Student Privacy Debate Dominates Assembly Panel’s Meeting on PARCC Tests

Lawmakers, education officials at loggerheads over monitoring of student postings on social media

Audience members listen to debate over student privacy and PARCC during yesterday's Assembly education committee meeting.
Student privacy issues have suddenly moved to the forefront of the debate over the state’s controversial new PARCC tests, as state legislators yesterday grappled with how to protect students and their personal information.

The Assembly education committee meeting wasn’t expected to be an extraordinary one. The committee’s agenda included two PARCC-related bills that were expected to pass easily — one setting a statewide policy for families refusing to have their children take the tests, and the second creating a task force to study the effectiveness of PARCC. Both passed unanimously and move next to the full Assembly, where passage is also likely before more-uncertain prospects in the Senate.

But the meeting took an unexpected turn when two typically low-profile officials in the state Department of Education testified, at the committee’s request, about the roiling controversy over the test security practices by Pearson, the testing giant administering the PARCC test in New Jersey and 10 other states.

For close to an hour, the department’s chief counsel and its investigations director defended the practices as legal and appropriate, and said security measures being taken are necessary to maintain the integrity of the exam.

At issue specifically is the practice by Pearson, through subcontractor Caveon Test Security, of scanning social media for possible messages by students divulging the contents of the exams.

“We want to ensure that no student is given an unfair competitive advantage by being tipped off to assessment content in advance of taking the assessments,” said Patricia Morgan, the department’s chief legal and external affairs officer.

News of the practice came out last week when the Watchung Hills Regional High School District superintendent told colleagues about receiving a late-night call from the department regarding one of her students, who had posted comments on Twitter about the PARCC test after taking it.

Widespread criticism, even beyond NJ

Revelations about the monitoring — which officials yesterday disclosed had prompted up to a dozen such alerts this year – were met with outrage not just from critics inside the state, but from the likes of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and even talk-show host Montel Williams.

Legal or not, legislators yesterday were incredulous about the practice, with state Assemblyman Patrick Deignan (D-Middlesex) calling it an unacceptable. He said he understood the reasoning, but said the remedy far exceeded the threat.

He cited an example of an elementary school student saying something about the test on social media being suddenly called into the principal’s office over a tweet that was tracked by a “third party we have no control over.”

“The response is disproportionate to the concern,” he said. “To have a fifth-grader called into the principal for a tweet, it’s chilling.”

Others were even more critical, questioning where the state has the powers to carry out such investigations of individual students. State Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) said local districts are responsible for monitoring their students, not the state.

“Where is your authority?” he asked Morgan several times.

The department was clearly left on the defensive, even as Morgan explained that none of the monitoring was of anything but postings on public platforms like Twitter and Facebook. She said the department itself would look into claims that privacy was violated.

“We are not only supporting districts, but also that their students’ privacy is being protected,” she said.

Others came to the department’s defense, too, with top officials of several of the state’s largest education groups in attendance and saying it’s a matter of better educating families about social media.

Still, some of them also acknowledged in interviews that the latest flap was yet another unwelcome imbroglio for the state to deal with as the PARCC test has faced more than its share of criticism both before and after its debut this year.

“My sense is this fuels the anxiety and this is leveraging support from a group of people who might not have been engaged previously,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“It’s not a point of view I would agree with, but it is being made here,” he said. “There is a huge amount of data out there, and the state is constantly fending off private vendors who are trying to collect information.”

The Assembly education committee has already passed a bill that would set some separate safeguards for student data, prohibiting the state from sharing any of the student information with other agencies or the federal government.

State Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth), the bill’s chief sponsor, said he didn’t see the need to amend it at this point to address the social-media monitoring, but the latest controversy certainly gave it extra momentum.

As for the social-media monitoring, Diegnan said he wants to file a bill that would prohibit it or at least limit it. Afterward, though, he said he wasn’t quite sure yet how to go about it.

“It’s tough to get your arms around it, but we have to do something,” he said. “The whole thing is disturbing. There is no simple solution, but it is something we really need to address.”

He said any legislation would at least require schools to notify families that the practice is happening. “Maybe just a notice sent home that would alert them that this trolling is taking place,” he said.