State Officials, Testing Firm Asked to Explain ‘Disturbing’ Monitoring of Tweets

John Mooney | March 17, 2015 | Education
Assembly education committee chairman looks askance at surveillance of Twitter accounts for possible PARRC security breaches

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex)
Calling the practice “disturbing,” the chairman of the state Assembly’s education committee has asked representatives of Pearson and the state Department of Education to explain their monitoring of student social media account.

The testing company state officials have said that Twitter posts had been checked for potential security breaches related to the state’s PARCC testing.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said yesterday that he has heard conflicting accounts about the monitoring, which led the state to warn at least two districts of possible test-security issues. He asked Pearson and the Christie administration to send representatives to the committee’s meeting on Thursday to further explain the process.

“I am surprised that this information is being gathered,” Diegnan said in an interview. “I find it disturbing and want to get to the bottom of it.”

In each case, Pearson confirmed that as part of standard security, it looks for students who may be divulging questions on Twitter or other public social media platforms.

Pearson and representatives of the PARCC consortium, as well as a spokesman for the state Department of Education, all defended the practice as necessary to maintain the integrity of the tests, and they said the monitoring is only of public sites and publicly available information.

Diegnan said that if the practice is indeed commonplace, “then maybe we should reevaluate whether this is standard operation procedure.”

“And since it is happening, we should have been alerting the schools and the families that this is happening,” he said. “I mean, these are just kids.”

Efforts last night to confirm whether Pearson or state officials would be attending the meeting were unsuccessful.

The meeting should be lively, as the committee is also taking up a pending bill that would create a statewide procedure for families seeking to have their children refuse to take the PARCC tests.

The committee had delayed vote on the bill after questions were raised about whether schools would face funding penalties for test participation rates below the federal targets of 95 percent.

State officials last week testified before the state Senate education committee that there were potential penalties for low participation levels, producing a letter from the federal Department of Education that listed funding cuts as a potential consequence.

“As we haven’t seen that happen in other states or anywhere else, I think that is all hypothetical,” Diegnan said yesterday. “If it becomes a problem, then we’ll deal with it then.”