Privacy & Security

PARCC, Pearson Take Heat for Scanning Social Media to Protect Test Security

By Sean Cavanagh — March 16, 2015 6 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog

A report of an effort to monitor students’ social media use to prevent the sharing of test information—initially flagged by a school superintendent in New Jersey—has generated a blast of criticism toward the PARCC assessment, and at Pearson, the contractor hired to administer it.

The controversy emerged late last week, when Elizabeth C. Jewett, the superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional Learning Community in New Jersey, wrote a letter to other district leaders voicing surprise about how information about a possible testing breach had been relayed to her.

Jewett told her district peers that she had received an alert from the state’s department of education, which had in turn learned from Pearson about a student supposedly sharing the content of a test question via Twitter.

After investigating the issue, Jewett said that the initial report—suggesting that the student was circulating a photo of a test question—was false, and that the student, whose parent the superintendent later contacted—was instead found to have posted a tweet referencing a PARCC question.

But in her letter, Jewett said the state department of education told her that Pearson was monitoring all social media during PARCC testing—a practice that the superintendent said she found “a bit disturbing.”

“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 [to take tests] once this gets out,” Jewett wrote. She added that the department of education had asked her to discipline the student.

The controversy in New Jersey is playing out during a time of volatility and rapid change in both testing, and in the realm of assessment-through-technology.

A wave of overall anti-testing sentiment has swept over some states and districts, which in some communities has morphed into, or grown out of, objections directed at the common-core standards and tests. (The tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, are aligned to the common-core standards. New Jersey is giving the PARCC exam.)

At the same time, states’ adoption of computer-based assessments has sparked fears about the capacity of states and vendors to provide test security and prevent students’ sharing of test content. Two years ago, students at nearly 250 schools in California posted photos onsocial-media websites while they took state exams—in some cases, photos of actual test questions and answers.

Earlier this year, a reportby a prominent test-maker, the ACT, argued that states’ laws and policies for test security have not kept pace with technology, putting those exams at serious risk of hacking, cheating, and other breaches.

And—independent of disputes over testing—states, school districts, and parents are debating the wisdom of broader proposals to give schools the right to tap into students’ social media accounts for the purpose of preventing cyber-bullying, protecting student safety, and other reasons.

In New Jersey, Jewett’s e-mail to her peers was later obtained and posted by a New Jersey blogger, Bob Braun, with the headline, “Pearson, NJ, Spying on Social Media of Students Taking PARCC Tests.”

In a subsequent message to her school community, posted on the district’s website, Jewett confirmed that she had written the letter to other district officials, and that she did not know how it had been obtained. But she said she stood by the worries she raised, “as they represent not only my views and concerns; they also represent the views and concerns of our board of education.”

“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. Pearson, in a statement, said maintaining test security 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 in the education space,” the company said. “But when test questions or elements of a test are posted publicly to the Internet, including social media, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student consequences are handled at the local level.”

[UPDATE (5:25 p.m.): Michael Yaple, the director of public information and strategic partnerships for the New Jersey department of education, said in an statement there was nothing new or unusual about the state’s practices for monitoring social media and other Internet content generated by students to protect test security.

The state sees examples every year of students taking photos of test questions with cellphone cameras and then posting them online so “anyone with an Internet connection” can see them, he said.

Yaple argued that New Jersey’s test-security practices for social media are quite common. He referred Education Week to a passage in a book published in 2013 by the Association of Test Publishers, an education and advocacy group, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, about how to maintain test security in the online era:

“The client and the service provider should establish procedures to monitor the Internet and social websites before, during, and after test administration for any evidence that items and/or answers to completed tests have been shared.”]

A spokesman for PARCC, David Connerty-Marin, said in an e-mail that using social media such as Twitter or Instagram to share images of test questions is the “2015 equivalent of a student photo-copying test items and handing them out.”

Attempting to halt the sharing of test information “is the responsible thing to do,” he argued.

Connerty-Marin said that with PARCC, as is common practice in all large-scale tests, “the test vendor searches the public Internet for images or words that reference live test items—much like all of us do Google searches. When states or their [vendors] become aware of a live test item that has been posted to public social-media sites or elsewhere on the publicly-visible internet, they treat it as a potential breach of test item security.”

If the source of a security violation is pinpointed, the vendor contacts the state education agency where the breach originated, the PARCC spokesman added. The state agency then passes a message on to the local school district, asking that student to remove the content in question.

An attempt to ID the student is only made when it’s clear there’s been a breach, and then only through by using “publicly available internet pages,” Connerty-Marin said. If that information is found, it’s given to the state agency, and then the local school—which is the only entity to contact a student, he said.

Decisions about disciplining students for passing around test information online are left to local schools and district, he said.

Given the confluence of worries in K-12 over testing, privacy, and the common-core, it seems likely that more parents will be asking questions about the monitoring of social media for assessment purposes in the time ahead—and that school officials will, in turn, be asked to explain those policies.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.