New Jersey Parents, Activists Raise Student Privacy Concerns

Published April 23, 2015

Parents and other interested parties in New Jersey skirmished with state education officials in March over the Pearson testing company monitoring students’ social media posts regarding Common Core-aligned PARCC testing. Pearson contacted the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) over a Twitter post the company found objectionable. NJDOE then contacted the school district of the student who posted the tweet, and the student removed the post. Parents came forward to say they have concerns over student privacy and free speech rights of students regarding educational testing companies such as Pearson.

“This issue is both a free speech and a privacy issue,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “Pearson has good reason to suppress any discussion of its exams, which have been shown to be very low quality in the past.”

Upset Parents  

“Parents are upset across the spectrum,” said Julia Rubin, a volunteer for Save Our Schools NJ. “Nobody knew what was going on. Not just that they were monitoring. I think it’s the idea that they are monitoring in coordination with the NJDOE. NJDOE then went to the district.” 

Rubin says students were not told they couldn’t talk about the testing at all, but had only been told they couldn’t take photos of the tests.

“I put a lot of the blame on the NJDOE,” said Rubin. “This type of behavior may lead to an environment where students are afraid to talk about the standardized tests at all.

“You get to a point where students don’t know what is and is not allowed, which means you might not say anything,” Rubin said. “That definitely infringes on the free-speech rights of these students.”

Haimson and Rubin both question how realistic and plausible it is to keep students as young as eight from speaking about testing, which takes place over the course of a month. Many parents and activists say students should be able to talk about the tests, including talking about questions and content after the taking the tests, unless they are doing so in order to cheat.

Massive Data Collection

“[Pearson representatives] provided staggering information about the personally identifiable information that [Colorado school] districts upload to the Pearson testing system, as well as ‘device and response’ information they gather during test administration,” said Rachael Stickland, who is based in Colorado and co-chair of Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

Among the information collected during PARCC testing is data on economic status, race, and ethnicity, whether a student has migrant or immigrant status, whether a student is homeless, and even whether a student has ever been expelled or not, Stickland says.

“Pearson told our state board that any student data they collect belongs solely [to] the state and that they, Pearson, are expressly limited in their contract with the state of Colorado to ‘use’ student data only under specified terms,” said Stickland. “I would like to know if there is a provision in the contract that allows Pearson employees to access student-level information in their database to identify individual students with the intent to locate those children. If so, this puts children at great risk of identity theft as well as other vulnerabilities. If not, how will the Pearson employees be disciplined for unauthorized access to student records?”

Another Data Dump Halted

Both Stickland and Haimson say the Colorado case is not the only example of uploading of large amounts of student data online without consent from parents. Parents in several states fought for more than two years to stop inBloom, which eventually shut down following public outcry. Officials in those states were uploading personal student data to third-party vendor inBloom. The data sometimes included Social Security numbers and details of familial relationships such as whether a student was a foster child, and reasons for enrollment changes, such as a student leaving school as a victim of a violent incident.

Pearson’s monitoring of social media posts is considered a common business practice, but the amount of information and what the information is being used for raise questions for parents and activists, Haimson says. Pearson uses Caveon Test Security, a subcontractor, to monitor social media posts regarding PARCC testing. Pearson and Caveon say searches only pull from publicly available web pages, which are viewable by anyone.

“We are also very concerned that Pearson and its tracking vendor, Caveon, is monitoring students and locating them through the data they’ve scooped up through PARCC,” Haimson said. “PARCC itself has a very weak privacy policy. Like inBloom, it is a way for states to get access to a huge amount of personal student data and share it with third parties without parental notice or consent—and Pearson claims the right to use this data to help states and districts decide which kids should be held back, and how teachers and schools should be rated. Caveon has had its own problems, with many questioning the quality of its work in DC and Atlanta.

“In [the New Jersey] case, either Pearson or Caveon apparently reported erroneous information to the NJDOE claiming the student had posted a photo of the exam, which was incorrect,” said Haimson.

Legislation Proposed

New Jersey Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) are sponsoring a bill to require employees of state-contracted companies to undergo the same background check as public school employees before receiving access to students’ personal information.

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.

Image by Nic McPhee.