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Pearson is Now Spying on Students During Standardized Testing

2962194797_06b1dc08ac[1]This being the 21st century, I’m sure that we’re all used to a certain lack of privacy online, but this next tale is simply appalling.

Students in New Jersey are in the middle PARCC testing right now. This is a new standardized test which is administered by Pearson. It’s not without its detractors; many parents are opting their kids out of the test, and after what Pearson just did I’m sure the number will grow.

A blogger by the name of Bob Braun got his hands on an email one NJ school district superintendent sent out to a mailing list. Said email discusses a dire "security breach" in which a student tweeted a mention of the recent PARCC test.

As you can see in the photo below, we found out about the security breach because Pearson is spying on students:


So one kid mentions a test question to another kid online, and Pearson calls down the wrath of the New Jersey state Dept of Education as well as the full weight of the school district administration upon that student.

Luckily for the kid, it was only a single tweet. Had several students gotten together to form a study group, they might have been prosecuted for felony interference with a business model and gotten the death penalty.

Do you suppose Pearson has hidden microphones set up around the schools so they can also listen in and see if students discuss the tests during lunch? I ask because that is basically the offline version of the student’s infraction.

Incendiary reaction aside, the WP reports that Pearson has confirmed the spying, and I can add that the superintendent confirmed that the email is real.

This is not the first time that states or other entities have monitored social media during standardized tests, but due to the bungling on the part of the NJDOE it is the most appalling.

This student was accused of tweeting an image during a test, when in fact they didn’t. Luckily the school district investigated before responding, otherwise this would have turned out so much worse.

Had the school district simply taken the "security breach" notice at face value, they would have suspended or expelled the student. Instead, the student was merely frightened to learn that his school went Big Brother bsed on nothing more than the complaint of a publisher.

So rather than come out of this with a tarnished record, the student learned a couple valuable life lessons: you can’t trust those in power, and there is no such thing as privacy any more.

Those are lessons we all need to learn at some point, and thanks to Pearson it has been driven home.

image by laverrue

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puzzled March 14, 2015 um 10:20 pm

According to the image, the tweet was made after the test.

So, there was no infraction, and there should be no NJDOE disciplinary action against the student.

While students seem to have less First Amendment rights, clearly they should be able to discuss a test AFTER the test has finished.

Nate Hoffelder March 15, 2015 um 7:24 am

Yes, but that doesn’t change that it was misreported as a security breach, and that Pearson was spying on students.

Andrew March 15, 2015 um 8:35 am

Is it normal for businesses to be hired to run tests? In Ontario the ministry of education does it.

A good lesson for students here is when you post publicly, anyone can read your posts. I do not like the monitoring, but the lesson is important.

Nate Hoffelder March 15, 2015 um 9:56 am

In the US many of the standardized tests are out sourced to ed tech companies like Pearson. Those companies also develop most of the tests which they administer.

This has lead many, including this blogger, to ask whether No Child Left Behind and other test-based initiatives are actually intended to help education or as a pork barrel project for edtech companies.

fjtorres March 15, 2015 um 12:29 pm

Nate, in statist regimes, *everything* devolves into vote-buying pork barrels.
It’s the inevitable result of putting everything in the hands of cheaply bought politicians.
It is usually easier to list which parts of the economy *haven’t* yet been corrupted; all you have to do is listen to the screams for somebody to"do something".

Ethan March 15, 2015 um 12:12 pm

Since when is monitoring a public site a breach of privacy? The parent is concerned about Pearson monitoring her kids tweets…does she not understand how social media works?

fjtorres March 15, 2015 um 12:30 pm

Would a parent be right to worry if somebody singles their kid out to follow them on a public street?

Ethan March 15, 2015 um 12:59 pm

I don’t see the correlation. He was not singled out then followed. They simply saw a post based on key terms or a hash tag.

Yes, Pearson blew it out of proportion. I was simply commenting on it should not be labeled as a breach of privacy when it was posted on a public site.

Nate Hoffelder March 15, 2015 um 7:00 pm

I didn’t call it a breach of privacy.

or did I? Let me go re-read the post.

Not Nate March 15, 2015 um 5:58 pm

So Pearson should not do any monitoring of public, searchable databases such as Twitter or Google to protect the integrity of test questions? More generally: how should Pearson have handled this differently?

The term "spying" suggests Pearson initiated its search by monitoring the behavior of individual students, yet this article does not present any evidence to disprove a theory that Pearson found these results just by searching Twitter. If searching is spying, we are all spying whenever we search Google News to keep up with our favorite author, celebrity, or startup. No doubt the author of this article has likely employed Google News alerts to keep up with a topic of interest.

Apparently it becomes spying retroactively when Pearson follows up to contact the school? Since when is spying defined retroactively?

Nate Hoffelder March 15, 2015 um 6:55 pm

"So Pearson should not do any monitoring of public, searchable databases such as Twitter or Google to protect the integrity of test questions? More generally: how should Pearson have handled this differently?"

Yes, exactly. The appropriate response to my objections to Pearson’s extreme conduct is for them to immediately switch to the other extreme end of the spectrum. They shouldn’t adopt a more moderate approach like securing the testing room, limiting their searches to when the tests were being conducted, etc.

"If searching is spying, we are all spying whenever we search Google News to keep up with our favorite author, celebrity, or startup."

That is a false equivalency. There’s a huge difference between searching and, for example stalking. One is innocuous behavior while the other is disturbing behavior. What Pearson did is closer to stalking than searching.

fjtorres March 15, 2015 um 7:59 pm

Which I doubt many parents would be comfortable with.

And yes, spying *is* the appropriate term for that kind of surveillance, whether of adults or children, whether in public or private venues.

Students have diminished rights on school property and school time but he was on neither. The kid was effectively getting called in for discipline on the (inaccurate) say so of a faceless accuser and, apparently, without benefit of a chance to defend himself.
If they hadn’t reversed themselves he might’ve been in line for a nice court judgment. 🙂

Chris @ One Weird Globe March 16, 2015 um 2:08 am

Searching the public internet for references to a test name is not spying. The Pearson team doing the searching got it wrong (big surprise), and thankfully things got rectified quickly. For those who want to see this in action, find the next big testing date and tweet out words or phrases that are related to the name of the test or a section of the test.

Name (required) March 16, 2015 um 3:26 am

Pearson would be spying if it tried to read contents of personal email, or listen to a private phonecall, or tried to use microphone to pick up private conversation at the toilet next to the exam room.
From what I gather, Pearson was monitoring PUBLIC tweet. When you tweet something, you do it with intention of thousands of followers reading the tweet and marveling at your wittiness or whatever.
Yes, they reaction was out of proportion and they should examine each found tweet or whatever before going ballistic, but it was not spying.

fjtorres March 16, 2015 um 7:13 am

Definition of spying:

a person who keeps close and secret watch on the actions and words of another or others.

Location of the spying doesn’t factor into it. The targeting for observation makes it spying.
Whether it was legal or illegal spying would be for the courts to decide but indiscriminate and unauthorized tracking by non-government organizations tends to be considered illegal in the US. And government agency tracking is supposed to be backed by court warrants, first.

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