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Garden State Coalition of Schools
Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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3-18-15 Test Security Issue and Information from Dept of Education

New Jersey Department of Education                                                                                      March 17, 2015

TO: Chief School Administrators Charter School,Lead Persons School Principals and Supervisors School and District Test Coordinators School and District Technology Coordinators School Counselors

 FROM: Bari Anhalt Erlichson, Ph.D. Assistant Commissioner

RE: PARCC Test security and social media

With the launch of anything new, sometimes questions emerge that appear to be new when in fact they are not. Fairness in testing is not a new issue, whether this involves teacher-developed tests, school tests or our statewide assessments. This means that students should not be given an unfair advantage by having access to test content ahead of time. If a student hands out a teacher’s test questions on the front steps of the school, educators need to respond. Similarly, for decades, New Jersey educators and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) have been vigilant in safeguarding test questions on our statewide assessments.

As the schoolhouse steps have gone virtual, so have our efforts to ensure that our tests are secure, that the administration is fair, and that the hard work of educators who developed and reviewed the test questions is respected. If an educator in a local district or staff from NJDOE observes a public, online posting by anyone, be it an adult or a student, that wrongfully releases test content, we must take action to ensure the fairness and security of our statewide assessment programs. In the event that protected test content is detected by NJDOE, we contact the district to alert them to the post, seek their assistance in removing the post from the public, and then take appropriate steps to ensure that the action does not occur again – typically by reaching out to the test administrator to ensure that students do not bring cell phones into the testing environment.

With respect to PARCC, none of these processes have changed. In addition to local educators and the NJDOE, Pearson has been contracted to provide test security measures, such as looking for potential test breaches in public, social media postings. They are not monitoring student’s opinions about the test, but rather any posts that jeopardize the fairness and security of the administration of the test. Their work does not involve tracking students nor invading anyone’s privacy. And none of NJDOE’s processes have changed, either. Once notified of a post by Pearson, we work directly with school districts to have them contact the student to remove the post and we leave it to school districts to follow their own discipline policies and practices as appropriate.

Test security measures to identify test breaches are not new, nor are they unique to PARCC. They have been used in the past, even when New Jersey had paper tests. It is done in other states, and it is done with other tests. In fact, the Association of Test Publishers, which recently co-authored a book with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on best practices for statewide assessments (Operational Best Practices for Statewide Large-Scale Assessment Programs, 2013), recommends that in order to protect the integrity of tests that there should be “procedures to monitor the internet and social websites before, during and after test administration for any evidence the items and/or answers have been shared” online.

The last several days have made evident that a large number of both educators and parents do not understand the nature of social media. To be clear, anything that anyone posts publicly on Twitter can be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world, instantaneously. There is a very clear statement at the top of Twitter’s Terms of Service. In their words, “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!” at: https://twitter.com/tos?lang=en

We should work to ensure that students and parents understand that statements that are posted publicly online are not private. In fact, public statements made online are both more durable and have far wider distribution than printed media.

I know that many districts have sought to engage their students in learning how to become responsible Digital Citizens so that they may participate in social media in ways that safely support their emotional and intellectual development. Many teachers have engaged in re-tweeting activities designed to demonstrate to students how fast a tweet can travel around the world and be viewed by anyone. School counselors have sought to stress to students that the “internet is written in ink,” and that future colleges and employers sometimes review a student’s social media footprint. Still others have sought to impress upon students the importance of recognizing and respecting the intellectual property of musicians, movie makers and authors by teaching students to not pirate media. Finally, school leaders have sought to help students understand their social media behavior in the context of the prevention of cyberbulling.

I applaud all of those efforts and encourage even more – particularly the engagement of parents in the conversation. Parents should make informed decisions as to whether to permit their child to have an online presence and to work with their child in establishing the privacy settings for various applications, such as Facebook. It is my hope that by working together – parents, students and schools – that we further our students’ understanding of how to participate in social media responsibly, safely, and in ways that further their development as curious, self-directed learners. Twitter has written some helpful tips for families that can be located here: https://support.twitter.com/articles/470968#

As always, I am ready to assist you in this endeavor. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly. Furthermore, if you feel that our test vendor (or for that matter, any vendor that NJDOE works with or that you contract with directly) has over-stepped its bounds, please contact me immediately so that we can take appropriate action.


c: Members, State Board of Education Commissioner David C. Hespe

Senior Staff Amy Ruck Peggy McDonald Lori Ramella Executive County Superintendents Executive Directors for Regional Achievement Centers Executive County Business Official County Test Coordinators District Test Coordinators Bilingual /ESL Coordinators Directors of Approved Private Schools for the Disabled Directors of College-Operated Programs Directors of a State Facility, NJ LEE Group, Garden State Coalition of Schools


The Record - New furor over N.J. tests as student privacy concerns raised

March 17, 2015, 2:35 PM    Last updated: Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 10:35 PM


The security of the state’s standardized tests is clashing with parents’ privacy concerns in the latest battle over the new exams.

Critics accused Pearson testing company of “spying” after it alerted the state Department of Education that a student leaked a test question on Twitter. Pearson said it was protecting test integrity and fairness, and an assistant commissioner of the state Education Department wrote a letter to school officials Tuesday strongly defending the practice, saying that Pearson is tracking content of posts not the students’ accounts.

Pearson’s reporting of the breach has generated a firestorm that’s tied to the larger controversy that has seen parents refusing to let their children take the tests amid growing concerns about student data privacy and overstressed children.

In the latest controversy, parents have flooded social media with complaints about the “spying” incident, news outlets have covered it and the chairman of the state Assembly Education Committee called for the company and the state education commissioner to explain their actions at a hearing Thursday.

“I find the accounts as reported very disturbing,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, who asked state Education Commissioner David Hespe and Pearson to attend the 10 a.m. hearing. “This type of event has a chilling effect on parents and kids.”

The incident exploded on social media after it was reported Friday by education blogger Bob Braun, a former reporter for The Star-Ledger. Braun shared an email that Elizabeth Jewett, superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District, had sent to a group of superintendents. Jewett wrote that the Department of Education contacted the school to report a student’s tweet, which she found “a bit disturbing.”

“If our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all the student data, I am sure I will receive more letters of [test] refusal once this gets out,” she wrote.

Parents and activists took to Facebook and Twitter with complaints, story links and hashtags like #PearsonPeeping and #PearsonIsWatching. They described the incident as a privacy violation and one more reason to oppose the tests known as PARCC, named for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the coalition of states that developed the tests.

Monitoring of social media forums and websites for test leaks is nothing new, said education officials, noting that is has been done for previous tests and in other states.

In the letter to school officials, the assistant state commissioner of education said that questions have to be kept confidential for the exam to be fair.

“This means that students should not be given an unfair advantage by having access to test content ahead of time,” Bari Erlichson said in the letter.

Erlichson said that Pearson is not monitoring students’ opinions or invading privacy, but is checking for posts that jeopardize the fairness and security of the test. The practice, she added, is recommended by the Association of Test Publishers.

In the Watchung case, there were breaches by three different students — two with cellphone cameras and one that included written content of a question, according to the Department of Education.

Once notified of a breach, the department works with school districts to get it removed and prevent it from happening again. In her letter, Erlichson took aim at educators and parents who have complained, saying they don’t appear to understand social media.

“To be clear,” she wrote, “anything that anyone posts publicly on Twitter can be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world, instantaneously.”

Pearson issued a statement about the incident, saying it is obligated to alert states when test questions or elements of a test are posted publicly.

“We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and upholds the validity and integrity of the test results,” the company wrote.

The Utah-based Caveon Test Security, a company hired by Pearson, does Web monitoring to protect the company’s intellectual property. Company analysts search public websites and online forums to find sharing of clients’ test items, said company vice president Steve Addicott.

“These items cost incredible amounts of money to develop and if someone takes a picture of it on Instagram, other people may see it that haven’t taken the test yet and have an advantage over other kids,” he said.

The PARCC tests are being given in a number of states over different weeks, so test security is particularly important, Addicott noted. It could also skew the results of one school if students get their hands on test questions, he said.

Still, parents say it’s troubling that the testing company would monitor children’s online activity.

“My concerns mainly are that parents were not made aware of the monitoring,” said Ada Mercuri-Garcia of Fort Lee. “I think if more were, they would've opted out [of tests for] their children as I did.”

Amid the controversy, rumors have also abounded. Many parents believe Pearson sought disciplinary action against the student, which would be up to the Department of Education and the local district. Some also believe the student was reported for simply making a comment about PARCC, and not posting a test question.

“If it’s accurate, then we need to take a really deep look at this and get some direction on where we’re going,” Diegnan said. “The PARCC tests should not be used an excuse to invade people’s privacy.”

Email: adely@northjersey.com

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160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608