Will Pearson's Social Media Monitoring Damage Common Core Adoption?

The recent revelation that Pearson has been monitoring social media to find students sharing Common Core assessment items has set off a firestorm, but will it disrupt the adoption of Common Core State Standards and assessments? Is monitoring social media an invasion of student privacy, or just a means of protecting intellectual property? THE Journal talked to some education policy experts to find out.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, suggested that social media monitoring may be unavoidable under high stakes testing regimes, but framed it as a reason to measure education outcomes using performance-based assessments.

"Ham-handed security, including student monitoring, is an integral component of all test-and-punish education 'reform' schemes," Schaeffer said. "Any possible leakage of exam content puts the entire endeavor at risk. If, instead, schools relied on performance-based assessments, such as writing projects, science experiments, oral presentations and work portfolios, the threat of score manipulation through prior knowledge would be greatly reduced. At the same time, the testing process would be much more valuable educationally since students would be evaluated on what they know and can do, not how well they respond to a series of arbitrary computer-delivered questions."

Schaeffer also said that social media monitoring by public companies will likely weaken support for Common Core, but won't throw implementation of the standards and assessments too far off track.

"The controversy surrounding Pearson's admission that the company monitors social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, to determine whether students are sharing test questions is yet another factor undermining public confidence in the new Common Core exams," Schaeffer said. "Parents, educators and community leaders are increasingly fed up with the disruption of classroom learning time and young people's emotional lives by the fixation on high-stakes standardized exams. Many are angry that a huge, multinational corporation is 'spying' on school children. In the short run, it is unlikely that this practice alone will 'disrupt' Common Core implementation. But, it does fan the strange bedfellows political movement that has already forced many states to abandon PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing."

Lan Neugent, Interim executive director for SETDA, focused on how social media monitoring would effect policy makers.

"This will likely cause some states to review testing policies and procedures and contracts with testing vendors," Neugent said. "Some state boards and general assemblies may take additional action to protect student privacy and others may sanction action to protect integrity of assessments."

Neugent also added that any state actions would likely be independent of Common Core adoption as Pearson has contracts with both Common Core and non-Common Core states.

"Monitoring the Internet for security breaches is one thing; however, it's very troubling that Pearson is combining PARCC data with students' alleged personal social media accounts and then instructing schools to discipline students because they don't like a particular Tweet," said Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based lawyer who counsels educational institutions about technology law and policies and blogs at "Shear on Social Media Law," in a prepared statement. "How does Pearson know a social media account belongs to a student absent requiring students to verify their accounts? Students have a 1st amendment right to discuss the PARCC exam as long they don't take photos of the test questions and post them online and Pearson has no right to combine those comments with PARCC data. Pearson must become fully transparent about its troubling behavior and be held accountable if it refuses to change its practices."

The company has since agreed that it would no longer use PARCC data to tie social media accounts to individual students, but that may not be enough for some education leaders, such as Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In a letter to supporters that begins, "Big Brother really is watching. Outrageously, testing giant Pearson is spying on what students are saying on social media," the AFT president wrote, "We’re demanding that Pearson immediately stop monitoring students on social media and disclose any contract language about test security for full public review."

In a statement on its own site, the company said, "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 in the education space. But when test questions or elements of a test are posted publicly to the Internet, including social media, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student consequences are handled at the local level.

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

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].