Is Pearson’s Scanning of Students’ Social Media Spying or Smart Security?

This month the Washington Post reported that testing giant Pearson has been monitoring students’ social media accounts, looking for evidence of test security violations on the PARCC assessment. The story broke in New Jersey; but given Pearson’s “yep, we did it” response, it’s probably reasonable to expect that it’s happening elsewhere. Cue outrage from parents, politicians, and the AFT.

Frankly, the only thing about this that is surprising is that it’s surprising to anyone.

If you have a presence on the Internet, you are being monitored. This is not black helicopter stuff. It’s just reality. The fact of the matter is that social media is, well, social. Is a person or an employer or a testing company who looks at something you actively put in public space spying on you?

Sure, it seems kind of creepy that old man Pearson is lurking on kids’ Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. But I didn’t read any evidence that they did anything other than monitor information that’s already public. The company has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of its product. Lots of districts are using it. It’s an important and consequential test for kids and schools. And they aren’t all administering it simultaneously, creating an opportunity for malfeasance. States invested a lot of resources in these assessments, and that investment must be protected. It’s part of what they paid for.

This story strikes me as a red herring on two fronts. First, the anti-testing crowd is using inflammatory words like “spying” to gin up support for their side. Second, it’s getting conflated with real concerns about the security of student data. With multi-million dollar companies like Target settling class action law suits for giant data breaches, the ability of government entities collecting massive amounts of data to protect it  is a serious issue that warrants serious debate.

Instead of demonizing Pearson or testing in general, it strikes me that there are two legitimate takeaways here. For one, students who were posting about testing items shouldn’t have been. So someone should talk to them about that. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to talk to students about the complete and utter lack of privacy the Internet affords. There is evidence that kids are dangerously naive on this front.

Are Pearson’s actions here wrong? I don’t think so. Are they discomforting? Yes. The fact that it involves kids makes it seem worse; and the fact that Pearson’s practices got singled out makes it seem egregious. But they aren’t substantively different from the practices of countless other companies (and schools, colleges, etc.) that scan all of our Internet activities every day, regardless of how old we are.

One thought on “Is Pearson’s Scanning of Students’ Social Media Spying or Smart Security?

  1. Joe O'Reilly

    I agree that it is surprising people are surprised. In the old paper testing world we monitored student comments and notes to see if there was any cheating and afterwards looked for suspicious score patterns. Given the greater ease of cheating with phone cameras and the ability to spread the info instantly to the world, it should not be surprising that people are looking for evidence of cheating on the internet because that is where the kids are.

    I have one quibble if I understand correctly what Caveon was doing for Pearson. It is misleading to say that Pearson is ‘monitoring students social media accounts ‘ and lurking on students’ twitter and facebook accounts. That implies they know students’ actual accounts and are watching all that is being posted. My understanding is they are looking for evidence of mentions of the test or test items and then tracking down who made the mention. They were trying to track down theft of intellectual property, not creepily lurking at random students’ accounts. Yes, they did get to actual student accounts, but their focus was test content not student social media accounts.

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