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By Anthony Cody.

Pearson employees may be off for the weekend but when they get to work tomorrow they will find they have a big mess to deal with. The news broke on Friday that Pearson has been monitoring student social media, and has worked with District officials in several instances to ferret out and reprimand students who they Pearson feels have carried out an “item breach.” Pearson stated that the student had posted a photograph of a test item, but that part was untrue, according to the school official who raised concerns about this with her staff.

According to Bob Braun, his blog suffered a “denial of service” attack after the post was published, making it difficult to access. If that is true, someone with some powerful technical skills is working to defend Pearson’s reputation. But the site is back online now.

Here is Pearson’s official explanation of how it monitors social media.

Pearson was also featured as a “case study” by one of the services they use, a company called TRACX. These folks were working over the weekend, because the page that showed the case has since been taken down. But not before I took a couple of screenshots, which show them monitoring activists like Wesley Fryer and Katie Lapham.

tracx1

 

Tracx2

Another shoe dropped on the subject when Mercedes Schneider shared news that the SBAC test, in use in even more states than the Pearson tests, also has a social media monitoring system. Mercedes Schneider shares the full document  here. Here is the SBAC’s suggestion to school district officials:

Sites to Monitor

Twitter (https://twitter.com/.)  If your school has a Twitter account, you can take advantage of following your students by requesting their @username and/or encouraging them to the follow the school Twitter account.

  • To search for conversations and posts about the Field Test, consider the following search queries: #sbac or #smarterbalanced; #[insert name of school] or @[insert school Twitter handle] and “smarter balanced” or “sbac”

Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/)  If your school has a Facebook page, invite your students to join. If your students have public profiles, you can also search their news feed and photo gallery for security breaches.

  • Similar to Twitter, you can conduct searches by entering “smarter balanced” or “sbac” or “[insert name of school]”

Statigram (statigram.com.) Statigram is a webviewer for Instagram and allows you to search and manage comments more easily. You will need to create an account for yourself to search comments on Statigram. If you have a private account, you can use this information to login and review information.

  • To search for posts about the Field Test, use the same search queries recommended for Twitter.

Cynthia Liu at K12Network News had an interesting perspective, suggesting that we focus not on the “spying” aspect, but instead:

Pearson is not “spying” on student tweets, it’s enlisting public school officials — the New Jersey Department of Education — to defend its intellectual property. The latter is worse and a bigger problem.

She explains:

Push back on Pearson should be because this for-proft company is attempting to make principals and superintendents infringe on free speech rights of students in order to protect Pearson’s property interests, which is a corporate abuse of public school officials. And the NJ DOE is avidly assisting in this effort to pressure local school officials.

I think the issues are closely related.

By creating a state-sponsored “accountability” system that attaches heavy consequences to student performance on tests, the state and its corporate test-making partners have created a compelling need for extensive surveillance of everyone that accountability system touches. Teacher and administrator evaluations and thus jobs depend on these scores. Schools may be closed. Funding to schools is increased or reduced. And the tests are supposed to determine which students are ready for college.

All these consequences create reasons for people to game the system – and this has been the hallmark of NCLB from its inception. The “Texas Miracle” that inspired NCLB was based on the creative practice of holding back the 9th graders whose scores would make the schools look bad. Result? A miraculous rise in scores, a Texas governor who bragged he was an “education governor” on his way to the White House, and brought us a whole system of accountability based on test scores. And NCLB has made test-based accountability a part of the basic contract between the Federal government and the schools that receive federal funding.

Any system that imparts heavy consequences for success or failure must have intense security. How do you impose test security on a system that must test as many as fifty million school children every year, when many millions of these students have smart phones and Facebook accounts? You MUST have a surveillance apparatus. You must also have local District personnel act as your deputies in monitoring these activities, and in meting out consequences for those who violate your rules. It is all an inescapable outgrowth of creating a system that rewards and punishes people based on student test scores.

The Pearson guidelines make for a very fuzzy definition of the term “test security.” Bob Braun explains:

Here is what the State of New Jersey and Pearson agreed encompassed the idea of security and its possible breach–it’s codified in the testing manual developed by the state and sent out to all the districts:

“Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication.”

Another opportunity for repetition for emphasis here–discussing? Any other form of communication?

So, if children come home from school and their parents ask–”How was your day, sweetheart?” and the children talk about a really dumb question on the PARCC, they will be violating  the rules and be subject to whatever punishment is meted out for cheating–as a blogger did who learned from a child who hadn’t taken the test that there was a passage on it about The Wizard of Oz.

This controversy comes in the midst of growing anxiety about the national “opt out” movement. Remember, it does not take a huge number of students opting out to render test results invalid. So if just five or ten percent of the students in a given school choose to opt out, then the system has been defeated.

Last week a school in Rhode Island suspended a teacher who simply discussed the PARCC test with his students.

As Cynthia Liu points out, this is all about Pearson (and SBAC) protecting the sanctity of their tests. These tests are highly vulnerable to social media. This morning, Diane Ravitch called on teachers and students to engage in civil disobedience.

The problem the test makers have encountered is a basic one, not easily fixed. Their systems depend on public credibility not only in the accuracy and reliability of their tests, but on their justice. If teachers and students felt these tests were an accurate reflection of learning, and were a useful means of measuring how well schools are doing their job, we would not have this crisis. But when these tests are the outgrowth of a discredited accountability system, and connected to Common Core standards that were largely imposed with little input from educators, parents or students, their credibility is weak. The system relies on teachers to administer the test, and to reinforce its legitimacy with students and parents. When teachers and parents have lost faith in the fairness of the tests, and actually see the tests as unfair and illegitimate, the system is in danger of collapsing.

Critics of those opting out have compared parents who opt their children out to parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated. However, while there is strong scientific evidence that vaccines save lives, there is zero evidence that the Common Core standards and these tests will improve the lives of our students. In fact, judging from states like New York that are on the leading edge, these tests are likely to have a very negative effect. Thus, those who opt out are the ones acting in the best interest of children.

What do you think? Is this sort of surveillance an inevitable outgrowth of high stakes testing? How should parents, teachers and students respond?

Featured image by Andrea Yori, used with Creative Commons license. 

Author

Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

Comments

  1. barrylane55    

    I think this is a ruby slipper moment. That’s what I think. We have had the power to end this all along. This could come down to a court case where a student sues Pearson for violating freedom of speech laws to protect its private property in a public school.

  2. Michael Paul Goldenberg    

    But it’s possible to have national testing, for example, that doesn’t require any of this security. Holland’s national math exams for university admission are drawn from a *PUBLICLY AVAILABLE* pool of items. Of course, there aren’t much (as in any) in the way of Pearson/McGraw-Hill/ETS/ACT multiple-choice items. And anyone who could memorize solid answers to a big enough group of those test questions probably is pretty solid in math (or close enough for jazz).

  3. Lloyd Lofthouse    

    You ask, How should parents, teachers and students respond? Diane Ravitch already answered that question—-CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, everyone, and that includes the administrators who are being told what to do by Pearson and SBAC. If you feel fear for your job, grow a backbone and fight back.

    Don’t let Crony Capitalism, corporate reformers, and Big Brother win.

  4. Ron Amundson    

    The whole idea is using surveillance on kids is really seedy. Are all employees of Pearson as well as the surveillance firms Tracx et al background checked? Even more so, the disclosure of the how and whys creates a wide open pre-filtered social media stream for those with nefarious intent. These activities would seem to run afoul of state and potentially federal child protection laws, and if they don’t then laws probably need to be tweaked to put an end to it before some kid gets hurt.

    Pearson had to have thought of this before things blew up… I wonder what their fall back plan is.

    1. Lloyd Lofthouse    

      The fall back plan is usually to not give interviews, deny that you deny anything, and then tighten security and keep doing what you were already doing but with more layers of secrecy. For sure, they require every employee who works in that area to sign a contract that would send them to prison and fine them more than they are worth to punish them if they even talked in their sleep about what Pearson does as it spies on the children of the world—after all Pearson is in 70 countries, I understand. I’m thinking we need another Wikileaks.

      1. patriciahale    

        Turns out it’s blame it on parents.

        1. Lloyd Lofthouse    

          How can we blame parents for anything they do when raising children?

          In fact, any saint, fool or criminal can be a parent.

          There is no organized schooling to raise children to become better parents—and if there was, who would decide what that curriculum would be? And if we had such a curriculum [possibly written by someone Bill Gates or the Walton family pays and controls], would we also end up with a parent monitoring police force to make sure that every parent was raising their chlid/children as they were taught in proper parenting classes controlled by Gates/Walton?

          in the real world, if a child grows up with dysfunctional and abusive parents, what are the odds that child will grow up to be the same type of parent and how do we attempt to break that chain while making sure that someone like Gates or the Walton family isn’t in charge?

  5. Ellen    

    What have these students done that would be classified as illegal or unethical? Students haven’t signed confidentiality agreements nor was a verbal implied and if they did, agreements couldn’t be enforced because students are minors. And since parents haven’t signed confidentiality agreements either there should be no disciplinary action against students or parents for ‘perceived’ breaches of PARCC confidentiality. 1st Amendment rights apply to all–not just those with the most money or influence.

    I want to know why Pearson did not think it was ethically and morally wrong to monitor us? Us=Students and teachers; if students social media accounts are being monitored, then you can almost guarantee Pearson is monitoring the social media accounts of teachers. We need to ask: Who is monitoring Pearson? And it shouldn’t be the government–local, state, or federal.

    1. Lloyd Lofthouse    

      It’s possible that parents did sign a confidentiality agreement. When I was teaching, we were required to send home course description letters with each student and then collect them with parent signatures. When a child didn’t bring one back, then teachers were required to call parents and when we couldn’t reach parents by phone, we sent out registered letters asking them to sign it and send it back. Schools, at the urging of Pearson, might be adding a confidentiality clause to all course description letters or some other letter sent home that asks for parent and even child signatures.

      Since AT&T and the other Internet, phone and wireless providers include similar clauses that protect the corporation from being taken to court for cheating customers, many people these days might not think a confidentiality agreement was odd.

      It would be nice to know if Pearson is getting school districts to add confidentiality agreements that must be signed by students and/or parents in some way. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were doing that.

  6. andrewdavidmitchell    

    Lloyd, you’re right. You should see the contract I’m required to sign before proctoring a Pearson exam here in New York. I can lose my teaching certification, and consequently, my teaching position, just for mentioning a question I saw on the exam. It’s scary, but I am forced into compliance because I need to provide for my family financially.

    When Bob Braun appeared on Dr. James Miller’s radio show this afternoon, he drew a parallel between 1920s Italy and what we see happening today. Incredibly, I don’t think this comparison is much of a stretch.

    1. Amanda    

      Where’s a link to this radio show? Is there a transcript? I’m interested.

      1. June Gustafson    

        We have been told in Massachusetts NOT to sign the security form for PARCC,it is subject to collective bargaining.

  7. Michelle Strater Gunderson

    Michelle Strater Gunderson    

    The Chicago Teachers Union advises all educators to sign PARCC security agreement as “receipt only”. The only bargaining unit that legally forms contracts between me and any other agency is my union. This is a principled stance we all need to find ways to incorporate. I know that Massachusetts Teachers Association has also given a similar advisory.

  8. Yari (@MinervaPallas)    

    Please supoprt the Thunderclap… let’s make this trend so much they can’t ignore it anymore…. https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/23636-parcc-is-invading-our-privacy

  9. Lori Walton    

    Thank you Michelle for the CTU’s advisory. I will make sure to check with CTA if such an advisory is being considered in California. If not, I’m sure the CalBAT’s will take it on as an action.

    I’ve been professionally and emotionally wresting with the Pearson insanity since Friday. While our son has opted out of anything having to do with SBAC (we are a 4 year opt out family now), I am a classroom teacher for 100’s of other people’s kids. Mercedes Schneider’s blog just put me over the edge.

    See here: https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2015/03/14/smarter-balanced-offers-tips-for-monitoring-students-on-social-media/

    After 17 years in the classroom, this past year I’ve been asked to work with our principal and assistant principal to process disciplinary actions on campus. I am quite surprised by how much information is necessary to process an allegation of theft, drug possession or use, weapons charges, bullying and cyberbullying. Even if my intention is protect the innocent I am obligated to protect and uphold the rights of all. What strikes me most about what Mercedes posted is the nonchalant way SBAC is asking test proctors to be complicit in what I believe could best be characterized as an illegal search (one that occurs without meeting the established threshold of probable cause). I can’t believe that an administrator needs both probable cause and witnesses to search a student’s backpack for allegedly stolen items, but test proctors are being asked to troll student accounts for test item breaches without impugnity.

    On a school campus, the same protocol used for regular school operations would be for every teacher to ask every student on their roster, every period, to open their backpacks and empty their pockets – and students would have no option to refuse. This practice would no doubt cause a massive disruption, 1000’s of phone calls, and threats of litigation. Parents would never allow their student to be assumed guilty. People can try to justify what Pearson and SBAC are doing, but it seems clear to me that advocating for, and worse – demanding – trolling student accounts is the same as presuming guilt – a clear violation of the constitution of the United States and Supreme Court rulings limiting the powers of schools in assuring due process rights for students.

    I can assure you, as a classroom teacher I WILL NOT violate the rights of my students forthwith to protect the property of a corporation. I can assure you that if I directed to do so I will refuse. And I can assure you that if my refusal leads to disciplinary action, bring it. There is nothing more important than all our kids. Absolutely nothing.

  10. chemtchr    

    Well written and well done! We just caught this one in the air, right as it was coming over the net, and we slammed it over the weekend. Pearson is already toast. Let the mixed metaphors ring out: we will now go drop its smoldering broomstick in front of the wizard.

    Oh, and let’s see how fast we can slip this link into an email to our colleagues, everybody.

  11. WWEGuru (@LazyProtester)    

    I think it’s important to note two things: 1. Mr Braun’s website didn’t get DDoS’d. As much as conspiracy theories are fun, he runs a low level blog that suddenly got pounded with traffic and he exceeded his bandwidth limit, nothing more. 2. While I think its COMICAL and a little frightening that Pearson is taking the time and manpower to monitor for this sort of thing (and more to the point, to follow up with schools about it), I think it’s worth mention that they are not openly monitoring everyone’s social media – they are only looking for things with the tag “PARCC” on it…so if you wanna bitch and moan about the tests without Pearson getting involved, just don’t tag it.

    Not saying it makes it right, but let’s not equate this to a nazi state just yet please.

    1. MomOfMany    

      Well, you know what they say, friend Guru: just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

  12. Ben Foley    

    Tracx offers a unified, enterprise-scale, social media management platform. We help brands and organizations from around the world listen and learn about issues related to their products and services so that they can provide a better customer experience and reach new audiences. To learn more about Tracx visit http://www.tracx.com #customerexperience #betterservice #bettersupport #betterproducts​ #engagingnewaudiences

    1. Lloyd Lofthouse    

      To understand what this Tracx explanation really means, I think we should read between the lines.

      For instance, what do you think the CCP would write to explain why they employee thousands of Chinese to monitor, censor and “manage” the internet and media in China?

      I’ll tell you what the CCP would say, because it’s printed in the Chinese Constitution—I don’t think it would take much to revise these two articles and add Pearson in place of People’s Republic of China:

      Article 53. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China must abide by the constitution and the law, keep state secrets, protect public property and observe labour discipline and public order and respect social ethics.

      Article 54. It is the duty of citizens of the People’s Republic of China to safeguard the security, honour and interests of the motherland; they must not commit acts detrimental to the security, honour and interests of the motherland.

      http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html

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