Pearson Shown to Be Spying on Student on Social Media

 Update: a student "oath" from Louisiana from last year's testing:

End of update
Update: Via news updates, this is what the student did:

Apparently, the student had just commented on the question after taking the test, and deleted his tweet after being contacted by the district.

So commenting on a test score via social media will get your child on Pearson's naughty list.  What a bunch of bullies.  (You should read the whole article but here's a bit of it.)

In addition, Pearson/PARCC has access to if a student is using testing modifications, along with their names, unique identifier numbers, etc. Beyond sensitive student information, Pearson also collects everything a student types into the keyboard during the test including words or sentences that were typed and then deleted. Pearson knows whether or not the student views a test item, how long it takes him/her to answer a specific question, and it tracks the student's clicks as he/she navigates the test. This seemingly harmless data, when paired with sensitive information about an individual student, creates a very complex learning and behavioral profile of the child.  

end of update

Big Brotherism on the part of the Pearson educational company has led to charges that they are "spying" on the social media postings from students particularly in New Jersey.  Those students are taking the PARCC test that Pearson produces.

From the Washington Post:

Pearson, the world’s largest education company, is monitoring social media during the administration of the new PARCC Common Core test to detect any security breaches, and a spokeswoman said that it was “obligated” to alert authorities when any problems were discovered.

To note, California DOE has done this for several years.

From NJ blogger, Bob Braun:

The state education department is cooperating with this "spying"and has asked at least one school district to discipline students who may have said something inappropriate about the tests.

Superintendent Elizabeth C. Jewett of the Watchung Hills district in Warren, New Jersey sent a message to her staff saying that her "testing coordinator had received a call from the NJDOE that Pearson had initiated a 'Priority 1 Alert' for an item breach within our school."

At issue was a tweet from a student about a test item but it was ascertained that the student didn't photograph the item and only tweeted AFTER the testing was over. The student was told/asked/forced to delect the tweet and their parent notified. Apparently the parent was very worried that Pearson was monitoring student tweets from students in New Jersey schools.

The superintendent went on to say:

The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during PARCC testing.

I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing - and 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 once this gets out (not to mention the fact that the DOE wanted us to also issue discipline to the student).

Several questions:

- why would Pearson have names of students, not de-identified numbers? (see this - apparent they get the student ID and the name, not to mention a number of other data points)

- isn't commenting on a test - especially after you took the test - free speech?

- is it spying or is a company just protecting its product?

From Ed Week:

Given the confluence of worries in K-12 over testing, privacy, and the common-core, it seems likely that more parents will be asking questions about the monitoring of social media for assessment purposes in the time ahead—and that school officials will, in turn, be asked to explain those policies.

Want to talk to Pearson on Twitter?  @pearson

Facebook?  (unfortunately they don't take messages)

Their blog?


Anonymous said…
- isn't commenting on a test - especially after you took the test - free speech?

No. There are numerous industry examples in which it is mandatory to sign integrity forms prior to taking the test that state it will not even be spoken to others. CPA/actuarial exams, most computer industry certification exams (ex. Microsoft, Adobe). It completely compromises the integrity of the exam (and/or will drive up the cost of the exams more as they rewrite them more... and by that variability would decrease the reliability).

Do I feel they should be monitoring social media for specific test questions discussed amongst students - yes, but in an anonymous way. Take a screen shot of any inappropriate content (ex. describing a test question, especially if a photo of a test question), and go from there.

Should they be monitoring individual accounts based on who signed up - no. But general searches to watch for abuses of the testing standards seem reasonable to me.

Responsible Speech
Anonymous said…
1) Dear "Responsible Speech":

Public schools are not private industry, and whereas Pearson is getting millions, if not billions, of our tax dollars, we, and not they, will determine what "free speech" is in this instance.

We can't do that, you might say? Just watch us.

2) Bob Braun is a blogger, true, but he is also the retired education reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, where he served for 30-plus years in that capacity.

-- Ivan Weiss
Anonymous said…
Ivan, it's the state, not Pearson, that decides to monitor student social media and sets the policy against sharing the questions following the test. It's considered cheating, not free speech.

It's the same as a student who takes a photo of his teacher's final exam and sends that over social media. This is not a free speech issue. Cheating isn't free speech and we, the public, do get to decide that cheating isn't OK.

--- swk
Anonymous said…
Melissa, all testing companies get student names, birth dates, etc. to make sure that the right student is getting the right test and the right scores sent to them. This would not work with only an anonymous student ID.

Contracts with states include how those data are to be used and not used, when they'll be destroyed, with whom they can be shared, etc.

--- swk
Anonymous said…
@swk, that seems like a weak excuse to me. Test companies could just as easily use a number as a name, couldn't they? The name doesn't tell them anything about which test is right--it's other details, like grade level, that would be important. Why couldn't it be by student ID number instead?

@ Ivan, I don't think this inability to share test info is anything new. My elementary student was afraid to ever tell me any details of past MAP or MSP tests (I don't remember if this was one or both). He said he signed something saying he couldn't talk about it with anyone. It took a lot of persuading and reassuring to extract info!

Anonymous said…
HIMSmom, think about it. How many tests do you think a company processes each spring? Yes, they could very easily just put a student ID on the test booklet and/or online test ticket. But what about the teacher in the classroom? Do you really expect her to look at a sheet numbers to make sure that each student gets the right booklet/ticket? Wouldn't it be easier for the teacher to distribute these things by name?

Also, once a test is scored, isn't it a privacy issue to make sure that the correct scores get to the correct student/family? If the testing company is dealing only with numbers, this would create a mess to ensure that scores are assigned to the correct student/family so that the school/district could mail to these to the correct student/family.

I guess you're right. It's possible for the testing company to deal only in numbers. But it would increase the chances for error and add unnecessary time and expense.

Isn't it more prudent to put strict limits on the use of the personally identifiable information as well as severe penalties for the testing company for breach of data protocols?

I'm all for strict student data privacy, as I've said before. But prudence must also be considered.

--- swk
Web Hutchins said…
Thanks for bringing this up Melissa/Charlie....Pearson is owned by Rupert Murdoch who spies, pries and hacks on his NewsCorps workers on the daily, so its difficult to be surprised that he is spying on our kids--yet we surely should be outraged that Murdoch's company ever got the Com. Core deals in the first place and is now reading our kids social media posts. But he smells money - as he famously said: K-12 education is ripe for investment, as “a $500 billion sector” that represents “a tragic waste of human capital.” Arnie Duncan and co. are likely getting some serious serious kickbacks----what a disaster.
Anonymous said…
I thought students have been talking about SAT and ACT questions after the test, and there are endless practice guides with similar questions.

What's different? The tests can't stand the scrutiny of daylight.

Anonymous said…
Web Hutchins, you're confusing Pearson with Amplify. Rupert Murdoch owns News Corp, yes. But Pearson and News Corp are completely different entities. News Corp/Murdoch owns Amplify.

--- swk
Anonymous said…
I know, swk, it's easier. But I'm not convinced that what's easiest for the teachers and district trumps student data privacy.

dw said…
isn't commenting on a test - especially after you took the test - free speech?

No. There are numerous industry examples in which it is mandatory to sign integrity forms prior to taking the test that state it will not even be spoken to others.

You're forgetting one very important thing. These are kids, they are not 18 years old. In all 50 states, the age requirement to sign a contract is 18, and contracts signed by minors are deemed invalid contracts in almost all cases (they may be voided). Here's a link to more info: Is it legal to sign a contract with a minor

Age requirements bring up another issue. If the kids are age 13-18, that's one set of rules, but if they are under 13, then it's not just a bad idea, but it is illegal under federal law for them to even be using social media like Twitter/FB. Parents, it's not just the states and Pearson that are reading your kids' posts, it's everyone. And they can (and are) piecing together data from as many different sources as possible to build deep profiles of your kids. Think about that.

How are states/Pearson/others identifying students? In many cases kids don't even bother to hide their real names on these sites, but for those who do, are these states and companies doing deeper research to find out who is posting what? Are Twitter/FB giving up that information? Lots of questions.
Anonymous said…
HIMSmom, my point wasn't about what was easiest --- it was about minimizing errors, time, and expense AND protecting privacy.

And, again, I'm all for strict student data privacy laws. However, every single piece of new legislation recently passed in the states have allowed for state agencies to share PII with their vendors under strict data protection protocols. This is very likely to continue into the future.

--- swk
Anonymous said…
With computerized standardized tests, one would think one of the best benefits would be getting back a copy of the test after it is taken for students to review with their parents and their teachers.

With the SAT and ACT, well, you're out of there, so who cares. With a 3rd thru 11th grade test, reviewing the test is important.

The benefit isn't the score, the benefit is learning from the mistakes.

Anonymous said…
As someone who has done research using Twitter for quite a while now, I can tell you for certain that one does not need to know the names of people tweeting to find out the content of tweets.

There are numerous search strategies for tracking "keywords" - once you've tracked those, then yes, its remarkably easy often (if not scarily easily) to determine the identity of the person tweeting. I've had this conversation with my teen stepdaughter many times - you should always assume someone you don't want to see your info can and will. A sad fact of today's "oversharing" society.

Anonymous said…
As long as these tests are given on an opt-out basis only, i.e. are mandatory and therefore no consent was given for being tested, how can there be a violation after the test was taken? A student who cheats during a test is violating school code, but this is an instance of a company trying to protect its brand or copyright. If the student used school computers to spread the information, it could be a school infraction, just like using school computers to share pirate information. Since SAT, etc. is opt-in, they would seem to have much more legal ground to stand on.

This is in addition to the consent information dw just provided. I don't have a law background at all, but am using common sense.

This is about a company who doesn't yet have the technology to stay ahead of the game but wants to keep making billions in the meantime.

It's kind of a metaphor for the entire Common Core and accompanying testing: Cart before the horse.

--enough already
Well, when the state DOE asks the school to "discipline" the student rather than explain why the student should not be discussing the test, I get worried.

So is the student being disciplined for talking about a test question or cheating? Not the same thing in my mind.

SWK, do I believe and trust in these so-called contracts on student data privacy? Not much. Do I believe that you are for "strict" ones? Not really. Your statements are far more in support for collection of data.

And severe penalties? FERPA doesn't even have such penalties. SPS does not have such penalties.

Sorry, Washington State needs its own student data privacy law complete with teeth.
And I guess my friends and I "cheated" on the SAT and ACT because I remember comparing notes on different questions.

I don't remember an oath signed in blood.
Anonymous said…
Melissa, what do you mean by "so-called contracts"? These are legally binding contracts signed between state agencies, state procurement officers, and companies. And these contracts can and do have provisions within them that are more strict than what's required under FERPA. States can have procurement laws and rules more strict than FERPA.

Within these contracts, severe monetary penalties can be levied and enforced.

And just because I think there can be prudent and judicious use of PII when it leaves the school doesn't mean I'm not also for strict student data privacy laws. It's not the black and white issue that you make it out to be.

--- swk
Show me one contract (or where in FERPA) there are "severe monetary penalties" because I have not seen one. (And certainly not one in SPS.)

I disagree - it is a black and white issue, at least in terms of contracts and punishments.
Anonymous said…
What about kids who have photographic memories - and can memorize the tests? No need for a camera in that case. Yes there are some of these kids out there in the population. And what about kids who simply have pretty good memories? Why shouldn't kids get to publish whatever test questions they want to the internet? It is the state who forced this test on them. Why should they give up ANY bit of their "free speech" to protect a test manufacturer, or state testing machinery? I certainly encourage my kids to divulge as much information as possible, as widely as possible. It isn't cheating.

The fact that they were also forced to sign something saying they wouldn't divulge - also bogus. They are MINORS. They are not capable of consent. And if the school asks for my consent - they won't get it.

Reader, it may appear that students have First Amendment rights but, if they use them, it's called cheating by the school, district, state ed department and the testing company.
Anonymous said…
Interesting followup piece by Mr.Braun here

The Brave New World of testing expands

This is what Pearson & NJ officials agreed constitutes a "breach"

“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.”

pretty broad strokes there


Anonymous said…
I would be interested to see what a lawyer has to say about this gag order on testing. I can't believe that it would stand up in court (god, I hope not). In fact, it looks like the testing companies wrote these "rules" broadly in hopes they get at least 70% of what they want.

Adults have to sign gag orders when they work at certain companies, but kids do not volunteer to "work" at the school they are assigned to. Many times families can't even choose the school - they go where they are told. Combine this with the fact that we are talking about children, and I can't believe that this is legal.

-not Atticus
Mischevious One said…
There is a movement aimed at using twitter to overload Pearson's system.

Please consider adding #Pearson to your twitter posts; it doesn't matter if you are talking about grandma's macaroni and cheese recipe.

Calling BS said…
I'm calling BS on Responsible Speech.

Should we requie that students don't talk to each other, too.

Students shouldn't be taking screen shots of test questions, but don't try and limit a person's speech.
Anonymous said…
From another angle (and I admit I know next to nothing about AP):

Doesn't the Advanced Placement testing deal with these inevitable issues by giving tests in one time zone at a time, and then changing the questions when the testing goes to the next time zone?

Granted, these Pearson tests involve many more students. But I don't hear the AP test people blaming the students. Instead, they
seem to anticipate any validity risks from student sharing by taking it upon themselves to plan and institute their own technology safeguards before giving the tests.

It's really pathetic that Pearson thinks they can control their own security inadequacies through intimidation and blame. The fact that NJDOE has gone along and played enforcer demonstrates just how powerful and far-reaching this monstrosity has become.

--enough already
Anonymous said…
Cheating is cheating. If you're sharing with your peers the questions on a test --- whether that's a classroom final exam, an AP test, and/or a statewide standardized test --- prior to them taking it because you took it first, that's cheating.

This is usually spelled out in student rights and responsibilities and/or code of conduct handbooks and parents usually sign that they've read it.

If a student is caught cheating and the cheating was clearly a violation of student responsibilities and code of conduct, it's highly doubtful that a student could claim free speech and not get their claim laughed out of court.

--- swk
No SWK, talking to friends AFTER the test about what questions you found challenging/dumb is not cheating.

Remember the Pineapple question?
Anonymous said…
Melissa, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about sharing your test with someone else who hasn't yet taken the test.

--- swk
Well, that's not what this kid did (from most reports).

Every single parent should worry about this kind of business overreaction to a test. We should wonder why, when and who is monitoring social media to spy on kids.

Anonymous said…
Pearson also collects everything a student types into the keyboard during the test including words or sentences that were typed and then deleted.

That allows for some mischievous fun on test day.
Anonymous said…
Some students are being accused of cheating for talking about the test after they have taken it with classmates who took it or with parents or adults who are not taking it. the cheating is that is costs money for a company to change test questions. Evidently they are cheating the test company out of profits, not cheating on the test.

-HS Parent
Anonymous said…
Social media? Yeah, I'd like to see Pearson go to court to try to enforce this gag order against MINORS! Everyone talks about tests afterwards, in middle school, high school, college, professional certifications, whatever. IT.IS.NOT.CHEATING! People want to know how they did, if there's a question they weren't sure about they will discuss it with friends. This is why teachers at University have more than one version of each test, so you never have the same color test as your neighbors. No copying answers and kids who take tests later won't know which test version they will get. The fraternities and sororities even have test files on every teachers, collected from past members!
If individual teachers can have more than one test version, then so can a huge Corp. like Pearson. Nope, they're not worried about cheating. THEY.WANT.THE.DATA on the kids. Data is the Everlasting Gobstopper, the FREE money that will keep coming year after year, the gift of unimaginable riches that keeps on giving. Data is why Uber got all those billions in venture money, those gazillionaire investors aren't interested in the measly 20% that Uber robs from the poor drivers! Uber can get ALL the info on the riders - real names, banks, where they work, shop, party, who their friends and families are, their daily schedules etc. etc. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. Pearson can have files on every child in America from 3 yo to mid twenties and beyond if they can get every school to use their tests.
I'm curious, swk, do you work for one of these test companies? Holding some education profiteering, er, industry stocks, perhaps? "Cheating is cheating"? Get real, swk. Talking about a test they just took on social media is not cheating, whining, maybe.

seattle citizen said…
If the K-12 chapter of Omega Theta Pi tweets or posts wrong answers to the SBAC, will students who use them be placed on double-secret probation?
TechyMom said…
I agree with most of your concerns about student privacy, but I don't think there's a reasonable expectation of privacy on Twitter. Twitter is a publishing platform, like Blogger. Tweets are public and searchable, by design. Many organizations search for their brands to see what people are saying about them. Some ask for things to be taken down, but they usually learn that doing that causes lots more people to care. It backfires from a keeping-it-quiet perspective, as it did in this case.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
How the heck is Pearson supposed deal with kids if, and since one kid got suspended by the super who is very unhappy about the monitoring it most likely happened, a photo of test questions is put on some social media site, whatever these kids use for that, the Pinterest? I mean Pearson has to fight back. Ya, the kids think it's a joke in these rich enclaves. No stakes at all testing for them, but if the test is invalidated for the whole state because of kids posting stuff, it's an even bigger waste of time and money.

I hope all the negativity doesn't prompt such behavior in SPS students.

Unfortunately social media is fair game for anyone from pervs to scammers to data miners. Be aware and keep your kids aware.

Google knows you, the gov't knows all, Google keeps your discarded emails and who knows what. It's the new world and the kids should be more careful in general on line and particularly in regards to tests. I'm sure universities have had to deal with this too and treat it like plagiarism and expel students.
Don't mess with the man!

Lynn said…
I don't get what we would lose if the test was invalidated for the entire state.
Anonymous said…
At my kid's university all the old tests are posted by the departments for each class. Students use them to study & prepare for exams. They compare & discuss solutions.

It is not considered cheating.

Patrick said…
The big social media sites are not the only way kids share information. There are lots of smaller sites and e-mail that would be harder for Big Brother Pearson to monitor. Maybe monitoring e-mail should be expanded from counterterrorism to include possible copyright infringement???

Discussing a question after the test is over is not cheating, it's free speech. You can't force someone to give up their free speech rights as a condition of receiving a mandatory public education.

Maybe Pearson needs to put some thought into their tests and how they're administered. The College Board rotates questions in and out so that the same test isn't given at different times.
But bullying kids is easier than thinking.

Patrick, you nailed it.
dw said…
My comments keep disappearing. Again. One was up for long enough for swk to respond (at least I think the response was aimed at my comment), and then it disappeared.

Melissa, can you look into it? Thanks.
Anonymous said…
Parents can give Pearson (and their government sponsors) a mooning and shut them down quite easily. Just opt your kids out of online work at school. Tell them your kid will do internet-based research at home under YOUR supervision, not theirs. Come on parents show some backbone and quit selling out your own kids to these buttwipe muckheads.
Unknown said…
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April said…
Spying can be easy nowadays with spying applications. I recommend to try . It's an application that allows to spy on your spouse if you suspect your partner in cheating, want to track your kid's location or just to prank your friend.

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