Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road

I have never been happier that we refused to allow my fourth grader to take the PARCC. Yesterday, I asked her what she’s heard at school about the PARCC tests her peers have been taking. Although she has never sat for a PARCC test herself, she was able to tell me that some of the 4th grade PARCC reading passages were from the Wizard of Oz (apparently one passage was about the Emerald City, and another told the story of the Tin Man). So in theory, if your child has not yet sat for the 4th grade PARCC, you could embark on a Frank Baum marathon this weekend to give your child a leg up on his or her upcoming PARCC test.

This is one of the many logistics issues that has never made sense to me about the PARCC test security protocol: especially in the age of social media, how could the state departments of education and Pearson possibly have expected their testing materials to remain secret when one 4th grader might take the test as early as March 2nd, but that child’s cousin in another district might not be scheduled to take the same test until March 20th?

Well, now we know. As you have probably heard, yesterday afternoon blogger (and former Star Ledger education reporter) Bob Braun reported that Pearson is monitoring children’s social media accounts to look for Tweets and other social media posts that allegedly compromise the security of its PARCC tests. Here in New Jersey, at least, when Pearson finds what it believes to be test-security infractions, it then tracks down those students’ personal data to figure out what schools they attend. Then Pearson reports the alleged infractions to the New Jersey Department of Education (“NJDOE”). As of yet, we parents have no idea if the NJDOE stores the report of this alleged infraction in its NJSMART database. What we do know is that the NJDOE has been notifying individual districts’ test coordinators of their students’ alleged infractions. Furthermore, we know that NJDOE has requested that the individual districts punish students for writing about test questions on social media.

Today, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post (yes, the same Valerie Strauss who graciously publishes many of the pieces I’ve written for this blog) confirmed the story, and obtained additional information from both the Watchung Hills Regional High School superintendent who expressed her concerns about the practice in the email published on Braun’s blog and from a Pearson spokesperson.

So what does it all mean? Pearson thinks its monitoring (like Peter Greene, I think that Braun’s term, “spying,” misses the mark, as there is no expectation of privacy when you post a Tweet, at least) is hunky-dory:

The security of a test 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. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.

We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

I think that Pearson, however, has missed the mark. First of all, what, exactly, is an “element” of a test question? Are the Pearson Police going to be at my doorstep tomorrow because I mentioned that I heard from my kid (who herself has not and will not sit for the test) that the 4th grade PARCC includes excerpts from Frank Baum’s work? And if I can’t — as I can’t — be held accountable for posting the tip above, why is it okay for Pearson, through its patsy, the NJDOE, to seek to impose disciplinary action against students who allegedly shared “test elements” (although not, according to the student’s superintendent, a tweet containing a photograph of the test itself)?

Second, what does it mean for a test to be “secure”? Does Pearson really think that kids are not talking about these tests among themselves? Does Pearson really think it can bind our kids to secrecy? The last time I checked, our kids were minors — and therefore they, unlike their teachers, cannot be bound to a non-disclosure agreement even if it could be argued that our kids receive consideration in connection with these tests (and, my lawyer friends, even if there was consideration and such a contract could bind a minor, it sounds awfully like a contract of adhesion, anyway…). Along those lines: are our kids being instructed to keep the test materials secret? As a practical matter, it strikes me as pathologically naive to think that such instructions to kids could actually work.

But more importantly, as a parent, I vehemently object to adults in our schools instructing children to keep secrets from their parents. In this day and age, we parents work hard to make sure that our kids know that they can talk to us about anything — and that openness is how we parents try to thwart possible predators and bullies, because we know that predators and bullies use children’s shame and fear to hide their abuse of children. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with their parent about anything — good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.

So if you think I’m mad about these tests now, Education Commissioner Hespe and Pearson’s Brandon Pinette, I better not hear that our schools are sending our children mixed messages by telling kids to be open with parents  and trusted adults — except when it comes to testing.

Third, what sort of people has Pearson hired to track children’s social media presences, and what steps has Pearson taken to ensure that its employees are properly vetted before it directs them to obtain personally identifiable information about our kids? Have Pearson’s employees been required to submit to background checks? It seems an odd person who would choose to make his or her living by delving into individual children’s social media use to the extent that the person can figure out the school the child attends. How are those people vetted? What steps has Pearson taken to safeguard our children? And should a private company, which is not subject to public oversight through OPRA, really be tasked with obtaining this sort of information regarding our children?

Finally, what does it mean that the NJDOE (and also, apparently, other state education departments, such as the Maryland equivalent) has so cavalierly agreed to a scheme that encourages a for-profit corporation to hire adults to monitor children’s social media for supposed test security breaches? The twitter hashtags that have sprung up in response to this scandal seem largely on point:

#Pearsoniswatching
#PeepingPearson
#PearsonisBigBrother
#Pearson1984

Yes, it doesn’t shock me that Pearson, a for-profit corporation, is scanning our children’s social media, but it’s  disturbing that Pearson is reporting the results of its social media monitoring of children to government agencies (presumably in return for the $108 million that NJDOE is paying Pearson to administer these tests). In particular, Pearson is reporting kids’ alleged test-security infractions to a government agency — the NJDOE — that maintains a database with a personal identification number for each and every public school student in New Jersey. Assuming for the sake of argument that our children are somehow precluded from freely sharing — either in conversation or via social media — the reading passages and questions asked of them on the PARCC, are we parents really okay with the NJDOE possibly noting our children’s poor judgment on their records of our children’s academic careers? I have no idea if NJDOE is tracking this information or not, of course — but then again, until yesterday I didn’t know that NJDOE was regularly receiving reports from Pearson about New Jersey children’s social media use either.

It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984, but it really does feel like Pearson and the NJDOE expect parents to be okay with such corporate and government intrusion into their children’s lives. Maybe my opposition to this level of Orwellian intrusion is naive, but I, for one, find this level of intrusion into our children’s lives downright creepy. And I think that the New Jersey Department of Education officials who condoned this without full advance disclosure to the public should be summarily fired. David Hespe, that means you.

Parents, if, until now, you’ve let your kids take these tests, remember: you can still choose to refuse.

16 thoughts on “Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road

  1. Re-blogging on SOTHVNY. Thank you Sarah for your spot on analysis and thoughts!

    Where do they draw the line? In addition to student accounts will parent accounts be monitored to make sure that children are not talking to their own parents about test questions?

    Slippery slope is disturbing.

    I second your motion. Parents and students have every reason on earth to refuse these tests. How can we justify taking them and how can a school justify administering them?

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  2. Pingback: The latest PEARSON scandal. Still considering letting your children test? | stopcommoncorenys

  3. And Pearson is not only reporting to our DOE, it is expecting our DOE to carry out discipline on our kids based on its reports. (In this case, it was quickly determined there had been absolutely no wrong doing.) I agree, more reason not to take the PARCC. The data collection and privacy issues for our kids alone are enough for parents to reject the tests on their behalf.

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  4. You bring an interesting point up, with regards to reading 1984.

    As a thought experiment, I wonder how kids today would respond after reading Orwell’s book? Sadly, I think they wouldn’t be surprised or shocked at all. They would probably comment: “Do you mean to tell me, various organizations weren’t always monitoring you before?”

    We watched “The Sound of Music” as a family not too long ago, and it was interesting for my children to watch the scene when Captain von Trapp was being summoned back to the military, as he proclaims “I was under the impression, Herr Zeller, that the contents of telegrams in Austria are private — at least the Austria I know.”

    Too bad more people and children today don’t have the same aversion to being monitored by the government, alphabet soup agencies (NSA, CIA, FBI, and now the DOE), and for profit companies paid with tax dollars.

    What are we doing to ourselves anymore?

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  5. Having administered a similar test in VA, I can say the only instruction given about not talking about the test explicitly says not to talk about it with other students and teachers. It is not printed or said that they cannot discuss with their parents. With that being said, I agree children can not truly be expected to not talk about something that carries so much pressure. I also think it is unacceptable for Pearson to have so much freedom to impose on our school systems and children.

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  6. So I’ve been very against “opting out” of the PARCC test because I feared that it made my kid a political pawn and gave a mixed message about respecting her school and teachers. And really, I thought it was going to be ineffective. But here’s a super easy way to make the test go away…let’s all just post questions from the test. Makes it clear that they simply can’t spread testing out so long and expect secrecy and fairness.

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