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Surveillance of Twitter Feeds Turn Attention to Online Test Security

Pearson reports that student tweets raise concerns about possible PARCC cheating

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Security on standardized tests has always been a thorny issue, from the years of shrink-wrapped test booklets to more recent shoe-leather investigations of educators conspiring to doctor answers.

Now, with the advent of new online testing in New Jersey and elsewhere and the ubiquity of the Internet in general, the ways to check for possible cheating are expanding – and so is debate over those methods.

The latest controversy: News that Pearson, the London-based testing vendor hired this year by PARCC, has been monitoring Twitter traffic – and found evidence that some students may have tweeted messages divulging PARCC questions, or at least parts of them.

Officials in at least two New Jersey school districts – and probably more – said they had been informed by the state about suspicious student messages found on the social media platform. Details of the messages were not disclosed.

Pearson informed the state Department of Education, which then informed the districts through a scripted process of “security alerts” and “corrective actions.”

With the PARCC testing already a lightning rod for criticism in New Jersey, news of the Twitter surveillance -- first disclosed by numerous bloggers -- touched off a social media storm of its own over the weekend.

'Spying' by 'Big Brother' alleged

Some accused Pearson and an accommodating Christie administration of “spying,” while others likened it to Big Brother. The incident even garnered its own Twitter hashtags -- #pearsoniswatching and #peepingpearson.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan tweeted: “How many think this is just WRONG?”

Such monitoring of the Internet is not new when it comes to modern-day standardized testing security. Recent cases in New York City and California saw students caught and punished for messaging or publicly posting cell phone pictures of test questions.

The College Board, which administers the college entrance SAT and Advanced Placement tests, explicitly warns against that practice and prohibits students from bringing cell phones into the testing. The worry over divulged questions is one of the reasons its tests are all given at the same time, the College Board said.

That’s not the case with the PARCC exams, which are administered over a month-long period, on different dates in different districts.

The PARCC testing has its own set of security rules, including a required pledge by test administrators and proctors not to discuss the test content with anyone, including on social media. It is not that explicit with students, but does prohibit cell phones or any Internet-accessible devices in testing sites.

Still, reports about Twitter feed monitoring especially touched a nerve at a time when student data privacy has become such a sensitive point.

A bill is already pending in the Legislature to toughen privacy protections pertaining to the testing. Another bill would set a statewide policy for the growing number of families who are refusing to have their children take the PARCC tests.

Just last Thursday, state Education Commissioner David Hespe came before a Senate committee to defend the tests, although the issue of test security never came up.

That prompted one critic to question whether the department was telling all it knows.

“Student data privacy was raised at Thursday's hearing and, like nearly every other concern that was raised that day, was dismissed by the Commissioner as misinformation,” said Susan Cauldwell, a leader of Save Our Schools NJ, a group critical of the new testing.

“In the eyes of many NJ parents, the credibility of the DOE is suspect,” she said.

Monitoring defended

Both Pearson and PARCC over the weekend defended the use of the monitoring.

“We welcome debate and a variety of opinions,” wrote Stacy Skelly, a Pearson spokeswoman. “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.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Education wrote a lengthy response defending the practice as well.

“Each year, we see test breaches where students use cellphone cameras to post test questions publicly online, or they post a description of the content of a test question publicly online, so anyone with an Internet connection can see,” Yaple wrote.

“Test breaches have occurred every year, even with the old paper tests. Likewise, test security measures are not new, nor are they unique to this test.”

Yaple yesterday could not provide the number of such cases this year or in prior years.

He promised his department would review any allegations of student privacy being violated.

“The Department always wants to be vigilant to ensure vendors are acting appropriately,” he wrote. “The concern with test breaches is when questions are posted publicly, for any person with an Internet connection to see, and it is our intent to ensure that no one intrudes upon any student’s personal space.

“If any parent or educator believes the company has over-stepped its bounds, let the Department know and it will look into the matter.“

The districts involved weren’t much talking publicly themselves, at least not intentionally. The stir began when an internal email from Elizabeth Jewett, superintendent of Watchung Hills Regional High School District in Somerset County, was leaked to Bob Braun, a prominent education blogger and former Star-Ledger columnist.

In the email, which she sent to several colleagues in other districts, Jewett said her district was called at 10 p.m. on March 10 by a state official who reported the potential security breach discovered on Twitter.

Initially, according to Jewett’s email, the state said a student had tweeted a picture of the test while he was taking it, but then followed up and confirmed that there was no picture and the information was apparently tweeted after the student had left school.

She said in the email that the state official had told the district that the student should be disciplined, but Jewett did not disclose what, if any, discipline was taken.

She acknowledged in the email that she was taken aback by the news that Pearson was monitoring Twitter traffic.

“I have to say, I find that a bit disturbing,” Jewett wrote. “If our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all the student data, I am sure I will receive more letters of refusal once this gets out (not to mention that the DOE also wanted us to issue discipline to the student).”

Jewett would not comment further this weekend, but she posted a letter to the Watchung Hills community on the district’s website acknowledging the email – while stressing she had nothing to do with its release -- and standing by her comments. She subsequently confirmed that two additional students had been cited in a separate incident the next day.

“I completely stand behind my comments as they represent not only my views and concerns; they also represent the views and concerns of our Board of Education,” she wrote in the community letter.

“Our main concern is, and will always remain, supporting the educational, social and emotional needs of our students,” she concluded. “The privacy and security of student information remains the utmost priority for our district.”

Yaple, the department spokesman, did not directly address whether the department had told the district to discipline the student, but said that would not be appropriate.

“The local school district has authority over discipline,” he said. “The DOE does not discipline students.”

Not all superintendents were surprised by the monitoring, saying that it is a byproduct of a world where even innocuous tweets or other messages are public.

“I can understand people not being happy that a testing company is monitoring their children on social media,” said Erik Gundersen, superintendent of Pascack Valley Regional High School District. “However, I'm not sure why people are surprised that Pearson may be monitoring social media for test security breach information.

“My understanding is that most large companies constantly track what people are saying about their products and what is trending on social media. We strive to make sure our students know that when the post something online, it is public for all the world to see.”

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