Pearson exam board criticised for 'disturbing' monitoring of students’ social media posts

The publishing giant has admitted it monitors the social media accounts of students to ensure they are not passing on test questions

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 19 March 2015 10:41 GMT
A French student works on the test of philosophy as he takes the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 16, 2014 at the Jacques Decour high school in Paris.
A French student works on the test of philosophy as he takes the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 16, 2014 at the Jacques Decour high school in Paris. (FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

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A US examination board has been forced to explain why it is monitoring children, after the Department of Education elerted a school that a student may have leaked test information on Twitter.

A number of US states are developing Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) English and maths tests alongside Pearson Education to gauge a student’s readiness for life after graduation.

A debate surrounding social media privacy is now raging, after New Jersey blogger Bob Braun published a private email which revealed that the publishing giant monitors all social media during PARCC testing season – a method which the Department of Education is aware of.

In the email by Superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District to her colleagues earlier this month, she claims that Pearson phoned a testing co-ordinator at 10pm to alert them that a student was suspected to have tweeted a photo of a test question.

Superintended Elizabeth C. Jewett explained in the email that the school in question found the student had referenced a PARCC test question, but had not posted an image, and later deleted the tweet.

But the student’s parent was “highly concerned” that her child’s tweets had been “monitored” by the Department of Education, Ms Jewett said, adding that she found the incident “disturbing”.

In a statement o the Watchung Hills Regional High School website, Ms Jewett urged that the letter is authentic, and that while she did not release the letter she "completely" stands behind her comments.

“They [her comments] represent not only my views and concerns; they also represent the views and concerns of our Board of Education," she wrote.

In a statement on the Pearson website, staff explained that the states contractually required the publisher to monitor public social media posts to make sure students did not reveal test questions to others.

“Our goal is to ensure a fair test for all students. Every student deserves his or her chance to take the test on a level playing field," Pearson said.

But this has done little to quell the concerns of parents and the general public, and the situation has prompted the American Federation of Teachers labour union to call for a stop student social media monitoring and urge for transparency of public contracts relating to security measures for tests.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ union, told the New York Times: “It’s one thing to protect intellectual property, but this raises far too many questions.

“How is Pearson monitoring students? What information about students does Pearson have, where did it get it, and what will it keep? Is Pearson reviewing everything students post? What protections are there for student privacy?”

Education officials in Massachusetts have since told the newspaper that the consortium of states has asked Pearson to stop checking the names of students against a list of students registered to take PARCC at the school.

However, Pearson will continue social media monitoring and forward potential breaches onto the state education department.

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