A letter from a New Jersey Superintendent started making the rounds on Friday. The letter included the following:
- An alert by the state department of education, late at night, that there had been a “test security” breach.
- An inaccurate allegation by the state official that a picture of a test question had been posted on Twitter by the student.
- A request that that the student be disciplined (suspended).
- This involved input from the test publisher, Pearson.
The tweet apparently did not include a picture, and was after the day’s testing ended. It started on Bob Braun’s Ledger website, which has been crashing since, either due to large amounts of traffic, or a DNS attack, depending on who you read. Either scenario says something about how explosive this issue is.
Lesson for #Pearsoniswatching people who eavesdrop seldom hear good said of them.
— Alice Mercer (@alicemercer) March 14, 2015
In my humble opinion, this is not spying by Pearson, because when this student put it up in social media it’s public. But there is something more disturbing about this because at the heart, it’s a free speech issue and the clash with intellectual property. These tests involve a lot of money. A lot of money to hire psychometricians to write the questions. A lot of money to test publishers from the states and localities to pay for the tests, etc. These questions are precious intellectual property for the publishers. They lose value the more “public” they become, so they loathe sharing on social media. They talk about “cheating” really, they worry about questions becoming dead because they’ve been all over the Internets and then can’t be used any more. Audrey Watters and Cynthia Liu have made this point too, I’m going to guess we all had this brilliant insight at once. but here are some specific points they’ve made that I find compelling:
A very good question. Cynthia has a post focusing on the first amendment issue, but this comment I got from her on Facebook points out the ridiculousness of holding kids non-disclosure on the tests 24-7
Ridiculous. Pearson gives tests all around the world all hours of the day every day — does this mean global silence on social media about their tests? They live in a 24-7 world media environment and so if they can’t deal, too bad. Their problem, not ours. – Cynthia Liu, Parent and Founder of K12NN
Let me add in that as a test proctor, I have to sign a pretty extensive non-disclosure agreement each year I give the test. You can see what “problems” have occurred with testing through the years by looking at what I’m supposed to NOT do. If I post about a question on Twitter, Pearson would have me dead to legal rights. But students (and their parents) don’t sign an agreement like this. They are instructed not to text, or pass notes during the test, which is regarded as cheating, but every instance I’ve heard of this occurring has just been about well, texting friends and passing notes about social matters, because really there has been little reason for them to cheat. So let’s review, something that was said about a question on the PARCC test in social media by one high school student. This was labelled a “security” breach even though it was after the testing day was over. What’s going on?
- Pearson may fear that other students who have not yet taken that portion of the PARCC test will see that and it will be able to “cheat”.
- The state of New Jersey and Pearson may have no idea what they are doing, and just panicked.
- Pearson may fear that it will get more than the limited audience of this one student’s twitter feed, making it unusable.
- Pearson fears that if the question was whack enough for a 16 year old to post about it may go viral and not just be unusable, but embarrassing.
I’m going to now explore those last two scenarios. I have a history with Pearson that makes me not trust them. You can read about it here, but basically, they showed up to an un-conference and started filming folks and passing out video release forms later. They assured all it was for the good of education, but were vague about what exactly our likeness and ideas, were going to be used for. They were jerks, and seemed to have a really open idea about our intellectual property rights, while still being vague about what they were going to do with theirs.
This alone would not be damning, but let’s go into the wayback machine and take a look at what happened the last time social media went viral about a test question from Pearson…I bring you “Pineapple-gate“. For those of you who missed it, this was a test question in the pre-PARCC test that Pearson designed for New York. Designed is perhaps generous, since they clearly recycled questions from their bank of items, including the one in question here (I say this to give context about the nature of these questions as property, not just to snark). The question involved a re-write of a Daniel Pinkwater story that was so bad the author thought it (and the question) were ridiculous. It made it to social media, the New York media, and then went round the world again via social media. It led to questions that had to be answered by the state department of education, and chancellor, and was just one big hot mess. I’ve got to wonder if all this monitoring is an attempt to prevent something like this from breaking out again, and THAT would be troubling, because I can’t talk about the questions (it’s not even clear if I can read them to myself during the test), Pearson certainly isn’t, so the only folks who can share about a “bad” question, are the kids. Ponder that.
@audreywatters We rent these test questions, under highly unfavorable terms from the test vendor.
— Alice Mercer (@alicemercer) March 14, 2015