Social Media Snooping: The Brave New World of High-Stakes Testing?

Over the past several months, I've become more and more concerned about the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test (AKA the PARCC) that's being given to students in grades 3 through 11 here in New Jersey and in a handful of other states. So concerned, in fact, that after doing extensive research on it, I chose to refuse the PARCC test for my daughters.

And now, I'm feeling even more convinced that there are major issues with the PARCC. Just this week, news surfaced that test-maker Pearson has been vigilantly monitoring social media for mentions of its controversial new standardized test, then asking the Board of Education to step in and punish students who are tweeting about the PARCC in ways that they deem inappropriate. The superintendent of Watchung Hills Regional High School in New Jersey was the first to sound the alarm bell, after receiving a late-night call from the New Jersey Department of Education. Pearson claimed the student had posted a screenshot of a test question during the testing timeframe—but it turned out that the student hadn't posted an image, and had tweeted about the test after school hours.

This whole social media monitoring scheme seems to be pretty unfair, given the fact that some of the schools in New Jersey have not allowed parents and students to refuse the test or have used pressuring tactics like making them simply sit and stare during the duration of the test if they refuse to participate. So now, these kids not only may be forced to take this test against their will, but if they are caught "revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication," Pearson will find out through their apparently eagle-eyed social media watching program, track down the student and their school district, and demand punishment. And at least one child in New Jersey is currently on suspension as a result. (I'm thinking that hardly seems legal to silence the students given the freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment, and the fact that even though Pearson required all teachers and proctors to sign a nondisclosure agreement, the actual test takers are minors and can't legally sign a contract.)

But Pearson is doing more than snooping on what your kid is tweeting. It's getting quite a bit of data about your child through the PARCC test. That includes more than the basics, like name, birthdate, sex, and ethnicity. Pearson also knows what disabilities your child has, whether he or she has been labeled gifted and talented, and if she's eligible for reduced/free lunch (so that gives them a clue about how your family finances look). And then, of course, Pearson is getting all sorts of data about how your child is doing on their test. (Though the actual value of that data is uncertain, given the concerns about the structure and style of the PARCC.)

The amount and types of data Pearson is collecting raises concerns about security breaches, as hackers could access this very personal information about children. And it also makes you wonder what Pearson has planned for this data. One potential clue is an Instagram image that's been posted around, of a potential student data file of the future—it's a screen capture from a video Pearson produced. For a kid that looks to be about a fifth grader, it suggests a single career path, five potential colleges, and a high school schedule. Should we really be trying to pigeon hole kids to a certain career before they hit junior high, based on a series of standardized tests? (I can assure you that my fifth grader's current career aspiration, ballet dancer, won't be among the choices offered by Pearson.)

If you're worried that your child's privacy may be compromised, there are steps you can take:

  • Contact your child's school and ask them what private companies or third-party providers have access to your child's data. There are two laws in place that are meant to protect your child's data at school: FERPA and COPPA. Neither is perfect, but they will at least allow you to find out who has your child's data, and start contacting these companies to request that they remove identifying information.
  • Refuse the PARCC tests. Even if your child took the first set of testing this March, there's more PARCC to be had later in May. You can refuse the test and prevent Pearson from getting more of your child's information.
  • Share your concerns with your school board, state legislators, and local media. The more voices that speak up with concerns about these possible violations of student privacy and freedom of speech, the more likely that the voices will be heard.

Lisa Milbrand writes Parents.com's In Name Only blog and is the mom of two girls.

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