(Tribune News Service) -- A New Jersey high school student who posted a tweet about a question on a common-core test last month has unintentionally sparked a controversy that is reverberating through the first wave of state assessments this year.
The fallout from the tweet—discovered in a sweep of social media for cheating—has become a talking point for people concerned about student privacy, for those protesting the overuse of testing, and for others who want to protect the integrity of the new assessments, which are being administered in 28 states and the District of Columbia.
The chain of events unfolded after Bob Braun, a New Jersey news blogger, posted an email written privately by Elizabeth C. Jewett, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Watchung Hills district in Warren, N.J., to colleagues expressing her surprise about how an alleged breach of testing security had been discovered.
What she found surprising—and “a bit disturbing," she wrote—was that Pearson, the U.K.-based global education company that contracts with states to administer testing through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, was monitoring social media to ensure test security.
"If our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all of the student data, I am sure I will be receiving more letters of refusal [to take tests] once this gets out," Ms. Jewett wrote. She added that the state department of education had asked her to discipline the student. An allegation that the item had been photographed was incorrect, Ms. Jewett said.
"To me, it feels a little Big Brother-ish," said David R. Schuler, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Township High School District 214, in Cook County, Ill., who is the president-elect of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
"I understand [Pearson's need] to protect its brand and protect the assessment," he said. "At the same time, I'm concerned about vendors monitoring students' posts, behaviors, and actions and what they might potentially do with that information."
Caveon is the vendor Pearson contracted with to monitor social media and websites around the time tests are taken.
"We don't look at students," said Stephen D. Addicott, the vice president of the Midvale, Utah-based company. "We look for our clients' test content on public-facing websites and social-media channels" like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Caveon does not receive a list of test-takers, but rather trolls the Web for any posting that would appear to threaten the validity of test results by publishing a question.
PARCC is one of two state consortia that developed tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and math. As those tests make their formal debut, officials are grappling with resistance by some parents to their children's participation.
The public attention around the New Jersey incident sparked the American Federation of Teachers to float a petition asking Pearson to stop monitoring social media, and to make all contract language related to "test security" available to the public. As of March 25, that petition, which began with "Big Brother really is watching," had more than 24,000 signatures.
Pearson issued a statement challenging allegations that it is spying on students. "Absolutely not," it said.
To begin with, the company said it is "contractually required by states" to monitor public conversations on social media related to the tests. The company argues that whatever it sees during the monitoring is available to any person browsing the Web.
"Students' social-media pages are public and often include information that indicates their name and/or where they go to school," the company's statement said. "Only when it is confirmed that a test question has been exposed or compromised does Pearson work with states to address the breach."
The test questions themselves are owned by the PARCC states.
Representatives from Pearson, Caveon, and other test-making and test-security companies were part of a working group that contributed to the "Operational Best Practices for Statewide Large-Scale Assessment Programs, 2013" document issued by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Association of Test Publishers. The document recommends the use of social-media monitoring to protect the integrity of state assessments.
When assessments are administered over a wide geography and many weeks, instead of days, there needs to be a way to ensure "the integrity of the items, the administration of the test, and also the results," said William G. Harris, the CEO of the Washington-based test publishers' association, an international group representing the industry.
But the very wide common-core testing window of 12 or more weeks is "a game changer" for those who monitor test security, said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a member of the technical-advisory committee for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the other major common-core testing coalition, which also monitors social media to protect the integrity of its tests.
With the assessments being administered online, there's a "real concern" that someone taking the test early in the window will see questions, problems, graphs, and charts and share them with students across the country, he said.
Besides watching for breaches that would compromise test validity, Mr. Cizek said monitoring social media is necessary to see what students are saying about the tests themselves to understand if they think they're difficult or easy.
But disclosures about the monitoring could have the unintended effect of silencing students on the very subjects the consortia might be interested in learning about. Such monitoring is "a violation of students' trust and privacy," and is likely to chill free speech, said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Others add that the monitoring could cause trust problems between parents and school leaders.
"Personally, I feel it's overreaching and intrusive," said Kenneth J. Mitchell, an associate professor of educational leadership at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and a former superintendent. "Right now, the trust between parents, school leaders, and state bureaucracies allied with corporate reformers is at a low, and it's further eroding."
Even so, schools and assessment companies have a right to make sure that their tests are fair and that all students have the same opportunity to do well, said Elana J. Zeide, a privacy-research fellow at New York University's Information Law Institute. "But at the same time, I think [the monitoring] shocks people, and goes against their expectations."
The extent to which students are using social media to communicate about the common-core tests is still being assessed. In Colorado, for instance, nine social-media infractions were identified after 910,000 PARCC assessments were administered as of March 24, according to the state education department. Most of the infractions occurred on Twitter, although Facebook and Instagram also had postings.
Smarter Balanced reported "a handful" of infractions so far in its testing.
Pearson did not respond to requests for an interview about the monitoring, but said that 72 testing breaches had been identified in six states by monitoring social media.
Barry Topol, the managing director of the Assessment Solutions Group, a Danville, Calif.-based company that consults with states on testing, stressed the seriousness of security breaches.
"Posting test questions on the Internet is cheating, and really it impacts the validity of the tests," he said.
States may be paying thousands of dollars to develop each item, Mr. Topol added, so when several have to be eliminated, it's a costly proposition.
For district leaders trying to balance privacy, test fidelity, and state demands, it's a "new frontier," said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the Alexandria, Va.-based group for superintendents.
While test security is "very, very important," privacy of students is, too, he added.
"It's really becoming a complex phenomenon for school districts with technology," he said of the mix of online assessments and social media conversations about them.
"It's a blessing on one side, and a curse on another."
©2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC