Monitoring Social Media for PARCC Test Cheating in NJ: ‘Creepy' or Necessary?

Social media monitoring by Pearson, the London-based company that runs PARCC testing in New Jersey, has tipped administrators off in some North Jersey school districts to students who might be cheating on the tests.

But it's the monitoring itself that now has some parents worried.

The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments known as PARCC are Common Core tests used in several states, including New York and Ohio.

In the past, parents resistant to the PARCC tests expressed concerns about factors ranging from the time spent teaching to the test to the vulnerability of test data collected and stored online.

A letter from Watchung Hills Regional High School District superintendent Elizabeth Jewett posted to the personal blog of investigative reporter Bob Braun late Friday, kicking off a firestorm among parents already wary of the PARCC tests.

Privacy concerns have motivated parents including Stephanie Hare, mother of a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader in the Moorestown School District, to "refuse" or opt their children out of tests.

"It's the sharing of the information," said Hare, that bothers her. "It's not staying within the school."

The New Jersey Department of Education contracts with PARCC, which hired Pearson as a test vendor. Pearson works with Tracx, Inc. to monitor social media for confidential information from the tests.

Over the weekend, Tracx removed a study from its website featuring its social media monitoring work with Pearson.

Julia Rubin, a Princeton School District parent and co-founder of Save Our Schools New Jersey, a group that promotes opting-out of PARCC tests, called the monitoring "creepy."

"No one gave us a piece of paper and said this is going to happen," said Rubin of the the lack of transparency. "[Parents] were just completely excluded from the process."

Rubin said the Department of Education has not made clear what kinds of information students are or are not allowed to share about the tests, and with whom.

"You're dealing with children as young as 8, and you're dealing with a protracted testing context," said Rubin. Over the span of the test month, "it's much more difficult to tell children not to discuss any aspect of that test."

'A teachable moment on many levels'

Monitoring for test breaches is not new, according to Michael Yaple, the department's director of public information and strategic initiatives.

"It's something that's been done in New Jersey in the past, back when we had paper tests, it's been done with other states, it's been done with other tests," he said, adding that the department finds incidents of cheating every year.

Online monitoring is important, said Yaple, because cell phones are now ubiquitous. Sharing test information on social media is so public, it's "like sharing it on the schoolhouse steps," he said.

As for worries that adults monitoring children's online activities is invasive or even "creepy," Yaple said the monitoring isn't literal, but closer to "a Google search for keywords from test questions."

The kerfuffle around social media privacy is an opportunity to correct misinformation about how the new test works and to show students the consequences of posting wantonly on social media, according to Yaple, making this what he called a "teachable moment on many levels."

The department has faced months of pushback from parents across the state regarding the PARCC tests and Common Core standards. In response to a bill last year that called for a committee to investigate the PARCC assessment process, Gov. Chris Christie created his own commission to review the effectiveness of all standardized tests for grades K-12.

Last month, the NJ Assembly passed a bill that would delay the use of PARCC results to evaluate students and teachers for at least three years.

Last week, New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe criticized parents, such as Rubin, who plan to opt their children out of the new tests, saying it could cost the state millions in federal education funding.

Still, those objecting to the tests see the monitoring as another reason to resist. One Save Our Schools member, Conni Murray, has even started a petition calling for an independent investigation in privacy violations, which includes questions about social media monitoring.

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