Pearson, PARCC, and Social Media Monitoring

6 min read

As part of their work on PARCC, Pearson appears to be monitoring social media accounts for mention of the test. This monitoring appears to make no distinctions between student accounts, teacher accounts, or anyone else.

This recently came to light when an email from a school superintendent in New Jersey was shared publicly. I'm including a version of the email in this post for context. However, unlike many other places where this was shared, I am removing the sender's name and contact info. In this post, we'll also address some of the issues around how this story came out.

Superintendent email - cellphone pic of printed text

From the above email, it sounds like something like this happened:

Pearson's social media monitoring software flags a tweet that mentions the PARCC exam. This tweet was identified as containing information about a test question sent during the testing period, and therefore potentially compromising the integrity of the test. It's unclear if this determination is done by a human, or flagged by a machine.

This report got passed on to the New Jersey Department of Education. At some point, the author of the tweet was identified. It's unclear whether Pearson or NJ DOE did that, and how complicated that process was (ie, did the author have their name in their profile, or was there more to it than that). NJ DOE contacted the Superintendent where the student attends school and asks for a disciplinary consequence.

The Superintendent who received the report, however, does her own research, and uncovers that the NJ DOE and Pearson information was inaccurate. The tweet was sent after the test, and did not contain information that compromised a question.

This sequence of events raises many questions - and, unfortunately, the loudest conversations don't seem to be getting past the "Pearson is spying on our kids" handwaving.

We'll dispense with that first: EVERYONE is spying on your kids - it's called social media monitoring. Districts use social media monitoring software. Law enforcement uses it. Just google "social media monitoring school district" and "law enforcement social media monitoring school" and start reading. Brands monitor social media traffic constantly. The platforms we all use to communicate (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc, etc, etc) ALL monitor, analyze, and sell our interactions.

Pearson is a brand. Their products are brands. For better or for worse (and no, we are not having that conversation in this post) Pearson has invested heavily in PARCC. They will monitor social media to protect that brand. Pearson is just like every other brand, and they are all currently monitoring behavior on social media. That doesn't make it okay, but that does make it both pervasive, and yesterday's news.

Several other additional questions get raised here.

  • It appears that there are dedicated communications channels between Departments of Education and outside vendors. Have these channels been created specifically for PARCC, or have they existed prior to it? What is their history?
  • What is the review process if/when a social media post gets flagged? In the case in New Jersey, it feels inadequate, as they flagged something incorrectly.
  • Are state Department of Education employees really making these calls at 10:00 PM at night? What is the process for escalating a situation where you have people making calls on inaccurate claims well outside normal working hours?
  • How many social media posts get flagged by outside vendors and passed on to the state DOE? Out of these claims, how many get passed on to districts?
  • How many districts do their own review of DOE claims, and how many accept the DOE version at face value?
  • If a student's social media post is flagged and passed on to the state DOE and the district, does that then become an educational record, covered under FERPA?
  • This question was raised by Karl Fisch after this post went live: while schools/districts are required to sign the Pearson/PARCC terms of service, to what extent are students bound by those terms? If a student is taking a required assessment controlled by an outside vendor, are they bound by the same terms as the school? I don't think that there is any clear or easy answer here, and this has some implications for student rights.

It's also worth noting that, in the situation in New Jersey, the Superintendent's response was about as good as one could hope for. She took the report, examined it, and researched it. She cut through the inaccuracies in the NJ DOE claim. She was - correctly - concerned about the role of external vendors and state DOE in monitoring student conversations outside the school day, off the school infrastructure.

However, in the current testing climate, people are so eager to score points against testing companies that they distributed an email from her that contained her full name, and her contact info at her place of work. The email that was shared appears to have been shared without her knowledge or consent (UPDATE: the Superintendent did not give permission for her email to go public - found via Frank Noschese END UPDATE). So, in this case, we have a Superintendent doing right by kids having her job made more difficult by people who, in their rush to "get" Pearson, spread her contact info over the entire internet. There are ways of breaking this story and learning more about this that don't involve throwing a Superintendent under the bus.

It's also interesting to note that Pearson appears to be taking some steps to clean up their tracks on their social media monitoring. Up until yesterday, Pearson was featured as a case study for a social media monitoring firm called Tracx. Today, however, that link is dead. Using Google's cache, I grabbed a screenshot of Pearson's social media monitoring case study, as the cache will likely expire in a few days. All that remains on the Tracx site currently is the Pearson logo, at the accurately named "client logo" page. At some point, I expect this link to return a "Page not found" error, which will indicate that it has also been scrubbed.

UPDATE: In the ongoing conversations on Twitter, Jason Buell noted that, while there is outrage about Pearson monitoring discussions about a test, there has been relative silence about the ongoing use of social media monitoring that targets youth of color. There are glaring examples of profiling via social media monitoring. I have a hard time understanding the furor over Pearson alongside the acceptance of surveillance of students of color. END UPDATE.

At this point, there are more unanswered questions than anything. However, my main question when thinking about this remains rooted in how we perceive and react to learning that we are monitored. What is required to help people realize that the monitoring that surprises them in an academic context is persistent and ongoing everywhere else?

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