Fact Check

Pearson PARCC Social Media Spying

Rumor: Educational materials publisher Pearson is monitoring students' social media accounts for content related to the PARCC test.

Published Mar 16, 2015


Claim:   Educational materials publisher Pearson monitored students' social media accounts for content related to the PARCC test.


FALSE: Pearson monitored individual, private student accounts to circumvent cheating on PARCC tests.
TRUE: Pearson monitored social media networks for public posts that possibly disclosed test contents.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, March 2015]

This was posted on FaceBook. It stated that Pearson was monitoring
students' social media after a student tweeted about a PARCC test


Origins:   On 13 March 2015, the Facebook page "Bob Braun's ledger" (operated by a former newspaper reporter named Bob Braun) published two status updates about a leaked e-mail message from Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett of Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey. That e-mail referenced a "Priority 1 Alert for an item breach" that test and textbook manufacturer Pearson had initiated with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) over a student's possible social media posting of a test question from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, and it also expressed Jewett's concerns that Pearson was surveilling the social media accounts of students taking test:

Last night at 10PM, my testing coordinator received a call from the NJDOE that Pearson had initiated a Priority 1 Alert for an item breach within our school. The information the NJDOE initially called with was that there was a security breach DURING the test session, and they suggested the student took a picture of a test item and tweeted it. After further investigation on our part, it turned out that the student had posted a tweet (NO PICTURE) at 3:18PM (after school) that referenced a PARCC test question. The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent — who was obviously highly concerned as to her child's tweets being monitored by the DOE. 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).

Braun's post (and a subsequent article) drew widespread attention and prompted debate about student privacy. On 14 March 2015, Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett of Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey published a letter confirming that the leaked e-mail circulated by Braun was authentic. Jewett said that she did not authorize the widespread release of the message and was unsure about how and why it was forwarded to Braun:

Dear Watchung Hills Regional High School Learning Community,

On Friday, March 13, 2015, Bobbraunsledger.com published a story referencing an email I had sent to other superintendents about issues regarding PARCC testing and Pearson's monitoring of social media. The email shown in his article is authentic. It was an email I sent on March 10, 2015 at approximately 10:00AM to a group of superintendents to share my concerns and to see if other schools had a similar experience. I did not authorize the release of this email nor am I aware of who did release it. I am also not aware of the motives they may have had behind the release. That said, I completely stand behind my comments as they represent not only my views and concerns; they also represent the views and concerns of our Board of Education.

The article references instances involving students during PARCC testing and any related disciplinary action. For student privacy issues, we cannot comment on any of the specific students or discipline referred to in the article. What I am able to share is that all issues have been dealt with in accordance with our Code of Conduct, Academic Integrity and Acceptable Use of Technology Policies.

Our main concern is, and will always remain, supporting the educational, social and emotional needs of our students. The privacy and security of student information remains the utmost priority for our district.

The district will have no further comment on this matter at this time.

The claims about PARCC test content and social media monitoring alarmed a number of parents, many of whom were concerned that their children's social media accounts were subject to invasive, secret audits by a large educational testing company. However, much of the controversy boiled down to an initial lack of detail in the retelling regarding

the privacy level of content shared to social media.

Upon later examination, it became clear that Pearson was monitoring social networks (primarily Twitter) for public tweets that potentially included content from PARCC tests. Irrespective of whether folks find that specific protocol acceptable, Pearson was not implicated in the interception of any private social media postings or communications belonging to students who were administered PARCC tests.

Some parents expressed concern about how Pearson and/or the New Jersey DOE was able to track a tweet to a specific student, assuming that such an act required one of those entities to have invasive access to students' personal social media accounts. But that assumption is not necessarily true: the content of tweet in question might very well have included information that readily identified the particular student who posted and/or his school affiliation. (Since the tweet itself was not made public, it's impossible to tell.)

A Pearson representative released a statement after Jewett's e-mail circulated, confirming that social media monitoring pertained only to information published publicly on the internet:

The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid.

We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.

We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

Scott Norton, Strategic Initiative Director for Standards, Assessment and Accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), concurred with Pearson:

A critical part of giving a high-quality assessment is making sure the test questions are secure so all students take a fair, valid and reliable test. One of the ways test security can be compromised is throughthe sharing of test questions on public forums such as social media. It is up to each state to make sure it has the necessary protocols and processes in place to keep its statewide assessment secure.

Although the security measures cited were adapted to include social media networks, the overall practice of stringent test security for statewide materials is neither new nor novel. New York state's long-term efforts to secure its Regents exams [PDF] is a well-documented example of such measures, as revealed when controversy erupted in June 1989 after the secrecy of the statewide standardized Chemistry test was compromised and its answers were published in a newspaper:

State education officials said that The Post's front page, which displayed the answer sheet, appeared to have been sent by facsimile machines this morning to some students in upstate New York and that this led to the decision for a statewide ban. The chemistry test was to have been given this afternoon.

A spokesman for State Attorney General Robert Abrams said investigators were aware of "at least four tests and their answers having been bought and sold" among students. In addition to chemistry, the tests were in United States history, global studies and 10th-grade mathematics, said the spokesman, Timothy Gilles.

Education officials, who said they had no idea how the keys were obtained, pledged an overhaul of security procedures for administering the tests, which in their 111 years have been canceled statewide only once before.

Despite the initial controversy, Pearson was not accused of monitoring individual Twitter or Facebook accounts and merely accessed publicly-posted information visible to anyone with an Internet connection. Moreover, standardized testing-based security measures existed well before Twitter and Facebook, and students have long been subject to scrutiny and security measures to circumvent cheating on statewide tests. It didn't appear any students were specifically targeted in larger social media monitoring for PARCC test content, which included only publicly-available posts that were turned up through keyword searches.

Last updated:   16 March 2015


    Braun, Bob.   "Pearson, NJ, Spying on Social Media of Students Taking PARCC Tests."

    Bob Braun's Ledger.   13 March 2015.

    Chiaramonte, Perry.   "Education Publisher Pearson Monitoring Social Media Activity."

    FoxNews.com.   16 March 2015.

    Strauss, Valerie.   "Pearson Monitoring Social Media for Security Breaches During PARCC Testing."

    Washington Post.   14 March 2015.

    Verhovek, Sam Howe.   "New York Cancels Regents Exam After Newspaper Carries Answers."

    New York Times.   21 June 1989.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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