PARCC’s Fatal Design Flaw

Adam Clark of The Star Ledger wrote an article today setting out some of the details of Pearson’s relationship with its subcontractor, Caveon Test Security, a company based in Utah, which is the entity that is actually monitoring students’ social media to look for so-called test-security violations. He writes:

Searching publicly available websites and social media channels, Caveon “continually patrols the internet looking for inappropriate sharing or discussion” of its clients’ intellectual property, Addicott said. New Jersey will pay $96,574 for the service, according to its PARCC contract.

“We work very closely with our client to gain a sense of the test’s nomenclature so we might get snippets of items, descriptions of the test,” Addicott said. “We work with them to kind of get as much understanding as we can of how people might talk about the tests, and then we use a bunch of different search technology to cast a really broad and deep net, and then our team, our analysts, spend lots of hours culling through the noise to hone in on what really appears to be a threat.”

If a student shares a photo of a test question or recalls a question from memory, it’s a breach of test security, Addicott said. But it’s not always clear whether online discussion about a test is a breach, so Caveon alerts clients to both obvious and possible threats, he said.

Clark’s article raises as many questions as it answers. For instance: who are Caveon’s analysts who “spend lots of hours culling through the noise to hone in on what really appears to be a threat”? How does Caveon ensure that these people — who it, along with the New Jersey Department of Education — is entrusting with the responsibility of sifting through children’s social media presences, are not creepers?

But more critically, Clark’s article points toward what’s really wrong with NJDOE’s decision to, through Pearson, hire Caveon to monitor student social media. Wayne Camera, a senior vice president of research for the ACT college admissions test is quoted as saying:

“It’s not uncommon for folks to do this kind of thing,” Camara said. “But I would say for a state test, and a PARCC test, it is actually more critical that they do it because they are leaving the tests out there for so long.”

And that’s the key point. The real issue is that PARCC/Pearson — and the state education agencies they’ve contracted with — are attempting to remedy the major design flaw in the operational structure of their PARCC tests by chilling our children’s speech. Because districts need to ensure that all students who need to take the tests can get access to the computers they need to do so, the districts were told that they could design their own schedules to administer PARCC within a broad testing window (21 days — i.e., from March 2nd to March 23rd in most districts, but even longer — from late February into April — in others).

As anyone who has ever met a child knows, kids talk. Aside from the concerns raised by our schools and the NJDOE sending a message to children that they should keep materials presented to them in school secret, it was unrealistic and downright idiotic to expect that children wouldn’t talk about these tests for weeks on end. Yet that is precisely what it appears that the PARCC consortium, Pearson, and the NJDOE believed they could do: they could hire Caveon to monitor social media and then to scare children into compliance so that instead of acknowledging the insanity of their own design flaw that assumed that test security could be maintained over a three week period of scattered test taking, they could instead blame, shame, and punish children — some as young as eight years old — for leaking test questions.

The only fault for leaking test questions rests solidly in PARCC, Pearson and the state education departments’ laps: they are the professional assessment designers who were so clueless about children that thought they could keep such basic information as the English Language Arts reading passages secret — despite millions of kids reading them — for weeks on end. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but many of us saw the leaky test issue coming (although not the Orwellian decision to stalk children’s social media rather than acknowledge the tests’ fatal design flaw). PARCC, Pearson, and the entire NJDOE assessment department — as well as David Hespe — should be summarily fired for requiring a statewide standardized test that included such an obvious operational design flaw.

Instead, however, it looks as if PARCC, Pearson, Caveon, and their patsy, the NJDOE, will continue to peep at and creep through our children’s social media. And, apparently, no one involved will stop to spare a thought about what effect a state-sponsored program of social media surveillance will have on students’ free speech rights. After all, Civics is not on the test.

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