Monday, March 16, 2015

Surveillance, free speech, student privacy and the Pineapple: Pearson gives parents more reasons to opt out

On Saturday night the news exploded through the Twittersphere via Bob Braun’s blog that Pearson was monitoring student social media.  Pearson had sent a warning to the NJ State Education Department, who in turn had contacted the Superintendent of Warren, saying that a student enrolled in the district had posted a picture of one of the PARCC questions on Twitter during the exam.   

That turned out to be incorrect, according to the Superintendent.  Apparently, the student had just commented on the question after taking the test, and deleted his tweet after being contacted by the district.  The most disturbing aspect of the incident was not merely Pearson’s error in reporting this to the State Education Department,  (how did they get this wrong?) but also their suggestion that the student should be disciplined for this behavior – when it’s not at all clear  that he did anything wrong.  But parents and others were understandably alarmed that Pearson is monitoring student social media at all.

I don’t mean to minimize the creepiness of this, but I am not surprised.  Clearly, Pearson has good reason  to defend  against its test items being disclosed in advance of students elsewhere taking the PARCC exams, and will use whatever tools at its disposal to do so.  But it is somewhat implausible that anyone could imagine that they will be able to achieve this. Given the widespread use of social media and the speed and ease of communication, it is near crazy to imagine that questions given to over five million students in 11 states over the period of several weeks will remain secret for any length of time – or even just during the testing window. According to the PARCC website, since February 16, over two million students have now taken these exams  in Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and New Mexico, with Louisiana, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to start testing soon.

The PARCC/Pearson consortium has also said they refuse to release all of the questions on these exams, a position that is difficult to justify for any assessments in which the stakes for students, teachers and schools are so high.   But then those in power always want to maintain maximum secrecy for themselves, and protect what they see is their own privacy rights, whether personal or commercial – while having little or no respect for the privacy of others.  Witness how technology CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg maximize their own privacy by asking all their employees and  household contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements, while making billions from exploiting the personal information of their customers.  

See how Hillary Clinton has kept her State Department emails on a private server, and NYS officials have apparently been in in the habit of destroying their official emails after three months.  The NSA has refused to disclose how they have been sweeping up the public’s private emails and conversations for years. What should be public is kept private, and vice versa, because information is power – and the less information corporations and governmental officials provide about their own behavior, and the more they gather up about the actions of ordinary people, the more power they can maintain over the rest of us. 

For many years, Pearson has had good reason to try to protect the contents of its exams that transcend security.  The corporation has a terrible record of producing highly flawed exams– and by refusing to release them they have not only saved money by being able to recycle faulty questions over again, but they have also been able to shield the shoddy quality of their product. By closely monitoring social media and chatter they can attempt to suppress any discussion or debate of these questions – which may have occurred in this instance – they are also likely protecting not just the actual content of their exams, but their reputation as well.

In 2012, we first found out about the ridiculously flawed Pineapple items from a comment on our blog on the same afternoon the ELA exams were given in NY State.  A commenter wrote: “Apparently the New York State 8th Graders thought the story about "The Hare and the Pineapple" was so ridiculous that they have started a Facebook page about it.  (I later found out the FB page was started in 2010.) 8th Graders from across NY State are weighing in with comments.”  Someone else posted the link to a website from 2007 (now defunct) that had a facsimile of the passage and the questions, while questioning the rationality of anyone who would put these questions on an important exam. 

I was lucky enough to have an 8th grader living in my home who could confirm that a very confusing passage about a race between a Pineapple and a Hare was on his exam. You can see the actual text and the questions here. Then in a manner of minutes, I discovered not only found a facsimile of the passage and the questions, but that the same items  had been included in Pearson exams in
numerous other states over seven years, causing huge confusion each time.   

Literally, hundreds of thousands of students had been subjected to this reading passage and questions, and many had become understandably upset.  Yet that hadn’t stopped Pearson from re-using the questions over and over.  It was only because reporters read my blog and the Daily News carried the story the next day that the story became viral and broke into the national media – and the NYS Education Commissioner was finally forced to pull the Pineapple questions out of the exam once and for all.  

At that point, Pearson was prevented from reusing these defective passages and subjecting thousands more students to having their achievement scores and transcripts affected by the results.  
Even then, however, Pearson refused to accept what was obvious and claimed in an even more absurd memo addressed to the NY State Education Department and “leaked” to Time magazine via its (possibly lone)  defender Andrew Rotherham, explaining in technobabble jargon how the Pineapple passage and questions were  just fine, including that “the owl declares that “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” …is a factually accurate statement. This statement is also presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.”  

The memo really has to be read to be believed – full of gobbledegook that sounds as though it comes from a Monty Python skit or an Ionesco play.   The author of the memo, Jon S. Twing, (who is still amazingly Executive Vice President & Chief Measurement Officer at Pearson) confirmed that these items had been used since 2004 in six other states and three large districts, and then made the most indefensible claim of all, given the ubiquity online of complaints from students, parents and teachers: “Until the events of this past week, we did not have any prior knowledge that the passage entitled “The Hare and the Pineapple” had any controversy associated with it from any prior use.”

In reality, Pearson has been continuously plagued with scandal through faulty tests, scoring errors and the like for over a decade.  If there were any accountability for corporations – instead of for the students and teachers who are judged on the results – the company would have lost all its contracts in recent years rather than awarded the biggest one ever – the PARCC contract, worth billions.
Which is a rather long-winded way to explain that Pearson has good reasons to monitor social media, to suppress not just the specific content of PARCC exams but also any discussion of their substandard quality. 

What has also been ignored in the commentary about Pearson’s monitoring of students so far are the extremely porous privacy policies of PARCC/Pearson, including how they claim their right to collect, share and use student data for many purposes:
  • to analyze test results to assist member states and their local education agencies for purposes of accountability, including promotion and graduation decisions for individual students; teacher and school leader evaluations; school accountability determinations; determinations of principal and teacher professional development and support needs; and teaching, learning, and program improvement; and 
  •  to carry out studies designed to improve instruction on behalf of participating states and their local education agencies, pursuant to separate agreements with the member states and/or their local education agencies. 
In essence, PARCC and its major subcontractor, Pearson, can hand off the personally identifiable information it has gathered directly from students or  that schools have provided them to an unlimited number of third parties, or use it themselves for a wide variety of purposes, as long as the state or district allows.  This includes decisions about whether a student should be held back, how a teacher should be evaluated, or a school should be rated.  Huge amounts of personal student data can also be handed off to researchers or think tanks or anyone doing a “study,” with no security or privacy restrictions, and without parental notification or consent required – as long it is for the vaguely defined purpose of “improving instruction.”  

The other major testing consortium, Smarter Balanced, has no publicly available privacy policy at all – though parents in several states have asked for it without success. 

What information do these companies have about your child through PARCC or its other exams?  This may differ from state to state, but concerned parents and privacy advocates in Colorado asked their state this specific question, as their students started taking the PARCC last week and will again later in the year.

According to the briefing given by the Colorado State Education department last week,  Pearson/PARCC has been supplied with a wealth of personal data, including students’ race/ethnicity, economic status, 504 plan (health conditions that can impact student performance, like allergies or epilepsy), whether they have migrant or immigrant status, disabilities, homelessness, language proficiency, how long they have lived in the state or attended school in the district,  and whether they have ever been expelled.  All of this is quite disturbing and is similar to what we discovered about inBloom. 

 In addition, Pearson/PARCC has access to if a student is using testing modifications, along with their names, unique identifier numbers, etc. Beyond sensitive student information, Pearson also collects everything a student types into the keyboard during the test including words or sentences that were typed and then deleted. Pearson knows whether or not the student views a test item, how long it takes him/her to answer a specific question, and it tracks the student's clicks as he/she navigates the test. This seemingly harmless data, when paired with sensitive information about an individual student, creates a very complex learning and behavioral profile of the child.  

So this is yet another reason to opt your child out of these standardized exams – which every parent should seriously consider. Both Utah and California specifically give parents to opt out of standardized tests if they so choose. So does the NYC Department of Education, writing:If, after
consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents' decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child.”
Also contrary to what you may have read or heard, schools cannot have their funding cut, even if large numbers of students opt out – there is simply no provision in state or federal law for this to happen.  The “worst” that can happen is the federal government might restrict a school’s flexibility with use of Title One funds, including requiring more  tutoring, which many parents might actually prefer.  (For more on this, see FairTest).

As a matter of fact, more than 60,000 students opted out of the NY state exams last year, and nothing happened to these schools. In a statewide survey of NY districts, more than 35 percent of superintendents estimated test refusals last year at 5 percent of students or more, and 23 percent reported student refusals at 10 percent or more.  Fully eight percent of superintendents estimated that more than 20 percent of their students in grades 3-8 refused to participate in at least one of the state Common Core exams. Not a single NY school or district has faced ANY consequences as a result.
It would be great to see those numbers grow yet larger again this year. 

Opt out and deny them your child’s personal and test score data. Opt out and save your child from the stress of what are unpiloted, and likely flawed exams. Opt out and deny the authorities the ability to use your children’s data in unfair and punitive way, to hurt them, their teachers or their schools.  Opt out to fight for an end to the mechanistic depersonalized insanity that is devouring public education.  Opt out to fight back against the privateers’ attempt to prove that public schools are failing, in order to benefit the interests of the hedge funders, the ed tech companies and the testing companies. Opt out!


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kris Alman said...

Consumers Lose Financially as the Value of their Personal Information Flows to Big Data
Kris Alman MD

Unknown said...


Brilliant. Tour de force. You have covered the wide range of state- sanctioned horrors and deceit We, the Public, are up against.

Let me say it: You are the stone in David's sling!


Unknown said...

More concerning is that after Pearson, the Common Core Consortium, and DoEd accesses your child's data it's impossible to know to whom they give it. Once it is out there in cyberspace it spreads exponentially and parents may never recover sensitive information about their kids.

Just today I was researching assessments for kids with disabilities. Listed on a DoEd funded Common Core resource list I linked to the International Educational Data Mining Society. There were more links there to assist anyone who wants to share education data and mine education data.

One such link was to Project LISTEN.

Project LISTEN is a computerized reading tutor. Here's what the website says about Project LISTEN:

"The Reading Tutor runs under WindowsTM on an ordinary personal computer. Though not (yet) a commercial product, the Reading Tutor has been used daily by hundreds of children in field tests at schools in the United States, Canada, Ghana, and India. Thousands of hours of usage logged at multiple levels of detail, including millions of words read aloud, provide unique opportunities for educational data mining."

Funding provided by:
National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Heinz Endowments.

I'm not suggesting these institutions have nefarious intent because these sites have open access. But the amount of detailed information about a child's learning characteristics being mined is astounding. (e.g., attention, motivation,listening, errors, help requests,)

What I'm suggesting is that without clearly prescribed guidelines and legal protections for data sharing and data mining, DoEd has made NO effort to manage this data and has obscured the reasons for collecting it behind an accountability smokescreen.
Parents will never know where to find their child's personal information, particularly if it's scattered across the internet universe.