brand or product or use a code/hashtag in their posts, the company will never see the child’s posts. If the child does not make a “public” post (if they restrict the post to only their friends or followers) then the company will never see the post.

    There’s nothing to “unread”. The only posts the company sees are A) public (so there is no privacy violation) and B) using keywords or hashtags the company monitors for, to protect their brand and their products.

    The people who are getting all outraged here are just badly confused about how social media works – and that includes you, Bob.

    Try education. Try learning how companies monitor their presence on social media and reply to customer posts. When you learn how this really works you will see that you got all upset over something that is commonplace and is not “spying on students” as you assumed.

  17. What is a shame is that none of this would have taken place if reformers hadn’t targeted public schools and teachers in the first place. Local control of schools, which has worked to give us a democratically-based excellent school system in the past, is under serious attack and you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see what is going on here. If trust hadn’t been eroded in teachers, thanks to the Waltons, Eli Broad, Bill Gates and company, our students would be assessed by their own teachers and the need for the Common Core, set up to convince the public that their public schools are failing, wouldn’t exist. Thanks to Obama and Arne Duncan we have seen local control evaporate…you don’t even have to have a Governor like Christie for your state to have adopted the Common Core when there was the threat of losing federal education dollars. George W. started the war with NCLB and Obama is continuing it with Race to the Top. Let’s hope that the public finally “gets” what’s going on and refuses to let it advance further. EVERYONE NEEDS TO OPT OUT…spread the word!

  18. As we sift through the gobs of wasted taxpayer monies, we find on the underside the nest of serpents all intertwined with the greed for more.

  19. TC
    Are you saying that students could effectively compromise test item security by posting privately? If yes, then
    why bother monitoring public posts?
    Why not release tests at end of year, as NY Regents used to?

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