As you may have noticed, PARCC testing is happening this spring in several states that are part of the consortium that uses the Common Core tests created by the British publishing giant, Pearson. Students take the PARCC test by computer, and the test is being administered over several weeks across the participating states. You can only imagine some issues around protecting the security of the test, but still, late last week when Elizabeth Jewett, superintendent of Warren, New Jersey’s Watchung Hills Regional High School District was contacted late at night by the New Jersey Department of Education to tell her that Pearson’s social media monitoring indicated a student had tried to share information about a test question via TWITTER, she had some serious questions. The NY Times’ Natasha Singer quotes an e-mail Ms. Jewett sent to her colleagues. She expressed greater concern about how Pearson had gleaned this information than about what the student had shared: “The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent—who was obviously highly concerned as to her child’s tweets being monitored… The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during PARCC testing. I have to say I find that a bit disturbing.”
In an investigation for the Newark Star-Ledger, Adam Clark reports that Pearson does not itself monitor the month-long online administration of the PARCC test, but that Pearson contracts out security for the test to Caveon Test Security located in Utah. “Caveon has led cheating investigations in Atlanta and the District of Columbia and provided test security for graduate school admissions exams and licensure and certification assessments… The company offers clients five major services: consulting, data forensics, security investigations, test development and web patrol… Until recently, most of Caveon’s web patrol clients were companies trying to protect licensure and certification test questions from organizations that ‘brazenly steal to package and resell’…. Searching publicly available websites and social media channels, Caveon continually patrols the internet looking for inappropriate sharing or discussion’ of its clients’ intellectual property… New Jersey will pay $96,574 for the service, according to its PARCC contract.”
In her NY Times report, Natasha Singer wonders whether Caveon and Pearson gathered personal information about students during the online test itself and used that information later to monitor social media sites. She reports that a conversation with officials in Massachusetts, also part of the PARCC consortium, indicates that information gathered during the testing session has been used to help track social media postings of individual students. Singer explains that, “Pearson would take the knowledge they 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.”
The spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education declared, however, that as of March 17, “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.” Singer concludes, “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.”
An investigation by CNBC of profits reaped from Common Core testing contracts helps explain the stakes for the corporations serving as the testing contractors for particular states. Just a few of Pearson’s contracts—the $108 million contract for New Jersey testing—a $60 million contract for Maryland—a $26 million contract with the PARCC consortium itself—demonstrate that the stakes are not merely about ensuring that children don’t discuss a particular test question online. The corporations that sell the testing services to the states these days have a lot to lose if somehow the contracts are cancelled when things don’t go smoothly.
Daniel Katz, an education professor at Seton Hall University writes that he is unsurprised that a company like Pearson is monitoring social media about the use of its products. Such monitoring is a regular practice among companies tracking use of their products according to Katz. But Katz believes serious questions arise when the arrangement is between the public—the states—and a private contractor. “What exactly causes Pearson to raise a ‘priority one alert’ and contact a state department of education with sufficient information to locate a district and specific child in question? What information about a minor’s social media use does Pearson consider its business to pass along to the top education officers in a state? To what depth does Pearson consider itself able to impose a gag order on other people’s children and use state capitols to enforce it?”
Katz also wonders further about Pearson’s continued ownership of the test it contracted to sell to the state: “Once they are done writing the exams, why isn’t Pearson required to turn the entire kit and kaboodle over to the state and thus to the voters and tax payers who provide the vast majority of decision making and funding to public education? I am unaware of a construction company that, after delivering a highway project, reserves lanes for its own use…. But when it comes to items that are not physical in nature, we accept an arrangement where the public foots enormous costs only to lease the product in question… Pearson is providing a mandated service for our compulsory public education system, and the results of that service will have actual consequences not just for the individual teachers and students involved, but also for the entire system. Confidence in what they are providing and informed decision making about whether or not what they are providing is desirable requires open and informed discussion and debate—such discussion and debate is impossible while Pearson’s intellectual property is valued more highly than the public purposes it allegedly serves.”